A Syrian military source told Reuters that Bashar al-Assad’s armed forces are now using advanced Russian weapons.
Russian military assistance to the Syrian regime is alarming the United States, and the latest declaration could raise tensions in the region. Syrian troops are now using high-tech air and ground weapons from Russia, writes Tom Perry for Reuters.
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Russia providing weapons and training to Syrian forces
“The weapons are highly effective and very accurate, and hit targets precisely,” the source told Reuters. “We can say they are all types of weapons, be it air or ground.”
According to the source, Syrian troops received training in how to use the new systems over the past few months. Exact details of the weapons systems were not provided.
On Thursday, Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said Moscow has sent new weapons and provided training for troops, but did not provide further details. He claimed that Syria is prepared to ask for Russian soldiers to fight alongside Syrian forces, but none were present in Syria right now.
The Kremlin maintains that its support is aimed at combating terrorist elements, protecting Syria’s statehood and preventing “total catastrophe” in the region. Thus far, that support has come in the form of an increased Russian military presence in Syria, including battle tanks and helicopter gunships.
Potential for conflict between various international actors
Russia has an interest in maintaining the rule of current Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but the U.S. wants him deposed. Sources in Washington believe that Russia’s military presence could worsen the current conflict.
The U.S., Saudi Arabia and Turkey have provided support to rebels, whereas Assad has received support from Iran and Hezbollah. A coalition led by the U.S. is bombing Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq, and the increased Russian presence raises the danger of a clash between forces from the two nations.
The Syrian Air Force recently attacked the Islamic State-held city of Raqqa, which is often targeted by coalition strikes. Islamic State and other insurgent groups have taken over large parts of Syrian territory, and Assad now appears to be concentrating his efforts on securing power over the west of the country.
Russia requests talks with U.S. over Syria
Russia has requested military talks with the U.S. about Syria, and Washington is considering its response. It is thought that the talks may be related to how to avoid conflict between aircraft from the two nations in Syria.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest told the press that the U.S. “remains open to tactical, practical discussions” with Russia concerning the struggle against Islamic State. Moscow believes al-Assad should be part of a global effort to defeat Islamic State, but the U.S. disagrees.
The conflict has already caused the deaths of 250,000 people, and unleashed the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II as 4 million people have fled the country.
Raqqa is known as the capital of Islamic State operations, and activists report that the city was subject to at least 12 air strikes by the Syrian air force. Targets included the office of the group’s self-appointed religious police force, reported one activist based in the city.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, government forces have started using high-tech weapons such as guided air-to-surface missiles. “There are modern weapons that the regime didn’t previously have, be they rocket launchers or air to ground to missiles,” said Rami Abdulrahman, director of the Observatory.
Complicated conflict could worsen with Russian involvement
Israel is also concerned by the Russian military buildup in Syria, and prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to visit Russia next week for talks. Sources report that Russia has sent approximately 200 naval infantry forces, battle tanks, artillery pieces and other equipment to Syria.
Satellite imagery of an airfield near Syria’s Mediterranean coast reveal construction work and the presence of a small number of combat helicopters, raising suspicions that the facility may become a forward operating base for Russian forces.
U.S. officials report that two military cargo flights per day have been arriving at the airbase from Russia. Lebanese sources claim that Russians have been involved in military operations in Syria, although government officials maintain that Russian troops are only present as experts.
In addition to unleashing a wave of refugees and contributing to instability in the Middle East, the conflict in Syria could develop into a dangerous proxy war between a complicated web of international actors. Iran has already provided support for anti-government forces, and the growing involvement of Russian forces could lead to a standoff with U.S. aircraft.
The Middle East continues to pose incredibly complicated geopolitical questions for the international community, and Syria looks set to become the focus of various international interests.