US claims Russian buildup in Syria is ‘self-defence’

US Secretary of State John Kerry claims Russia’s military buildup in Syria is to defend its own bases, indicating change of tone by Washington

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry addresses the media after a meeting with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (unseen) at German foreign ministry's guesthouse Villa Borsig at lake Tegel in Berlin, Germany, September 20, 2015.

US Secretary of State John Kerry has claimed Russia’s recent military buildup along Syria’s eastern Mediterranean coast is being carried out to defend their own bases in the region.

Speaking on Tuesday, Kerry told reporters "For the moment, it is the judgement of our military and experts that the level and type represents basically force protection."

Russia has been boosting its presence in the coastal governorates of Latakia and Tartus since earlier this month, where they began to work on expanding their only naval repair base in the eastern Mediterranean, as well as reportedly building an airstrip near the Bassel al Assad military airport.

While speculation circulates the media about the nature of the deployment, Russia insists it is only honouring previous pledges made to Bashar al Assad’s embattled regime forces to help them combat ISIS militants in the country.  

According to US officials speaking to CNN, Russia has already deployed 25 fighter jets, 15 helicopters, nine tanks, three surface-to-air missile systems and around 500 military personnel in Syria. However, Russian reports have put the number of Russian military personnel in Syria closer to 1,700.

Russia is also reportedly operating unmanned aerial vehicles in Syria to carry out surveillance missions.

An anonymous source from the Assad regime also told the AFP news agency on Tuesday that Russia had delivered at least five fighter jets and reconnaissance aircraft, as well as "sophisticated military equipment.”

The US has expressed its concern of what seems to be their reinforcing of the Assad regime, but has shown willingness to open military-to-military dialogue with Russia in the fight against ISIS.

"If [Russia is] there to shore up Assad and to certainly provide Assad with the continued sense he doesn't have to negotiate, then I think it's a problem for Syria, and it's a problem for everybody who wants to bring an end to this conflict, which has gone on for too long," Kerry said on Tuesday.

On Monday, Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said the US is “keenly aware” of Russia’s activities in Syria, adding "We continue to believe that anything that's done in support of the Assad regime, particularly militarily, is counter-productive and risks worsening an already bad situation."

"This has the Secretary's [John Kerry] attention and it has the attention of our senior leaders, and we're absolutely concerned about the potential for confliction and the need to de-conflict," the spokesman continued.

Two Western officials speaking to Reuters on the condition of anonymity claimed weapons delivered to the Assad regime included advanced anti-aircraft missiles, even though neither ISIS nor Syrian opposition groups are in possession of fighter jets.

UN figures state that some 250,000 people have been killed during the four-and-a-half-year-old Syrian civil war and an estimated 7.6 million people have been internally displaced, while another 5.4 million people have fled the country into neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, as well as Europe.

Turkey concerned

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on Monday warned that Russia’s military buildup in neighbouring Syria was “very dangerous" and risked prolonging the conflict.

“They have taken [it] into the field. This is very dangerous. Therefore, we watch with deep concern,” Davutoglu said in a televised interview.

“God willing, Russia will not insist on ways and methods that will increase the tension,” he added.

On Wednesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is due to visit Moscow to meet his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, where the two leaders are expected to tackle the Syria issue.

Turkey has made no secret of its desire to establish a no-fly zone along its border with Syria, where it hopes to deploy the Free Syrian Army to keep out more hostile groups like ISIS and the PKK-affiliated Kurdish YPG forces.

Turkey has long stood against the YPG taking control of northern Syria, which they call Rojava, or western Kurdistan, where the militants hope to establish their Marxist-Leninist ideology.

However, Russia’s presence in Syria makes the realisation of plans to create a no-fly zone unlikely.

Speaking to the Daily Telegraph newspaper, Jonathan Eyal, the director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute, said "What the Russians are putting in now indicates an intent to be there for a long period."

"If you are talking about a no-fly zone over the whole of Syria, that's probably out of the question now...The effect of this is to make sure that Russia is locked into any kind of deal that is going to take place there," he added.

Iranian support

Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian expressed support for Russia’s activities in Syria on Tuesday during a two-day visit to Moscow.

"Tehran and Moscow intend to use all possibilities and potential to help Syria come out of this crisis," he told reporters at a news conference.

Iranian Major Genenral Yahya Rahim Safavi, also on Tuesday praised the “cooperation between Iran and Russia.”

Both Iran and Russia have unwaveringly backed the Assad regime since the beginning of the conflict, while the US and its allies have consistently called on the Assad regime to step down.

Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed militant group based in Lebanon, has been active in the battle against Syrian opposition groups, especially around the Lebanese borders and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

The presence of Hezbollah fighters in the region, along with commanders from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, has led Israel to also carry out a number of airstrikes on Syrian territory.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu brought a number of senior Israeli military officials with him on Sept. 21 to Moscow, where he and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to coordinate their airstrikes in Syria in order to avoid hitting each other.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands during their meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, Russia, September 21, 2015.

Russians resigning from army

Four Russian soldiers from the southern city of Novorossiysk reportedly resigned from the army earlier this week after they were informed that they were being deployed to Latakia, Syria.

"We don't want to go to Syria, we don't want to die there," one soldier told the news website.

The report published claimed that 20 combat troops from a military unit Russia's Eastern military district command were being sent on a mission to a "hot country," without officially being told the specific destination.  

The soldiers had already arrived at Russia’s Black Sea port of Novorossiysk in preparation to depart for their deployment when they were unofficially told they would be going to Syria.

Due to protests, however, their deployment was delayed, the report stated.

On Sunday, Syrian opposition forces shelled the Russian embassy in the Syrian capital Damascus, the Russian Foreign Ministry claimed.

"At 09:00 a.m. on September 20, a mortar shell hit the territory of the Russian embassy in Damascus. The shell was driven deep into the earth and made no damage," the ministry said.

Earlier this week, the Jaish al-Islam opposition group posted a video allegedly showing a missile attack on the Bassel al Assad airport in Latakia being used by the Russian military.

Speaking to Reuters in an interview over the internet, a Syrian opposition fighter based in Latakia said, “It is in our calculations that the battle will now extend for more years than it would have without the Russians.”


TRTWorld and agencies