Israel has joined a growing chorus of concern over a reported Russian military buildup in Syria in support of the beleaguered regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Speaking to reporters, Moshe Ya’alon, the Israeli defence minister, echoed claims by western sources that Moscow has in recent days dispatched military advisers and equipment with the main goal of setting up an airbase in the Syrian government-controlled area around Latakia.
“As far as we understand, at this stage we are talking about a limited force that includes advisers, a security team and preparations for operating planes and combat helicopters,” Ya’alon said in a briefing on Thursday.
Ya’alon’s comments follow statements of concern on Wednesday from Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg and US secretary of state John Kerry, who phoned his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov to reiterate his concerns over recent Russian activity.
The information divulged in Ya’alon’s briefing closely resembles comments by US defence officials this week who said the US had seen a variety of Russian military assets flown into the airfield south of Latakia, including troops capable of protecting Russian forces there and modular housing units capable of accommodating up to 1,000 troops.
One US official said it indicated that the Russians were preparing for some sort of air operations.
Responding on Thursday, Lavrov defended Russian military assistance to Syria, saying Moscow wanted to avoid a repeat of the “Libyan scenario” in Syria and would therefore provide greater military assistance to the Syrian president if requested.