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Thu 10 Sep 2015 09:42 AM

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Russia sends troops, tanks and jets to Syria to support Assad

Russian forces have begun participating in military operations in Syria in support of government troops, three Lebanese sources claim

Russia sends troops, tanks and jets to Syria to support Assad
Russian President Vladimir Putin

Russian forces
have begun participating in military operations in Syria in support of
government troops, three Lebanese sources familiar with the political and
military situation there said on Wednesday.

The sources,
speaking to Reuters on condition they not be identified, gave the most
forthright account yet from the region of what the United States fears is a
deepening Russian military role in Syria's civil war, though one of the
Lebanese sources said the number of Russians involved so far was small.

US officials
said Russia sent two tank landing ships and additional cargo aircraft to Syria
in the past day or so and deployed a small number of naval infantry forces.

The US
officials, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said the intent of
Russia's military moves in Syria was unclear. One suggested the focus may be on
preparing an airfield near the port city of Latakia, a stronghold of Syrian
President Bashar Al Assad.

US officials
have not ruled out the possibility that Russia may want to use the airfield for
air combat missions.

US Secretary of
State John Kerry spoke to his Russian counterpart for the second time in four
days to express concern over reports of Russian military activities in Syria,
warning that it could fan more violence.

The White House
said it was closely monitoring the situation.

Russia says the
Syrian government must be incorporated into a shared global fight against ISIL,
the Islamist group that has taken over large parts of Syria and Iraq. The
United States and Assad's regional foes see him as part of the problem.

"We would
welcome constructive Russian contributions to the counter-ISIL effort, but
we've been clear that it would be unconscionable for any party, including the
Russians, to provide any support to the Assad regime," White House
spokesman Eric Schultz said.

Assad's forces
have faced big setbacks on the battlefield in a four-year-old multi-sided civil
war that has killed 250,000 people and driven half of Syria's 23 million people
from their homes.

Syrian troops
pulled out of a major air base last Wednesday, and a monitoring group said this
meant government soldiers were no longer present at all in Idlib province, most
of which slipped from government control earlier this year.

Moscow
confirmed it had "experts" on the ground in Syria, its long-time ally
in the Middle East.

But Russia has
declined to comment on the scale and scope of its military presence. Damascus
denied Russians were involved in combat, but a Syrian official said the
presence of experts had increased in the past year.

Reflecting
Western concern, Germany's foreign minister warned Russia against increased
military intervention, saying the Iran nuclear deal and new UN initiatives
offered a starting point for a political solution to the conflict.

NATO Secretary
General Jens Stoltenberg said reports of growing Russian military activity in
Syria were a cause for concern, while France said it made finding a political
solution to the crisis more complicated.

Two of the Lebanese
sources said the Russians were establishing two bases in Syria, one near the
coast and one further inland which would be an operations base.

"The
Russians are no longer just advisors," one of the sources said. "The
Russians have decided to join the war against terrorism."

Moscow's only
naval base in the Mediterranean is at Tartous on the Syrian coast in territory
held by Assad, and keeping it secure would be an important strategic objective
for the Kremlin.

Another of the
Lebanese sources said that so far any Russian combat role was still small:
"They have started in small numbers, but the bigger force did not yet take
part ... There are numbers of Russians taking part in Syria but they did not
yet join the fight against terrorism strongly."

The Syrian
official said: "Russian experts are always present but in the last year
they have been present to a greater degree."

Officials in
the United States, which is fighting an air war against the Islamist militant
group ISIL in Syria and also opposes Assad's government, have said in recent
days that they suspect Russia is reinforcing to aid Assad.

Washington has
put pressure on countries nearby to deny their air space to Russian flights, a
move Moscow denounced on Wednesday as "international boorishness".

Russia has set
out the case for supporting Assad in the most forthright terms yet in the past
few days, likening the Western approach to Syria to failures in Iraq and Libya.

Part of the
diplomatic quarrel has centred around use of air space for flights, which
Moscow says bring humanitarian aid but US officials say may be bringing
military supplies.

US officials,
speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters on Wednesday that multiple
Russian flights have passed over the airspace of Iran and Iraq to reach Syria.

The State
Department said Russian use of Iranian airspace would not be surprising, given
Tehran's past support for Assad.

Spokesman John
Kirby said the United States had advised "partners and our friends to ask
the Russians tough questions about" overflight requests. He did not
elaborate, saying only: "I'm not gonna detail diplomatic
conversations."

To avoid flying
over Turkey, one of Assad's main enemies, Russia has sought to fly planes over
Balkan states, but Washington has urged them to deny Moscow permission.

On Tuesday,
Bulgaria refused a Russian request to use its airspace citing doubts about the
cargo on board. It said on Wednesday it would allow Russian supply flights to
Syria to use its airspace only if Moscow agreed to checks of their cargo at a
Bulgarian airport.

Turkey has not
officially confirmed a ban on Russian flights to Syria but says it considers
any requests to fly over its air space to Syria on a case by case basis.

Thus far in the
war, Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah have been Assad's main sources of
military support. The momentum turned against Assad earlier this year.

In the latest
setback, state television reported government troops had surrendered an air
base in northwestern Syria to a rebel alliance after nearly two years under
siege.

This meant the
last government troops had withdrawn from central Idlib province, according to
the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based group that monitors the
conflict.

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