After weeks of denial, Russian authorities have confirmed for the first time that their forces are indeed in Syria. Russia’s presence has been seen by many as an attempt to scuttle anti-terror efforts in the wake of an increased purge of ISIS in recent weeks. The move could compromise anti-terrorism in the region.
On Wednesday, Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova confirmed the presence of their military experts in the country. The statement further indicated that the men were only there to provide expert help in the fight against terror.
Zakharova said the experts were helping in the delivery of Russian arms to the Syrian military. The assistance, according to Moscow, would prove instrumental in the fight against ISIS. The statement did not give the number of Russian military forces present.
The disclosure comes barely a day after Syria’s information minister openly denied reports that Moscow had its men on Syrian soil. Omran al-Zoubi said such reports were "concocted in Western intelligence circles” to show Syria was too weak to handle its own internal wars and that president Bashar Assad, whom President Barrack Obama’s administration wants ousted, was ineffective against terror.
Intelligence reports have also noted increased air traffic from Russia to Syria. Some of these tracked flights involved the Antonov An-124, Russia’s largest military cargo plane, landing in Latakia, Syria, where Russia’s military men are stationed.
Alarmed by Russia’s growing presence in the Middle Eastern country, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called on Russia’s Foreign Ministry head Sergey Lavrov to make known “concerns” over the “imminent” buildup of Russian forces.
The U.S. has also called upon Greece and Bulgaria to deny Russian military flights overflight access, a move Russia termed as amounting to “international boorishness.” Bulgarian authorities have since denied Russia overflight access while Greece Foreign Ministry spokesperson Constantinos Koutras said on Monday that the country was considering such a move.
The call by Kerry to Lavrov now indicates the U.S. administration is taking things seriously with Russia’s involvement. Lavrov on his part, confirmed the cooperation between Moscow and Assad’s regime, saying Moscow "has never concealed that it delivers military equipment to official Syrian authorities with the aim of combating terrorism."
Currently, a 37 country alliance stands to fight the war against ISIS insurgents in Syria. However, Russia’s on-the-ground presence has raised concern as their motive, aside from the forwarded “fight against terror” cliché, largely remains unknown. This may mean bad news for those actually combatting terror groups in the Middle East.