Russia has sent tanks and artillery to Syria amid a reported military buildup, US officials say, raising concerns about a potential mission to bolster President Bashar al-Assad’s embattled regime.
Moscow has sent artillery units and seven tanks to the Syrian airbase near Latakia on the Mediterranean coast as part of an ongoing military buildup, a US official told AFP on Monday, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The source said the seven T-90s, Russia’s most modern service tank, arrived in Latakia in the past few days but had not been seen outside the airbase. The artillery was likely for airfield defence, the source said.
“Hundreds” of Russian troops are already present in Latakia, and Moscow has installed enough mobile housing units to house about 1,500 people, the source added.
Also on Monday, navy captain Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said a “steady flow” of Russian personnel and military equipment to Latakia in recent days suggests Moscow plans to operate military aircraft from the base, AP reported. But the US has not yet seen any fighter jets or attack helicopters arrive, he said.
Although photographs and social media posts have shown Russian soldiers are in Syria, the Kremlin has maintained they are there as advisers. Russian military activity could conflict with the US-led coalition’s airstrikes against Islamic State (Isis), potentially tying up airspace, US officials have said.
Davis said Washington would welcome Moscow’s contributions to the effort against Isis, but that military assistance for Assad could “risk adding greater instability to an already unstable situation”.
Russian officials have not commented on the alleged arrival of tanks and artillery. But the Syrian ambassador to Moscow, Riad Haddad, on Monday denied that Moscow was conducting a military buildup in Syria, calling news of a Russian troop presence “a lie”. He said Syria was receiving arms from its ally under defence contracts, state news agency Tass reported.
“We have been cooperating with Russia for 30-40 years in various areas, including the military sphere. Yes, we receive arms, military equipment, all this is done in line with agreements sealed between our countries,” Haddad said.
“But the talk of your (Russian) troop presence on the Syrian territory is a lie spread by western countries, the United States.”
Last week, foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia continues to send military equipment and advisers to Syria, but said this was only as part of arms deals and not an expeditionary force.
“Our soldiers and military specialists are located there to service Russian equipment, cooperate with the Syrian army in using this equipment,” Lavrov told journalists on Thursday.
But on Saturday state television Channel One showed two Russian military cargo planes delivering what it said was 50 tonnes of humanitarian aid to Syria.
Russia is suspected of having delivered arms and ammunition to separatists in eastern Ukraine in truck convoys that it insists are carrying humanitarian aid.
Russia was sending groceries, children’s food and “everything necessary to equip a big new tent camp”, the Channel One news anchor said as footage showed Russian soldiers loading canvas, tent stakes and wooden crates into the aircraft.
On Sunday, bloggers posted photos of the Nikolay Filchenko, an Alligator-class landing ship reportedly in service with Russia’s Black Sea fleet, passing through what appeared to be the Turkish straits. Green camouflage netting was covering part of its deck, leading to speculation of a military shipment.
The US-based intelligence-gathering company Stratfor last week last week published satellite imagery of construction on the Bassel al Assad international airport in Latakia, Syria, that it said was evidence of the Russian military “establishing a base of operations” and preparing to deploy aircraft to Syria, if it has not already done so.
Among the changes made to the airport as of 4 September were runway improvements, two additional helicopter pads, a new taxiway, a new air traffic control station and mobile housing.
On Monday, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied reports that Moscow was engaged in secret negotiations about Assad’s political future with Washington.
It had previously been reported that an agreement might see Assad temporarily remain president while a provisional government was formed with representatives of the opposition. Peskov reiterated Russia’s support for Assad, but didn’t address the issue of military aid.
“For now no one can clearly explain what could be the alternative to the current legitimate Syrian government in terms of the country’s security, the struggle against the spread of the Islamic State, the unity of the country,” Peskov told journalists.
More than 240,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began in 2011, and swaths of the country have fallen under the control of Isis.