The United States for the first time Saturday directly complained to Russia about reports of its military build-up in Syria, but has not yet officially confirmed the Russian presence in the war-torn country.
US Secretary of State John Kerry delivered the warning in a telephone call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov aimed at discussing US concerns “about reports suggesting an imminent enhanced Russian military build-up there,” according to a statement from the State Department.
“The Secretary made clear that if such reports were accurate, these actions could further escalate the conflict, lead to greater loss of innocent life, increase refugee flows and risk confrontation with the anti-ISIL [Islamic State] Coalition operating in Syria,” according to the document.
The prospect of Russia actively supporting Syria’s Bashar al-Assad with its military raises the additional concern that Russia could attack the very same moderate rebels being supported by the US-led international coalition against Islamic State.
According to The New York Times on Saturday, Russia has delivered a portable air traffic control system and prefabricated housing units for hundreds of people at a Syrian airfield. It cited unnamed administration officials.
In addition, the Russians have filed military overflight requests across bordering countries throughout September, the story said.
On Friday, Putin did not expressly exclude the deployment of Russian soldiers in the fight, but he indicated the issue was not yet on the agenda, according to the Interfax news agency.
Putin said it was premature to speak of deploying Russian soldiers against the terrorist group Islamic State.
The Kremlin had earlier disputed an Israeli media report that Russia intended to send warplanes to Syria to fight Islamic State.
On Saturday, State Department spokesman John Kirby noted that the US has “regularly and repeatedly” expressed concern about Russian military support for al-Assad.
“If these reports are borne out, it would represent a very serious shift in the trajectory of the Syria conflict and call into question any Russian commitment to a peaceful settlement,” Kirby said.
Russia has been a close ally of the Syrian government and provider of military equipment since the Soviet era and has staunchly opposed foreign calls to oust al-Assad in the effort to restore peace to the country.
The United States has made clear that any political solution in Syria cannot include al-Assad.
On Friday, Putin backed al-Assad and said the Syrian leader was ready to hold snap parliamentary elections and allow a “healthy” opposition to share power.
Syria’s conflict, which started in 2011, has led to at least 250,000 deaths, according to UN estimates. More than half the country’s pre-war population of 22.4 million has been internally displaced or fled abroad.
In the telephone call on Saturday, Kerry and Lavrov agreed that discussions on the Syrian conflict would continue in New York later this month, the US statement said.