BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanese Shi‘ite group Hezbollah on Friday welcomed Russia’s military buildup in Syria in support of common ally President Bashar al-Assad, saying it was the failure of a U.S.-led campaign against Islamic State that had forced Moscow’s hand.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said in a three-hour interview with the group’s al-Manar TV that increased Russian support for Assad included highly advanced weapons systems, warplanes and helicopters.
Russia has stepped up its military involvement in Syria while pressing for Damascus to be included in international efforts to fight Islamic State, a demand Washington rejects. By raising the stakes in Syria’s four-year conflict, Moscow has prompted its Cold War foe to expand diplomatic channels with it.
Nasrallah said Washington’s own campaign against IS, based on air strikes by a U.S.-led coalition and training so-called moderate Syrian rebels to fight on the ground, had been a “devastating failure”.
“The failure of America and the international coalition to bring defeat to Daesh was one of the reasons which called or pushed Russia to also come, and to get directly involved,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.
“We welcome any force which intervenes and supports the front in Syria, because through its participation, it will contribute to pushing away the major dangers that are threatening Syria and the region.”
Hardware sent by Moscow included warplanes, helicopters and precision missiles, Nasrallah said.
Russia has declined to comment on the full scope of its military support for Assad, but U.S. officials have said it includes at least two dozen fighter jets as well as tanks, troops and artillery.
Damascus had not yet requested combat troops, Nasrallah noted, but he said this could happen “at any time.”
Nasrallah said Russia had been calling for months for a new coalition to fight against Islamic State which would include Syria, Iraq and Iran, fighting alongside the United States and its allies.
The United States opposes this, saying the Syrian president is part of the problem.
Nasrallah took aim at Turkey, from whose territory the U.S. air campaign is based, saying it could do more to stop the flow of jihadists to the Syrian battlefield by closing its borders and ceasing support for insurgent groups.
He said world powers had missed an opportunity during nuclear talks with Damascus ally Iran earlier this year to discuss a solution to the Syrian crisis.
Nasrallah also confirmed that a localized ceasefire agreement, backed by Iran and Turkey, had been struck in two areas of Syria, where Hezbollah is fighting alongside government forces against an array of insurgent groups including Islamic State and al Qaeda.
The deal, which Reuters reported on Thursday, would see besieged rebel fighters extricated from a town near the Lebanese border in return for the evacuation of civilians from two Shi‘ite villages in the northwest.
The agreement was struck with Iranian and U.N. help.
Writing by John Davison; Editing by Mark Trevelyan