U.S. officials: Russia sent forces to Syria

Lebanese sources also say Russians have taken part in Syria military operations

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Russia has sent two tank landing ships and additional aircraft to Syria in the past day or so and has deployed a small number of naval infantry forces, U.S. officials said on Wednesday, in the latest signs of a military buildup that has put Washington on edge.

The two U.S. officials, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said the intent of Russia's military moves in Syria remained unclear. One of the officials said initial indications suggested the focus was on preparing an airfield near the port city of Latakia, a stronghold of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Another U.S. official told AFP that Russia is pressing ahead with its military buildup in Syria and has sent armored personnel carriers, tank landing ships and a small contingent of troops into the war-ravaged nation in recent days.

Russia’s activity is focused on Bassel al-Assad International Airport, south of Latakia on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, and at the Russian naval facility in Tartus.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that over the past day or so, another Antonov-124 Condor military carrier had flown into the airport, bringing the total number of transport flights to at least four in recent days.

Additionally, two tank landing ships have arrived at Tartus and about a dozen Russian armored personnel carriers are at the Bassel al-Assad airport, named after the older brother of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The official said “scores” of Russian naval infantry had arrived in Syria, but their role was probably to protect incoming military hardware rather than carry out any sort of boots-on-the-ground deployment.

“We’ve seen scores there,” the official said. “There certainly are some troops there.”


Lebanese sources

Meanwhile, Lebanese sources familiar with political and military developments in Syria said on Wednesday that Russian forces have taken part in military operations in Syria, three one of them saying the Russian participation so far was in “small numbers.”

“They have started in small numbers, but the bigger force did not yet take part,” one of the sources said. “There are numbers of Russians taking part in Syria but they did not yet join the fight against terrorism strongly.”

Another source said: “They are taking part in military operations. It is more than an advisory role.”

The three sources, who spoke on condition they not be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue, did not give further details on the nature of the combat role in support of the Syrian military.

Syrian officials have denied any combat role by Russians in Syria. Moscow said on Wednesday that Russian military experts were present in Syria to assist with Russian arms deliveries to Syria, which Moscow says are aimed at combating terrorism.

Russia has declined to comment on the exact scale and scope of its military presence in Syria. U.S. officials have suggested in recent days that Moscow is scaling up a presence, possibly with the intent of assisting its ally, President Assad.

Asked about the comments from the Lebanese sources, a Syrian military official reiterated his government's denial and said the Russian role was purely advisory. “Does an advisor take part? No, they don’t,” the official said.

The Syrian information minister said this week that no Russian combat forces were fighting alongside the Syrian army.

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