German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Saturday called on Europe to cooperate with Russia to end the civil war in Syria as Russia continues to boost military presence in Syria’s coastal Latakia province.
Russia, a staunch supporter of Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria, has been sending military experts and weapons to Syria, while claiming the intention behind such actions is to ward off the threat posed by the ISIS militant group.
However, Moscow’s support for the Assad regime has raised anxieties in the West, with US officials expressing concerns over a potential standoff between Washington and Moscow, if US-backed Syrian opposition forces are targeted by Russian troops.
On Saturday, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov discussed the Syrian conflict on the sidelines of a meeting with their French and Ukrainian counterparts in Berlin.
According to Reuters news agency, both Steinmeier and Lavrov agreed to support plans laid out by the UN envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, to establish an international contact group to solve the crisis.
Russian cargo planes
The Syrian state media reported on Saturday that two Russian planes carrying around 80 tonnes of humanitarian aid landed in the airport of the coastal province of Latakia, a stronghold of the regime.
On Thursday, Lavrov admitted that flights delivering humanitarian aid to Syria also carry military equipment, after Western nations were alarmed by Russian cargo planes flying into the country.
In response, Bulgaria, Greece and Ukraine complied to a request from the US to prevent planes carrying supplies from Russia to Syria from using their airspace, due to suspicions that they could be carrying weapons to the Assad regime.
Fellow Assad regime supporter Iran, on the other hand, has allowed Russian planes to use its airspace to deliver weapons to the Mezzeh Airbase in Damascus.
Two Western officials and a Russian source were cited by Reuters on Friday saying that Russia is providing anti-aircraft missiles to Assad’s forces. According to the Russian source, Russia had previously sent the SA-22 system, also known as the Pantsir-S1, to Syria in 2013.
An Israeli military intelligence report released on Saturday also stated that Russia will deploy advanced S-300 air defence missile systems in its own ground base in Jableh, Latakia, as well as the Iranian base in Ghorin, while a Russian MiG-31 interceptor craft has been put on standby at the Mezzeh Airbase.
Furthermore, Russia is sending its Dmitri Donskoy TK-20 nuclear submarine to be stationed in Syrian waters, the report added.
No military solution
Speaking to reporters on Friday, Lavrov called on Moscow and Washington to revive communications between military commanders in order to avoid "unintended incidents" in Syria.
"We are always in favor of military people talking to each other in a professional way. They understand each other very well. It is important to avoid undesirable unintended incidents," Lavrov said.
US President Barack Obama, on the other hand, said later on Friday, during a town hall meeting with US military personnel that Russia’s strategy of “doubling down on Assad is a mistake."
"We are going to be engaging Russia to let them know that you can't continue to double-down on a strategy that is doomed to failure," Obama said, adding Russian military presence in Syria could prevent a political settlement to end the conflict.
"The Russians are going to have to start getting a little smarter than they have been," Obama added.
German Foreign Minister Steinmeier, meanwhile, told local German newspapers that he hoped Russia would not go it alone in Syria.
In a separate interview with the New York Times, Steinmeier added, "It would be folly to continue betting on a military solution."
"Now is the time to find a way to bring the parties to the negotiating table. This must include preparatory talks with and among crucial regional actors like Saudi Arabia and Turkey, but also Iran."
Four-and-a-half years of fighting in Syria has left over 250,000 Syrians dead, according to UN estimates. More than 6.7 million Syrian have also been displaced internally while at least 5.4 million have fled to neighbouring countries such as Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan.