Russia called on Friday for military-to-military cooperation with the United States to avert "unintended incidents" as it stages navy exercises off the coast of Syria, where U.S. officials believe Moscow is building up forces to protect President Bashar al-Assad.
The United States is using Syrian air space to lead a campaign of air strikes against Islamic State, and a greater Russian presence raises the prospect of the Cold War superpower foes encountering each other on the battlefield.
Both Moscow and Washington say their enemy is Islamic State, whose Islamist fighters control large parts of Syria and Iraq. But Russia supports the government of Assad in Syria, while the United States says his presence makes the situation worse.
In recent days, U.S. officials have described what they say is an increase of Russian equipment and manpower.
In the latest reports, two Western officials and a Russian source told Reuters Moscow is sending advanced SA-22 anti-aircraft missiles to Syria. The system would be operated by Russian troops, rather than Syrians, the Western officials said.
One official estimated that the majority of the forces were involved in preparing the airfield for future use.
Lebanese sources have told Reuters that at least some Russian troops are now engaged in combat operations in support of Assad's forces. Moscow has declined to comment on those reports.
At a news conference in Moscow, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia was sending equipment to help Assad fight Islamic State. Russian servicemen were in Syria, he said, primarily to help service that equipment and teach Syrian soldiers how to use it.
Russian naval exercises in the eastern Mediterranean were long-planned and in accordance with international law, he said.
A source close to the Russian navy told Reuters a squadron of five Russian ships equipped with guided missiles had set off to conduct maneuvers in Syrian waters.
"They will train to repulse an attack from the air and to defend the coast, which means firing artillery and testing short-range air defense systems, " the source said, adding that the exercise had been agreed with the Syrian government.
Russia has given notice of several rounds of navy drills with rocket firing tests in the sea off Syria from Sept. 8 to Oct. 7, according to Cypriot aviation authorities and international governmental databases of notices for airmen. Some flight paths will be temporarily closed.
Lavrov blamed Washington for cutting off direct military-to-military communication between Russia and NATO after the crisis in Ukraine last year. Such contacts were "important for the avoidance of undesired, unintended incidents", Lavrov said.
"We are always in favor of military people talking to each other in a professional way. They understand each other very well," Lavrov said. "If, as (U.S. Secretary of State) John Kerry has said many times, the United States wants those channels frozen, then be our guest."
The dispatch of advanced anti-aircraft missiles like the SA-22, which the two Western officials said were on their way but had not yet arrived, would appear to undermine Moscow's argument that its sole aim is to help Damascus fight Islamic State: the militants and other insurgents possess no aircraft.
"This system is the advanced version used by Russia and it's meant to be operated by Russians in Syria," said one of the Western sources, a diplomat briefed on intelligence assessments.
A Russian source close to the navy said the delivery would not be the first time Moscow had sent the SA-22, known as Pantsir-S1 in Russian, to Syria. The system had been sent in 2013, the source said. "There are plans now to send a new set."
Diplomats in Moscow say the Kremlin is happy for the West to believe it is building up its military in Syria, calculating that this will give it more bargaining power in any peace talks.
Western and Arab countries have backed demands from the Syrian opposition that Assad must leave power under any negotiated settlement. Assad has refused to go, and all diplomatic efforts at a solution so far have collapsed.
Assad’s supporters have taken encouragement this week from an apparent shift in tone from some European states.
Britain, one of Assad’s staunchest Western opponents, said it could accept him staying in place for a transition period if it helped resolve the conflict.
France said on Monday he must leave power “at some point or another”. Smaller countries went further, with Austria saying Assad must be involved in the fight against Islamic State and Spain saying negotiations with him were needed to end the war.
The Syrian pro-government newspaper al-Watan saw Britain’s position as “a new sign of the changes in Western positions that started with Madrid and Austria”.
We just got the clearest sign yet that Russia doesn't really care about fighting ISIS in Syria - Yahoo Finance
Moscow will reportedly provide Russian troops in Syria with an advanced antiaircraft missile system as part of its military support for Syrian president Bashar Assad.
"This system is the advanced version used by Russia, and it's meant to be operated by Russians in Syria," a Western diplomat who is regularly briefed on US, Israeli, and other intelligence assessments told Reuters.
And as The Daily Beast's Michael Weiss points out, any antiaircraft missiles deployed by Russian troops in Syria won't be directed at ISIS, since ISIS has no air force.
In fact, none of the rebels do — only government forces have access to aircraft.
Russia has substantially increased its military presence in Syria over the past two weeks under the guise of helping the embattled Assad fight ISIS and other extremists.
And now that US and Russian fighter jets are flying side-by-side — the US has been launching airstrikes against ISIS since mid-2014, and Russian drones and fighter planes are reportedly surveilling non-ISIS rebels in the country's north — Moscow sees it as an opportunity to force Washington to come to the table.
This morning, Putin issued a veiled threat to the US, warning that "unintended incidents" may occur if Washington refuses to restart military-to-military cooperation with Moscow, which was cut off when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.
"Well, but now I have fighter jets flying in the same sky. What if they crash into yours? We should talk, no?" Weiss, playing the role of Putin, said on Twitter.
The increased presence of Russian and Iranian troops in Syria is the "result of a meeting between [Iranian military mastermind Qasem] Soleimani with Russian President Vladimir Putin" and is due to "Assad's crisis," a senior Israeli security official told Israeli outlet Ynet news Thursday.
Iran, under Soleimani's purview, has long since taken over Assad's fight in crucial parts of Syria. Iran now seems to be upping the ante with Russia's help as the rebels advance and Assad loses territory.
"The Russians are no longer advising, but co-leading the war in Syria," a Western intelligence official told Fox News.
On Wednesday, State Department spokesman John Kirby called out Russia over ISIS in Syria:
"Russia is not a member of the coalition against ISIL, and what we’ve said is that their continued support to the Assad regime has actually fostered the growth of ISIL inside Syria and made the situation worse,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State (aka ISIS and Daesh).
“If they want to be helpful against ISIL, the way to do it is to stop arming and assisting and supporting Bashar al-Assad.”
Russia initially said that it had only deployed "military experts" to Syria to help government forces learn how to use Russian military equipment. But more than 1,000 Russian combatants are already on the ground in Syria, according to officials monitoring the buildup, and many of them are from the same battle-hardened brigade that helped annex Crimea.
Basically, Russia's operation in Syria is meant to secure its interests there.
"It is difficult to overstate Russian determination not to lose its influence in Syria via the Assad regime, which provides Russia with a Mediterranean and Middle Eastern base that cannot be replaced elsewhere," The Soufan Group noted in an intelligence brief.