Russia preparing airstrikes on Isil if US does not back deal to keep Assad in office.

Russia sends dozens of fighter jets and helicopter gunships to Syria amid growing signs that Western leaders may support plan to allow Bashar al-Assad to remain in power in the country

An Mi-8 helicopter participates in Russian strategic military exercises last week

An Mi-8 helicopter participates in Russian strategic military exercises last week  Photo: Barcroft Media

Vladimir Putin is preparing to attack Isil in Syria amid growing signs that Western leaders may support a Russian plan to allow Bashar al-Assad to remain in power in the country.

Russia has sent dozens of fighter jets and helicopter gunships to Syria as he steps up his support for Assad, the country’s president, in the fight against Isil jihadists.

Mr Putin is understood to have told America that he is prepared to authorise unilateral Russian air strikes on Isil targets if the US does not back his plans to take on the jihadists while allowing Assad to remain in power.

Putin and Assad meeting in Moscow, 2005Putin and Assad meeting in Moscow, 2005

There have been growing signs that Western leaders are now softening their opposition to Assad remaining in power.

Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, said on Thursday: “We have to speak with many actors. This includes Assad, but others as well.

“Not only with the United States of America, Russia, but with important regional partners, Iran, and Sunni countries such as Saudi Arabia.”

And Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish President, who has been a fierce critic of Assad, on Thurday suggested for the first time that the Syrian president could have a role to play in a future political transition.

“The process could possibly be without Assad, or the transitional process could be with him,” he said.

Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, and John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, have suggested that Assad must step down but that there could be a transitional period during which he remains in power.

However, there was also concern amongst European leaders about Russia’s decision to increase its military presence in Syria.

Mr Putin has drafted a request for the Russian upper house of parliament to approve the deployment of 2,000 air personnel to Syria, but has yet to formally submit it, according to Bloomberg, citing anonymous sources.

Mr Putin’s spokesman denied the claim.

Michael Fallon, Britain’s Defence Secretary, said that the “Russian build-up in Syria only complicates an already complicated and difficult situation”.

And Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French Defence Minister, called on Moscow to justify a “very significant” buildup in Syria and said if its intention was “to protect” Mr Assad, it should say so.

Russia’s increasing involvement in Syria is likely to dominate next week’s session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, where Mr Putin is scheduled to meet Barack Obama on Monday.

Obama meets with Putin during the G8 Summit in Northern Ireland, 2013Obama meets with Putin during the G8 Summit in Northern Ireland, 2013

“It would be irresponsible not to test whether we can make progress through high-level engagement,” a US official told AFP.

Russia has called on Western and Middle Eastern countries to form a broad anti-Isil coalition including Mr Assad’s government, arguing that Syrian government forces are the only ones capable of combatting terrorists on the battlefield.

Mr Putin is a staunch ally of Mr Assad and has supplied him with weapons and military advice throughout the four-year civil war.

But a recent increase in Russian activity in Syria, including reported deployment of drones and combat aircraft to an airbase near the government stronghold of Latakia, has prompted speculation that Russia is preparing to intervene on the regime’s side in the conflict.

The developments have raised concerns about the dangers of uncoordinated operations by both Russian forces and the Nato-led coalition currently prosecuting a campaign against Islamic State.

Earlier this week Mr Putin met with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, to agree to a coordination mechanism to avoid clashes between Russian troops in Syria and Israeli forces.

The Russian defence ministry said the naval exercises announced on Thursday had been planned since the end of 2014, and described them as part of the “traditional” autumn exercises carried out by the Russian armed forces.

The rocket cruise Moskva, destroyer Smetlivy, and the landing craft Saratov are amongst the vessels slated to take part in exercises in September and October, the ministry said in a statement.

The Moskva guided missile cruiserThe Moskva guided missile cruiser

Several of the vessels, most of which serve with Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, have already been deployed to the area. The Smetlivy was seen passing through the Bosporus last week.