Reuters reports: 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 the United States fears is a deepening Russian military role in Syria’s civil war, though one of the Lebanese sources said the number of Russians involved so far was small.
U.S. officials said Russia sent two tank landing ships and additional cargo aircraft to Syria in the past day or so and 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 was unclear. One suggested the focus may be on preparing an airfield near the port city of Latakia, a stronghold of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. [Continue reading…]
Josh Rogin writes: The State Department had already begun pushing back against the Russian moves, for example by asking Bulgaria and Greece to deny overflight permissions to Syria-bound Russian transport planes. But the president didn’t know about these moves in advance, two officials said, and when he found out, he was upset with the department for not having a more complete and vetted process to respond to the crisis. A senior administration official said Tuesday evening that the White House, the State Department and other departments had coordinated to oppose actions that would add to Assad’s leverage.
For some in the White House, the priority is to enlist more countries to fight against the Islamic State, and they fear making the relationship with Russia any more heated. They are seriously considering accepting the Russian buildup as a fait accompli, and then working with Moscow to coordinate U.S. and Russian strikes in Northern Syria, where the U.S.-led coalition operates every day.
For many in the Obama administration, especially those who work on Syria, the idea of acquiescing to Russian participation in the fighting is akin to admitting that the drive to oust Assad has failed. Plus, they fear Russia will attack Syrian opposition groups that are fighting against Assad, using the war against the Islamic State as a cover.
“The Russians’ intentions are to keep Assad in power, not to fight ISIL,” one administration official said. “They’ve shown their cards now.” [Continue reading…]