Russia has deployed 28 combat planes in Syria, US officials said Monday, and a source in Moscow said 2,000 Russian military personnel would be sent to an airbase near the main port city of Latakia, as fears grow over Moscow’s increasing military presence in the war-torn nation.
Washington in recent weeks has expressed growing concern over Russia’s moves to support Syrian President Bashar Assad and warned that militarily backing his regime risks further hampering efforts at bringing peace.
Experts said the buildup is likely a prelude to military action.
“There are 28 fighter and bomber aircraft” at an airfield in the western Syrian province of Latakia, one of the officials told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.
A second official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed the figure and added there were also about 20 Russian combat and transport helicopters at the base.
That official also said Russia was operating drones over Syria, but did not give additional details.
Two sources briefed on the Russian buildup told the Financial Times that 2,000 people would be dispatched by the Kremlin to the base, including flight crews, engineers and soldiers.
The sources said the numbers of planes and personnel generally tracked with the amount needed to set up a forward operating base, according to the newspaper.
‘They are not going to sit around and defend the airfield or maybe even the province of Latakia’
The American officials say Russia has sent 12 SU-24 attack aircraft, 12 SU-25 ground attack aircraft and four Flanker fighter jets.
Russia has insisted the buildup is a normal part of military aid afforded Assad, a close ally of Moscow.
Analyst Jeffrey White of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said the buildup belied Russian claims that the buildup is intended to help Assad fend off advances by the Islamic State group.
“They are not going to sit around and defend the airfield or maybe even the province of Latakia,” White said. “This kind of aircraft suggests that the Russians intend to exert their combat power outside of Latakia in an offensive role.”
Moscow has been on a diplomatic push to get the coalition of Western and regional powers fighting the Islamic State group in Syria to join forces with Assad against the jihadists.
On Monday, Russian leader Vladimir Putin met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the possibility over the two countries’ armed forces tangling in Syria.
Netanyahu later said he and Putin had reached an understanding on a “mechanism” to prevent any misunderstandings about Israeli efforts to thwart Iran- and Assad-backed groups from carrying out attacks against Israel.
“There was readiness to make sure that whatever Russia’s intentions for Syria, Russia will not be a partner in extreme actions by Iran against us,” the prime minister said.
Israeli and Russian military leaders are slated to meet in the coming weeks to begin discussing coordination of their activities in Syria, officials said Monday night, according to Hebrew-language media reports.
The US has also opened talks with Moscow over the military activities.
US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter spoke with his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu on Friday, ending an 18-month freeze in military relations triggered by NATO anger over Moscow’s role in the Ukraine crisis.
They agreed to continue discussions, which are crucial to lessen the risk of incidents involving coalition forces and Russian forces operating in the same air space.
The US-led coalition is carrying out almost daily strikes against the jihadists in Syria.