Russia extends support to Assad in Syrian civil war

By bne IntelliNews September 10, 2015

bne IntelliNews -


Russia has deployed military forces in Syria in support of government troops, media reports citing US and regional sources said on September 9, although the extent of the involvement and whether this already entailed combat operations remained unclear.

Unnamed US officials told Reuters that Russia has sent naval infantry and hardware to Syria, including two tank landing ships and aircraft in the past days. One suggested their objective was to prepare an airfield near the port city of Latakia, a stronghold of Syrian president and Russian ally Bashar al Assad. 

There was no confirmation that Russian units have yet engaged IS and other groups opposing the government in Damascus. However, there is speculation that special forces may already be active on the ground, and US comments carried by Reuters suggested that Russian forces have to some extent gone on the offensive or are preparing to do so.

"The Russians are no longer just advisers," said one US official, speaking on condition of anonimity. "The Russians have decided to join the war against terrorism."

The agency quoted a senior US official as saying Washington had detected "worrisome preparatory steps", including transportation of prefabricated accommodation for hundreds of people to a Syrian airfield, which may signal that Russia is gearing up to deploy heavy military assets there.

Moscow has confirmed that it has "experts" on the ground but declined to specify the numbers and scope of its military presence in the conflict zone. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Russian Foreign Ministry has provided full information on the Russian military who allegedly were dispatched to Syria.

The ministry's spokesperson Maria Zakharova said Russia has military specialists in Syria helping the Syrians master defence equipment manufactured at Russian factories, TASS news agency reported. The ministry also said Moscow would consider further military measures to combat terrorism in Syria if it deemed them necessary.

Two Lebanese sources cited by Reuters said the Russians were setting up two bases in Syria, one by the coast and one further inland to serve as an operations base.

Despite international pressure, Russia maintains its longstanding support of Assad in Syria's four-year-old civil war that has resulted in the deaths of some 250,000 people and forced half of Syria's population of 23mn people from their homes. 

Washington has urged outlying countries to deny their air space to Russian flights heading towards Syria, a move that Moscow on September 9 called "international boorishness".

Bulgarian has upheld its ban on Russian military flights through its air space after several large transporter aircraft flew to the Middle Eastern country with suspect cargoes. Bulgaria did allow passage to a Russian plane flying diplomats to Syria on September 7, the Foreign Ministry in Sofia said in a statement two days later. 

Greece also received a request from Washington to close air traffic to Russian aircraft making flights to Syria with humanitarian cargoes.

Meanwhile, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier warned Russia against increasing its military intervention in Syria, saying the nuclear deal with Iran and new UN initiatives provided a channel for resolving the conflict by political means.

By contrast, and echoing earlier calls by the Russian leadership for a united front against IS and other terrorist threats, the head of the Moscow-based Federation Council’s international affairs committee, Konstantin Kosachev, appealed to Washington and Brussels to cease trying to overthrow Assad at any price for the sake of joint efforts against terrorism. 

"Members of the anti-Syrian coalition should renounce their exorbitant geopolitical ambitions, hear the voice of reason and turn on their survival instinct," Kosachev wrote on his Facebook page on September 9. "It is time to understand that the main threats in this region [Middle East] are not authoritarian regimes but civil wars and terrorism, the road to which is paved by West's good intentions," he noted. Kosachev added that "the price of not understanding this is increasing first of all for Europe every day, with every person killed, with every refugee".

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