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Russia confirmed today that it has military personnel on the ground in Syria, but said they are only providing training for equipment sold to the government of President Bashar al-Assad "in full compliance with international law." The US fears that Russia could be militarily intervening in Syria's violent, messy civil war.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told the TASS state news agency on Wednesday that "there are Russian military specialists in Syria who help to use arriving equipment" sold to Syria.
"We never made a secret out of our military-technical cooperation with Syria. We have long supplied arms and military equipment to Syria," Ms. Zakharova said. "We are doing it in compliance with existing contracts and in full compliance with international law."
Russia has been a staunch ally of Assad amid the multi-axis war between Syrian government forces, Islamist anti-Assad rebels of various stripes, and fighters loyal to the so-called Islamic State, operating in Syria and Iraq. The Kremlin has argued that Mr. Assad is a stabilizing force against IS, and has insisted he must stay in power, albeit perhaps in a power-sharing arrangement with non-IS opponents.
But the US has been increasingly concerned in recent weeks that the Kremlin is sending soldiers to directly support Assad's forces in the field. Yesterday, US officials asked Bulgaria and Greece to close their airspace to Russian transport flights, which intelligence reports suggested may be part of a Russian military buildup to aid Assad.
The New York Times reported that three large transports arrived in Latakia, Syria, one of Assad's key strongholds, over the weekend, carrying military supplies and personnel for the purpose of "establishing some sort of forward operating base," according to an unnamed US official. And the BBC notes that there are indications on the social media sites of Russian soldiers that some are operating near the battlefront in Homs, though analysts note that they might be mercenaries.
Bulgaria complied with the US request to close its airspace. A Bulgarian foreign ministry spokesperson told Agence France-Presse that, "The planes were said to carry humanitarian aid but we had information – that we had every reason to trust – that the declared cargo was not the real one."
The Times notes that Bulgaria's closure of its airspace to Russia "does not fully resolve the issue since Russia may still be able to continue its flights over Iran and Iraq." Two of the planes that arrived in Latakia over the weekend reportedly used that route. Russia could also attempt to fly through Turkish airspace to Syria, though Turkey forced down similar flights three years ago, and the Kremlin might worry that Ankara would do so again.
Ruslan Pukhov, head of the Moscow-based Center of Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, which advises Russia's Defense Ministry, told Bloomberg News that while Russia would be hesitant to get directly involved in the Syrian conflict, its shipments of arms to Syria do appear to be increasing. And Theodore Karasik, a UAE-based geopolitical analyst, told Bloomberg that Russia's strategy in Syria appears to be twofold:
First, it’s shoring up its naval base in Syria’s Mediterranean port of Tartus with additional assets at the air base to protect Assad’s Alawite heartland in the coastal region of Latakia. At the same time, the beefed-up military presence is increasing leverage over both Assad and the U.S. and its allies, he said by phone.
“They’re preparing the ground for some kind of transition,” Karasik said. “The Kremlin is dictating a way out for Assad and the goal of the deployment is also to inform the U.S. and others of its intention and that this is non-negotiable.”