Russia is ignoring warnings from the United States and flying military equipment and troops to an airfield south of the Syrian port city of Latakia where Moscow appears to be constructing a military base.
The New York Times reported:
American officials disclosed Sunday that at least seven giant Russian Condor transport planes had taken off from a base in southern Russia during the past week to ferry equipment to Syria, all passing through Iranian and Iraqi airspace. Their destination was an airfield south of Latakia, Syria, which could become the most significant new Russian military foothold in the Middle East in decades, American officials said.
Russia, a supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, has insisted that the aid to Syria is meant to help the country fight the Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIL or ISIS). The Obama administration has strongly warned Moscow against bolstering its military assistance to Syria.
The move by Russia comes after Bulgaria, a NATO member, refused the Russian planes access to its airspace. However, despite efforts by the United States, both Iran and Greece granted Russia approval for flights to Syria in their respective airspaces. Iraq has also not followed Bulgaria and blocked the flights despite encouragement from American diplomats.
Russian foreign minister Sergey V. Lavrov said Sunday that the flights would continue, according to news sources in Russia.
"There were military supplies, they are ongoing, and they will continue," Lavrov said. "They are inevitably accompanied by Russian specialists, who help to adjust the equipment, to train Syrian personnel how to use this weaponry."
Secretary of State John Kerry has warned Lavrov against increasing its aid to Syria, but Russia has defended the assistance as consistent with its policy toward Syria.
According to U.S. intelligence, approximately 200 Russian marines and six Russian howitzers are guarding the base near Latakia, and a dozen advanced infantry fighting vehicles have been identified there. Prefabricated housing units to hold 1,500 personnel have also been delivered.
Some U.S. officials also speculate that Russian fighter jets may be transported to the area in the next buildup phase.