Russian troops have entered Syria in recent days to aid Bashar Assad’s beleaguered government in the battle against Islamic State, Israel’s Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said Thursday. The development could help the Syrian president reverse his recent battlefield losses in the country’s bitter civil war, now in its fifth year.
Yaalon said the Russians had dispatched military advisers as well as an active force, with the main goal of setting up an air base. The base, near the Syrian city of Latakia, could deploy fighter jets and helicopters in strikes against IS terrorists.
“As far as we understand, at this stage we are talking about a limited force that includes advisers, a security team and preparations for operating planes and combat helicopters,” Yaalon said in a briefing with Israeli reporters.
Yaalon said Russia’s first goal was to protect its interests in Syria, namely its navy base there. He did not elaborate on how Israel knew of the Russian deployment in Syria.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Thursday would not comment on whether Russian troops were engaged in combat there.
Peskov said Russian President Vladimir Putin would discuss Syria and IS when he delivers his speech at the U.N. General Assembly later this month.
Putin has sought to cast arms supplies to Assad’s government as part of international efforts to combat the Islamic State group and other terrorist organizations in Syria.
But Putin has not ruled out a larger role and the move could mean that he has now decided to intervene directly on Assad’s behalf. The U.S. and its allies see Assad as the cause of the Syrian crisis, and Washington has warned Moscow against expanding its presence.
In addition, an Iranian Islamic Republican Guards Corps (IRGC) contingent of hundreds of soldiers has recently made its way to Syria to fight alongside the Assad regime, a senior security source said on Thursday, according to The Jerusalem Post.
Tehran dispatched its force “in light of Assad’s” ongoing distress, the source stated, and that the Russians and Iranians are working together. He told of a meeting last month between Quds Force commander Qassam Suleimani and Vladimir Putin in Moscow to prepare the way for coordinated operations.