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Pentagon: Russian aid to Syria’s Assad would be 'counterproductive'

Syrian President Bashar Assad visits soldiers and officers at a military checkpoint near the area of Jobar, on the outskirts of Damascus, Syria, on Dec. 31, 2014.

ABACA PRESS/TNS

By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 8, 2015

WASHINGTON — Any Russian military attempt to bolster the Syrian regime in its fight against anti-government groups would further destabilize the country that’s been locked in civil war for four-plus years, a Pentagon spokesman said Tuesday.

Russia has long backed Syrian President Bashar Assad with weapons and other support, but evidence that Moscow may be stepping up its military presence in Syria has the Pentagon “monitoring the situation closely,” Defense Department spokesman Peter Cook said.

“The past support for the Assad regime has not been helpful to Syria … It’s been counterproductive,” Cook said. “We would be concerned about any further support for the Assad regime, whether military or otherwise.”

Cook did not provide specifics detailing what Russian moves the Defense Department has monitored within Syria. Unidentified U.S. defense officials told The Associated Press that U.S. officials have seen an increasing number of Russian transport planes seeking diplomatic approval for flights into Syria and some evidence of prefabricated housing around Syrian airfields. They said there was no evidence of Russian troops moving into Syria or participating in combat there.

Bulgaria has refused a Russian request for permission to fly over its territory to Syria. Greek Foreign Ministry spokesman Constantinos Koutras said the U.S. has asked Greece to cancel overflight permission for Russian flights headed to Syria this month and that Athens is examining the request.

Russia’s intentions in Syria, Cook said, remain unclear. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said Tuesday that Russian military experts are in Syria to train government forces how to use weapons provided under existing contracts. He didn’t say how many experts were in Syria or provide other details.

Russia maintains a navy facility in the Syrian port of Tartus but Bogdanov said there were no plans for expand the base.

Cook did not rule out Russia as a potential part of the anti-Islamic State coalition, but Moscow’s ties with Assad would pose a problem for the Pentagon, which supports moderate rebel groups that have fought against Syrian government forces.

The U.S. has maintained that it is not at war with the Syrian government and that destroying the Islamic State remains its ultimate goal in the region.

dickstein.corey@stripes.com
Twitter: @CDicksteinDC
 

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