Russian troops have arrived in Syria in recent days to aid Bashar Assad’s beleaguered government in the battle against Islamic State militants, Israel’s defence minister said.
The development could help the Syrian president reverse his recent battlefield losses in the country’s bitter civil war, now in its fifth year.
Moshe Yaalon said the Russians had dispatched military advisers as well as an active force, with the main goal of setting up an air base.
The base, near the Syrian city of Latakia, could deploy fighter jets and helicopters in strikes against IS militants.
“As far as we understand, at this stage we are talking about a limited force that includes advisers, a security team and preparations for operating planes and combat helicopters,” Yaalon said in a briefing with Israeli reporters.
Yaalon said Russia’s first goal was to protect its interests in Syria, namely its navy base there.
Video shows Russian troops live-fire training in Syria http://t.co/Pvw02Tb8uH— Miroslav Georgiev (@mirogeorgiev97) September 10, 2015
He did not elaborate on how Israel knew of the Russian deployment in Syria or reveal the source of his information.
The claim was the latest indication of a Russian military buildup in Syria that has concerned the United States and Nato.
Moscow has backed Assad throughout the nation’s civil war, which has killed more than 250,000 people.
Russian president Vladimir Putin has sought to cast arms supplies to Assad’s government as part of international efforts to combat the Islamic State.
But Putin has not ruled out a larger role and the move could mean that he has now decided to intervene directly on Assad’s behalf.
The US and its allies see Assad as the cause of the Syrian crisis, and Washington has warned Moscow against beefing up its presence.
Russia said it ships both humanitarian aid and military equipment to Syria by air, at a time when Washington is putting pressure on nearby states to deny their airspace to Russian flights.
US officials say Russian combat troops and equipment have been arriving by both air and sea.
Russia complained after Bulgaria denied its airspace to Syrian-bound Russian flights.
Sofia said future flights would be allowed only if they had their cargoes inspected.
Moscow has long acknowledged it sells weapons to the Syrian government under long-standing agreements.
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