LONDON — Russia’s military buildup in Syria now includes surface-to-air missiles as well as combat aircraft with air-to-air capability, deployments that raise “serious questions” about Moscow’s role in the region, Secretary of State John Kerry said Saturday.
Russian officials have said that the purpose of the buildup at a base near Latakia, Syria, is to combat the Islamic State.
But the deployment of air defense systems and fighter aircraft — weapons that can be used against a conventionally armed foe but that have little utility against extremist fighters — has spurred concerns that Moscow’s goal is also to establish a military outpost in the Middle East.
It has also added to the Pentagon’s worries about the risk of an inadvertent confrontation between Russia’s military and the American-led coalition that is carrying out airstrikes in Syria against the Islamic State.
“Clearly the presence of aircraft with air-to-air combat capacity” as well as “surface-to-air missiles raise serious questions, which is precisely why Secretary Carter talked with the Minister of Defense of Russia Shoigu yesterday,” Mr. Kerry said, referring to Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter and Russia’s defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu.
At the White House’s direction, Mr. Carter began a dialogue Friday with Mr. Shoigu aimed at ensuring that American and Russian aircraft avoid unintended incidents as they operate over Syria.
While Mr. Kerry did not provide details, an American official, who requested anonymity because he was discussing intelligence reports, said that a Russian SA-22 air defense system was already in place at Latakia. The United States had observed elements of the system at the base in the last week, but now the launcher and the missiles it fires are there, too, the official said.
The American official added that the four Su-27 aircraft Russia had flown to the air base were armed with air-to-air missiles.
“What’s the air-to-air threat there for them?” asked the official, who called the development “troubling.”
Other American officials suggested, however, that the deployment might simply reflect the Russian military’s standard defensive precautions as it established an air hub in a foreign country.
The prefabricated building Russia has erected at the base now has the capacity to house 2,000 military advisers and personnel. Ferrying weapons and equipment to the base has involved well over 20 flights by Russian Condor transport planes — almost all of which have flown to Syria by passing over Iran and Iraq.
Syria, and the migrant crisis it has spawned, has been a major focus of Mr. Kerry’s trip to Europe. After a meeting Saturday morning with Philip Hammond, the British foreign secretary, Mr. Kerry said that it was vital to pursue a diplomatic solution to the crisis but that Moscow was not putting enough pressure on President Bashar al-Assad of Syria to make him negotiate seriously.
“We need to get to the negotiation,” Mr. Kerry said at a joint news conference with Mr. Hammond. “That’s what we’re looking for, and we hope Russia and Iran, other countries with influence, will help to bring that about, because that’s what’s preventing this crisis from ending.”
“Right now, Assad has refused to have a serious discussion,” Mr. Kerry added, “and Russia has refused to help bring him to the table in order to do that.”
Mr. Hammond and Mr. Kerry each emphasized that Mr. Assad could not remain in power if there was to be a durable solution to the conflict, but they said that the timing of his departure during a political transition in Syria would be a matter of negotiation.
“It doesn’t have to be on Day 1 or Month 1,” Mr. Kerry said. “There is a process by which all the parties have to come together and reach an understanding of how this can best be achieved.”
“I just know that the people of Syria have already spoken with their feet,” Mr. Kerry added. “They’re leaving Syria.”
“Assad has to go,” Mr. Hammond added. “He can’t be part of Syria’s long-term future. But the modality and the timing has to be part of a discussion about a political solution.”
Despite his concerns about Russia’s military buildup in Syria, Mr. Kerry said that the Obama administration welcomed a role for Russian forces if it was focused on combating the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS or ISIL, and not on propping up Mr. Assad.
“ISIL is plotting attacks today against the West,” Mr. Kerry said. “So to the degree that Russia wants to focus its efforts against ISIL, we welcome that.”
Mr. Kerry and Mr. Hammond also discussed Yemen, Libya and Ukraine.
On Friday, Mr. Kerry discussed the Syrian crisis here with Abdullah bin Zayed, the foreign minister from the United Arab Emirates. On Sunday, Mr. Kerry plans to fly to Berlin to discuss Syria and the migrant crisis with his German counterpart, Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
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(via NY Times)