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Syria denies Russian troops fighting alongside army

Russia, historically an arms supplier to Damascus, has been a vital ally of Assad throughout the war

Published: Updated:

The White House on Tuesday warned that a Russian military buildup in Syria could spark a “confrontation” with U.S.-led forces carrying our air campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group.

Amid reports that Russia is readying to step up its support for Bashar Al-Assad’s regime by deploying its own military, the White House expressed grave misgivings.

“We’ve indicated that the United States is concerned by reports that Russia may have deployed additional military personnel and aircraft to Syria," said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.

“These steps could lead to greater loss of life, they could increase refugee flows and risk confrontation with the counter-ISIL coalition that’s operating inside of Syria,” he said, using another acronym to refer to ISIS.

Syria’s information minister denied on Tuesday reports of a Russian military buildup in his country, saying there were no Russian combat forces fighting alongside the army against the mainly Islamist insurgents.

Omran al-Zoubi said the reports were “concocted in Western intelligence circles” to show the army was too weak without help from its foreign ally, and as a pretext for further support for rebels from countries who want President Bashar al-Assad ousted.

“There are no Russian forces and there is no Russian military action on Syrian territory neither by land, by sea or by air,” Zoubi told Lebanese militant group Hezbollah’s Manar television station, according to Agence France Presse.

“All of this is to insinuate the Syrian state is weak and that the Syrian military has weakened to the point of resorting to the aid of friends in a direct manner,” Zoubi said.

"This is one of the most difficult types of wars because many countries and intelligence quarters are intervening with open-ended funds and lots of foreign terrorists," Zoubi added.

Russia, historically an arms supplier to Damascus, has been a vital ally of Assad throughout the war that has fractured Syria into a patchwork of areas controlled by rival armed groups, including Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), leaving the government in control of much of the west.

On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia had always provided military supplies to Syria, saying Moscow “has never concealed that it delivers military equipment to official Syrian authorities with the aim of combating terrorism.”

Meanwhile, The New York Times reported that Russia had sent a military advance team to Syria, citing American intelligence analysts.

Several leading newspapers in the region, citing Syrian sources, have also reported growing numbers of Russian troops stationed at a new military base near the coastal stronghold of Assad’s minority Alawite sect in Latakia.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told Lavrov on Saturday that if reports of the build-up were accurate, that could further escalate the war and risk confrontation with the U.S.-led alliance that is bombing ISIS in Syria.

Foreign states are already deeply involved in the war that has killed a quarter of a million people. While Russia and Iran have backed Assad, rebel groups seeking to oust him have received support from governments including the United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

(With AFP)