RUSSIA has been sending military forces into Syria in recent days, Israel’s defense chief has announced, as Moscow hinted at broader action to bolster President Bashar Assad’s army following a string of battlefield losses.
The increased Russian activity in Syria reflects Moscow’s deep concerns that its longtime ally is on the brink of collapse, as well as hopes by President Vladimir Putin that a common battle against Islamic State extremists can improve Russia’s ties with the West, strained over Ukraine.
But the strategy could be risky – and unless Russia sends large numbers of troops, halting the territorial gains made by Islamic militants could prove tough. Israeli defense minister Moshe Yaalon told reporters that the Russian buildup appears to be limited for the time being. He said military advisers, technicians and security guards have arrived in recent days, with the main goal of setting up an air base near the coastal town of Latakia that could be used to stage strikes on Islamic State fighters.
“As far as we understand, at this stage we are talking about a limited force that includes advisers, a security team and preparations for operating planes and combat helicopters,” Yaalon said.
He called the move “significant.”
The claim was the latest indication of a Russian military buildup in Syria that has raised US and NATO concerns. The United States and its allies see Assad as the cause of the Syrian crisis, which has claimed more than 250,000 lives in over four years of fighting, and Washington has warned Moscow against beefing up its presence.
Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said that Russia is airlifting weapons to Syria and that Russian servicemen are training its military how to use them. He would not provide numbers or any other specifics.
Asked about Russian planes flying to the airfield near Latakia, Lavrov said they were carrying “military items in accordance with existing contracts and humanitarian aid.” He said Russia isn’t planning “any additional steps,” but held the door open for broader action.
“If it’s necessary, we will act in full conformity with the Russian legislation, international law and our obligations, exclusively on the request and consent of the government of Syria and other countries of the region, if there is a talk about helping them fight terrorism,” he said.
Russia has been a longtime backer of Syria, and it has supported Assad throughout the civil war by shielding him from UN sanctions and providing weapons.
It also appears eager to send a broader message that Moscow remains loyal to its allies and strongly resents forceful change of regimes through foreign interference.
Moscow also has other key interests at stake. Russia maintains a naval base at Tartus, just 50 miles south of Latakia.
Earlier this week, the nearby province of Idlib fell to al-Qaida and other Islamic fighters.