LONDON • Russia's military buildup in Syria now includes surface- to-air missiles as well as combat aircraft with air-to-air capability, deployments that raise "serious questions" about Moscow's role in the region, United States Secretary of State John Kerry has said.
Russian officials have said that the purpose of the build-up at a base near Latakia, Syria, is to combat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group.
But the deployment of air defence systems and fighter aircraft - weapons that can be used against a conventionally armed foe but that have little utility against extremist fighters - has spurred concerns that Moscow's goal is also to establish a military outpost in the Middle East.
It has also added to the Pentagon's worries about the risk of an inadvertent confrontation between Russia's military and the US-led coalition that is carrying out air strikes in Syria against ISIS.
"Clearly, the presence of aircraft with air-to-air combat capacity" as well as "surface-to-air missiles raise serious questions, which is precisely why Secretary Carter talked with the Minister of Defence of Russia Shoigu yesterday," Mr Kerry said on Saturday, referring to Defence Secretary Ash Carter and Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.
At the White House's direction, Mr Carter began a dialogue last Friday with Mr Shoigu aimed at ensuring that US and Russian aircraft avoid unintended incidents as they operate over Syria.
While Mr Kerry did not provide details, a US official, who requested anonymity because he was discussing intelligence reports, said that a Russian SA-22 air defence system was in place at Latakia, the principal port city of Syria. The US had observed elements of the system at the base, but the launcher and the missiles it fires are now there too, the official said.
The US official added that the four Su-27 aircraft which Russia has flown to the airbase were armed with air-to-air missiles.
"What's the air-to-air threat there for them?" asked the official, who called the development "troubling". Other US officials suggested, however, that the deployment might simply reflect the Russian military's standard defensive precautions as it established an air hub in a foreign country.
The prefabricated building Russia has erected at the base now has the capacity to house 2,000 military advisers and personnel. Ferrying weapons and equipment to the base has involved well over 20 flights by Russian Condor transport planes - almost all of which have flown to Syria by passing over Iran and Iraq.
Syria, and the migrant crisis it has spawned, has been a major focus of Mr Kerry's trip to Europe. Yesterday, Mr Kerry planned to fly to Berlin to discuss Syria and the migrant crisis with his German counterpart, Dr Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
After a meeting last Saturday morning with Mr Philip Hammond, the British Foreign Secretary, Mr Kerry said that it was vital to pursue a diplomatic solution to the crisis but that Moscow was not putting enough pressure on President Bashar al-Assad of Syria to make him negotiate seriously.
"We need to get to the negotiation," Mr Kerry said at a joint news conference with Mr Hammond. "That's what we're looking for, and we hope Russia and Iran, other countries with influence, will help to bring that about, because that's what's preventing this crisis from ending."
Mr Kerry added: "Right now, Assad has refused to have a serious discussion and Russia has refused to help bring him to the table in order to do that."
Mr Hammond and Mr Kerry each emphasised that Mr Assad could not remain in power if there was to be a durable solution to the conflict, but they said that the timing of his departure during a political transition in Syria would be a matter of negotiation.
"It doesn't have to be on Day 1 or Month 1," Mr Kerry said. "There is a process by which all the parties have to come together and reach an understanding of how this can best be achieved."
He added: "I just know that the people of Syria have already spoken with their feet. They're leaving Syria."
NEW YORK TIMES