The White House and NATO raised concerns Wednesday over reports that Russia may have deployed military personnel and aircraft to Syria, with Washington saying it is “closely monitoring” the situation.
The responses came after three Lebanese sources familiar with political and military developments in Syria told Reuters that Russian forces have taken part in military operations in the country.
“They have started in small numbers, but the bigger force did not yet take part,” one of the sources said. “There are numbers of Russians taking part in Syria, but they did not yet join the fight against terrorism strongly.”
Another source said, “They are taking part in military operations. It is more than an advisory role.”
The three sources, who spoke on condition they not be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue, did not give further details about the nature of the combat role in support of the Syrian military. But the reports prompted a reaction in Washington, which previously aired concern over the prospect of greater military involvement in Syria by Moscow.
“Our bottom line is that we would welcome constructive Russian contributions to the counter-ISIL effort,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz told reporters, referring to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which has taken over large parts of Iraq and Syria. “But we’ve been clear that it would be unconscionable for any party, including the Russians, to provide any support to the … regime” of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Schultz added that the White House has launched a review of options to help respond to the refugee crisis caused by Syrians fleeing the war-torn country.
A State Department spokesman said that Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday and that Kerry told Lavrov that if the reports are true, “it could lead to greater violence and are not helpful at all” to international efforts to end the conflict.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also expressed worries. “I am concerned about reports about increased Russian military presence in Syria,” he told reporters during a visit to Prague. “That will not contribute to solving the conflict. I think it is important to support all efforts to find a political solution to the conflict in Syria.”
Syrian officials have denied any Russian combat role in Syria. Moscow said Wednesday that Russian military experts were present in Syria to assist with Russian arms deliveries, which Moscow says are aimed at combating terrorism.
Asked about the comments from the Lebanese sources, a Syrian military official reiterated his government’s denial and said the Russian role was purely advisory. “Does an adviser take part? No, they don’t,” the official said.
Russia has declined to comment on the scale and scope of its military presence in Syria. U.S. officials have suggested in recent days that Moscow is scaling up its presence there.
Bulgaria confirmed on Tuesday that it refused permission to an unspecified number of Russian aircraft to cross its airspace on the way to Syria. Greece made a similar move on Monday — a measure that Greek officials said was requested by Washington.
Russia has sent aircraft and two tank landing ships to Syria in the past day or so and has deployed a few naval infantry forces, U.S. officials said on Wednesday, in the latest signs of a military buildup.
Two U.S. officials, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said the intent of Russia’s military moves in Syria remained unclear. One of the officials said initial indications suggested the focus was on preparing an airfield near the port city of Latakia, an Assad stronghold.
The Syrian information minister said this week that no Russian combat forces were fighting alongside the Syrian army.
Russia’s increased activity in Syria comes months after Assad said in a televised public address that his troops are overwhelmed and fatigued and can no longer defend “all corners” of the country. Foreign support for the regime, particularly from Hezbollah in the Qalamoun Mountains near Lebanon, has played a significant role in solidifying Assad’s control during the four-year civil war.
Al Jazeera and wire services