Exclusive: Russian troops join combat in Syria – sources

Russian forces have begun participating in military operations in Syria in support of government troops, three Lebanese sources familiar with the political and military situation there said on Wednesday.

The sources, speaking to Reuters on condition they not be identified, gave the most forthright account yet from the region of what U.S. officials say appears to be a new military buildup by Moscow, one of President Bashar al-Assad’s main allies, though one of the sources said the numbers of Russians involved so far were small.

Two U.S. officials said Russia has sent two tank landing ships and additional aircraft to Syria in the past day or so and has deployed a small number of naval infantry forces.

The U.S. officials, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said the intent of Russia’s military moves in Syria remained unclear. One of the officials said initial indications suggested the focus was on preparing an airfield near the port city of Latakia, an Assad stronghold.

Another of the Lebanese sources said that so far any Russian combat role was still small: “They have started in small numbers, but the bigger force did not yet take part … There are numbers of Russians taking part in Syria but they did not yet join the fight against terrorism strongly.”

The Syrian official said: “Russian experts are always present but in the last year they have been present to a greater degree.”

“WORRISOME”

A senior U.S. official said on Saturday Washington had detected “worrisome preparatory steps,” including transport of prefabricated housing units for hundreds of people to a Syrian airfield, that could signal that Russia is readying deployment of heavy military assets there.

Full article: Exclusive: Russian troops join combat in Syria – sources (Reuters)

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