DAMASCUS • Syria says it has received sophisticated new arms from Russia, including warplanes, and has deployed them against militants, amid signs that Moscow is preparing for a direct role in its ally's war.
A leading defence publication has said Russia appeared to be preparing two bases for troops, although US Secretary of State John Kerry said the build-up may be purely defensive. But the civil war has taken on a new dimension with the boosting of Moscow's military presence, raising deep concerns in Washington.
US officials said Moscow has deployed 12 SU-24 attack aircraft, 12 SU-25 ground attack aircraft and four Flanker fighter jets. They said there are also about 20 Russian combat and transport helicopters, and that Moscow is operating drones.
"They are not going to sit around," said Mr Jeffrey White of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "This kind of aircraft suggests that the Russians intend to exert their combat power outside of Latakia in an offensive role."
Mr Robert Munks, editor of IHS Jane's Intelligence Review, said satellite imagery showed two sites near Latakia airport, in President Bashar al-Assad's traditional heartland, "may be preparing to receive Russian forces". Mr Munks also noted a "substantial increase" in jets at Latakia airport, saying that it pointed to a "rapid build-up of Russia's expeditionary force".
PREPARING FOR ACTION
They are not going to sit around. This kind of aircraft suggests that the Russians intend to exert their combat power outside of Latakia in an offensive role.
MR JEFFREY WHITE, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, on Russia's latest delivery of arms to its ally Syria
A Syrian official said on Tuesday that Damascus had also received "sophisticated military equipment to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)", including targeting equipment and precision-guided missiles. The weapons have already been deployed against ISIS in the cities of Deir Ezzor and Raqa, the militants' de facto capital.
"Russian weapons are starting to have an effect in Syria," he said.
Moscow has been an unwavering supporter of Mr Assad in a conflict that has killed more than 240,000 since March 2011, insisting it would continue arms deliveries. The Kremlin last week said it is willing to consider sending troops into combat if its long-time ally requests help. But its intentions are unclear.
Fears have been growing of an accidental confrontation between Russian forces and the US-led coalition that has been carrying out air strikes against ISIS in Syria for more than a year. US and Russian military officials held talks last Friday aimed at avoiding such incidents after an 18-month freeze in relations, triggered by Nato anger over Moscow's role in Ukraine.
And Russian President Vladimir Putin reached a deal on Monday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu aimed at the same thing. Israeli forces have reportedly conducted several strikes in Syria on attempted Iranian arms transfers to Lebanese Shi'ite movement Hizbollah, another Assad ally.
Russia is pushing for the coalition of Western and regional powers fighting ISIS to join forces with Mr Assad against the militants. Western and Gulf powers have long resisted any future role for Mr Assad, insisting that he must step down for Syria to have any hope of peace.
Western diplomats have suggested that Mr Putin, isolated over the Ukraine crisis, is trying to switch the focus to Syria, ahead of a key address to the UN General Assembly on Monday.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG