BEIRUT — Unconfirmed reports suggesting that Russia was planning to expand its military support for Syrian President Bashar Assad prompted a warning from the US that such actions could lead to a confrontation with coalition forces.
In Washington, the State Department issued a statement after US Secretary of State John Kerry called Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to express concern over unconfirmed reports “suggesting an imminent enhanced Russian military build-up” in Syria.
While not elaborating on or confirming the accuracy of those reports, the State Department said Kerry made clear to Lavrov that such actions “could further escalate the conflict, lead to greater loss of innocent life, increase refugee flows and risk confrontation” with the anti-Islamic State coalition led by the US that is carrying out strikes in Syria.
Russia has been a stalwart ally of Assad throughout Syria’s civil war and has provided diplomatic support and weaponry to help the Syrian leader maintain his grip on power. Moscow also maintains a small naval facility at the Syrian port of Tartous on the Mediterranean Sea.
According to the UK daily The Telegraph, Russia has established an air traffic control tower and moved prefabricated housing for some 1,000 personnel to an airfield near the Syrian port city of Latakia. Citing anonymous US officials, the paper reports Saturday that Russia has asked for flyover rights for military cargo planes from Syria’s neighbors.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday for the first time acknowledged that his country was involved in the Syrian civil war, telling RIA Novosti, a Russian news agency, that Russia is providing “serious” training and logistical support to the Syrian army.
Earlier this week, the website The Daily Beast published an article entitled “Russia puts boots on the ground in Syria,” which claimed the Russians were doing much more than training soldiers and providing logistical support.
The piece cited unnamed sources saying that Russian pilots are flying sorties on behalf of Assad, bombarding from the air enemies of the Assad regime, including Islamic State and other rebel groups.
Speaking to RIA Novosti, however, Putin said direct military intervention was “so far premature.”
“To say we’re ready to do this today — so far it’s premature to talk about this. But we are already giving Syria quite serious help with equipment and training soldiers, with our weapons,” the British Telegraph quoted Putin as telling RIA Novosti.
According to the report – and contradicting the report in the Daily Beast — Putin was coordinating his moves with the US. “We really want to create some kind of an international coalition to fight terrorism and extremism. To this end, we hold consultations with our American partners — I have personally spoken on the issue with US President Obama,” he said.