The Kremlin said Thursday that Russian military advisers are in Syria to help that country’s armed forces maintain equipment sent from Russia, but are not involved in combat.
Asked during a Moscow press conference why the Kremlin has refused to confirm or deny reports that Russian military personnel are fighting on the side of Syrian government troops, presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Russian Foreign Ministry had already denied those reports.
The Russian military experts in Syria are involved in “the maintenance of equipment supplied to Syria absolutely within the framework of international law,” Peskov said.
The Syrian military is “the only force capable” of countering the advances made by the Islamic State (IS) group, he added.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Thursday that Russian military personnel have long been present in Syria and are currently helping its armed forces learn how to use Russian military equipment in “the anti-terrorist fight.” He said Russia is sending Syria both military aid in line with existing contracts and humanitarian aid.
The Reuters news agency reported on Wednesday that, according to three informed Lebanese sources, Russian forces have started participating in military operations supporting government troops in Syria. The news agency quoted one of the unnamed sources as saying only a “small” number of Russians are currently involved in these operations.
A senior U.S. defense official told VOA earlier this week that Russia has been airlifting military supplies to Syria, calling such activities “unhelpful.”
On Wednesday, State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters that Secretary of State John Kerry had discussed the issue of military aid to Syria by telephone with the Russian foreign minister.
“He reiterated our concern about these reports of Russian military activities — or buildup, if you will — in Syria, and made very clear our view that if true and if borne out, those reports … could lead to greater violence and even more instability in Syria,” Kirby said.
White House spokesman Eric Schultz echoed those concerns in his comments to reporters on Wednesday.
“We’ve made clear that it would be unconscionable for any party, including Russia, to provide any support to the Assad regime,” Schultz said.
In Prague, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg expressed similar concern about reported Russian deployments of military personnel and aircraft to Syria.
“That will not contribute to solving the conflict,” Stoltenberg said. “I think it is important to now support all efforts to find a political solution to the conflict in Syria.”
Russia’s state news agency Tass on Wednesday quoted a spokesman for the Russian embassy in Tehran, Maxim Suslov, as saying Iran had granted permission for Russian aircraft headed to Syria to fly over Iranian territory.
On Tuesday, Bulgaria refused permission for Russian planes to use its airspace because of doubts about their cargo. On Wednesday, it said it would allow Russian supply flights to Syria to use its airspace only if Moscow allowed the planes’ cargo to be inspected at a Bulgarian airport.
Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi told a television station owned by the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah the reports of increased Russian military involvement in Syria were “concocted in Western intelligence circles.