A senior defense official has told NBC News that the Russian military has been moving artillery and ground forces towards Hama — one of the locations that the Russians targeted in the first 24 hours of their airstrikes.
"So much for fighting ISIS," the defense official said.
U.S. officials have questioned whether Moscow's airstrikes — in the name of defeating ISIS — were genuinely targeting the group or were instead a cover to shore up Syrian President Bashar Assad by bombing anti-government rebel groups. Russia defended its latest round of airstrikes in Syria amid mounting questions over their targets, insisting that Moscow's planes had struck ISIS installations.
The U.S. official also said that after Russian aircraft breached Turkish airspace by roughly 20 miles, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov contacted the Turkish government to apologize and acknowledge that it was a mistake.
Russia is in Syria for the long haul, according to informed Middle Eastern security officials.
The information comes as NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg affirmed Tuesday that Russian ground troops were stationed in Syria.
On Tuesday, the British tabloid Mirror newspaper quoted sources saying Vladimir Putin’s hardcore Spetsnaz unit and a covert para battalion were on the ground assisting the Syrian ground campaign against the rebels.
One military source told the newspaper Putin’s marines “are there to guard the airbases they are using against sabotage by rebels.”
With Russia now effectively controlling the skies over Syria and with the US chiding Moscow for “targeting” America’s CIA-trained proxy armies, everyone is anxious to know how long it will be before NATO’s F-16s have an actual, live fire run-in with Russian Su-34s.
As we noted on Monday, the biggest threat here is the close proximity at which everyone is now operating: "What happens next? Well, with the previously discussed Russian naval blockade of Syria as a likely next step, and with both US and Russian warplanes already flying back and forth above Syria, and now both superpowers having a legitimate, if only in the eyes of their own media, justification to dispatch land troops, what was until now a mere proxy war is about to become full blown land combat on Syrian soil, one which will soon involve both Russian and US ground, sea and airborne forces."
How close to this eventuality are we, you ask? Well, to let CBS tell it, about 20 miles:
U.S. pilots flying F-16s out of Turkey first picked up the Russian planes on radar. The Russians closed to within 20 miles, at which point the American pilots could visually identify them on their targeting cameras.
Lt. Gen. Charles Brown, commander of the American air campaign, said the Russians have come even closer than that to his unmanned drones.
"The closest has been within a handful of miles of our remotely piloted aircraft," said Brown. "But to our manned aircraft they've not been closer than about 20 miles."
Brown said he intends to simply work around the Russians in Syria, and he doesn't think they will crowd out American operations.
"We're up a lot more often than [the Russians] are so when we do have to move around [them] for safe operation, it's for a small period of time compared to the hours and hours that we're airborne over Iraq and Syria," said Brown.