Russia deploys anti-aircraft missile systems in Syria

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Russia has deployed anti-aircraft missile systems in Syria to defend against potential airstrikes against its forces, state news agency TASS reported Thursday, citing a Russian general.

“We have considered all the possible threats. We have deployed not only fighter jets, attack aircraft, bombers and helicopters, but also surface-to-air missile systems because there could be various kinds of force-majeure situations,” Colonel General Viktor Bondarev was quoted as saying.

Russia has deployed Pantsir-S1 and Buk-M2E missile systems at several strategic locations in Syria, including the Latakia province airbase where Russia has stationed many of its jets for its air campaign, the Interfax news agency reported, citing an undisclosed military diplomatic source.

The Syrian military also has Russian-made Osa, S-125 and S-200 missile systems that it can use to defend against enemy aircraft and incoming missiles, much like Israel’s Iron Dome battery, the report said.

Russia began a bombing campaign in Syria in September to help that country’s beleaguered military fight extremist groups such as Islamic State and the al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has led the country for 15 years, is one of Russia’s closest allies in the Middle East.

The Russian bombings have also reportedly hit rebel groups fighting against the government, including hardline Islamic factions and some groups backed by Western nations. None of the militant groups fighting the Syrian government are known to have warplanes.

However, the anti-Islamic State coalition led by the United States uses warplanes to launch airstrikes against the extremist group and some hardline factions.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned on Thursday that Russia’s military build-up in Syria and the eastern Mediterranean Sea is providing Moscow with what is known as anti-access/area denial capabilities, meaning that it could prevent military forces from accessing a particular area.

Russia also has such means in Kaliningrad and the Black Sea, he said.

Defeating those capabilities was part of the Trident Juncture military exercise that NATO has been carrying out for two weeks in Italy, Portugal and Spain, according to Stoltenberg.

“We addressed these issues and we looked into how NATO can overcome, penetrate the anti-access/area denial capabilities of Russia. We are able to do so,” he told journalists on the margins of a naval demonstration in Portugal.

But he also noted that the military alliance has to “reinforce our forces all the time to make sure that we’re also able to do that in the future, and also in a challenging security environment.”

“We have to be sure that we are able to overcome these capabilities, so we can reinforce, so we can move and we can deploy forces if needed,” he added.

Relations between NATO and Moscow have reached their lowest point since the Cold War over Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

Turkey, which is a member of NATO and the US-led coalition against the Islamic State, warned Moscow twice last month about Russian warplanes allegedly violating its airspace. Turkey carried out airstrikes inside Syria against Islamic State last week.

Western and regional powers have accused al-Assad of using deadly force – including toxic gas – against civilians in an attempt to return order to his country.

An estimated 250,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict, which began during a violent crackdown on mostly peaceful protests against the ruling regime in 2011.

More than half the country’s pre-war population of 22.4 million people have been internally displaced or forced to flee their homeland.

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