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By Brian Murphy and Thomas Gibbons-Neff,
Russia acknowledged Wednesday that it has military advisers in Syria and left open options to expand its weapons training and assistance amid increasing friction with the West over Moscow’s backing for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Although Russia has provided military support to Assad for years — and the presence of advisers does not signal a policy shift — the extent of Moscow’s aid has taken on added resonance as unprecedented numbers of Syrian refugees and others from the region stream into Europe.
This week, the United States urged Greece and Bulgaria to reject overflight requests for Russian aircraft, fearing that Moscow seeks to increase its arms shipments to Assad’s forces. Iran, however, has agreed to open its airspace to Russian planes carrying “humanitarian cargo” bound for Syria, according to Russia’s TASS news agency.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry called Washington’s intervention “international boorishness” in a statement Wednesday, saying Moscow only seeks to help the Syrian government fight Islamist militants.
On Wednesday, Secretary of State John F. Kerry telephoned Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for the second time in five days, telling his counterpart that a Russian buildup in Syria could escalate the conflict there.
[Syria major rift between Moscow and Washington]
“Russia has never made a secret of its military-technological cooperation with Syria. Russian military specialists help Syrians master Russian hardware,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told journalists in Moscow on Wednesday.
She added that Russia also would consider “extra measures to intensify counterterrorism efforts in Syria” if needed but did not describe any possible plans.
Zakharova also gave no details on the number of Russian military personnel in Syria, but she noted that Moscow is “providing assistance to Syrians in training them to operate Russian military” equipment.
Two U.S. officials quoted by Reuters said that tank-landing ships, additional aircraft and a contingent of naval infantry had recently been deployed to the country.
The officials seem to confirm recent reports on social media that a brigade based in Sevastopol, Crimea, was on its way to Syria.
The Syrian port of Tartus has offered Russian warships a strategic base in the Mediterranean, but it remains unclear how many Russian military personnel are at the site. There also have been reports of Russian forces …Read More