U.S. warns of ‘confrontation’ risk over Russian moves in Syria; Bulgaria overflight ban irks Moscow

AFP-JIJI/AP

The White House on Tuesday warned that a Russian military buildup in Syria could spark a “confrontation” with U.S.-led forces carrying out an air campaign against the Islamic State group.

Amid reports that Russia is readying to step up its support for Bashar Assad’s regime by deploying its own military, the White House expressed grave misgivings.

“We’ve indicated that the United States is concerned by reports that Russia may have deployed additional military personnel and aircraft to Syria,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.

“These steps could lead to greater loss of life, they could increase refugee flows and risk confrontation with the counter-ISIL coalition that’s operating inside of Syria,” he said, using an acronym to refer to the Islamic State.

A U.S.-led coalition has run more than 50,000 sorties as part of more than one-year-old operation to counter Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.

It earlier emerged that at least two NATO members have refused the Russian military overflight rights, amid concerns over Moscow’s intentions.

Russia insists it is transporting humanitarian aid.

The White House would not be drawn on whether it had asked allies to deny overflight rights, but said Russia’s intentions were “difficult to decipher.”

“We’ve certainly made very clear to Russia our views,” said Earnest.

“If they were to follow through in providing that kind of support, it could be both destabilizing and counterproductive to the interest of the international community.”

Meanwhile Russia on Tuesday lashed out at Bulgaria over its refusal to allow Russian cargo planes bound for Syria to fly over its territory, saying the move has cast doubts on the nation’s independence.

The angry statement comes amid signs of a Russian military buildup in Syria that has raised U.S. concerns. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov alleged that Bulgaria and Greece are facing pressure from Washington.

Bulgaria’s Foreign Ministry earlier said the country is refusing to allow Russian military transport aircraft to fly through its airspace en route to Syria from Sept. 1-24. It said without elaboration that the reason for the refusal was “incorrect information” about the purpose of the flights and the cargo.

On Monday, Greek Foreign Ministry spokesman Constantinos Koutras said the U.S. has asked Greece to cancel overflight permission for flights headed to Syria. He said Athens is examining the request.

“If they make some restrictive or banning measures at American request, that raises a question about their sovereign right to make decisions about foreign planes crossing its airspace,” Bogdanov said, according to the Interfax news agency. “If our Greek and Bulgarian partners have any doubts, they must explain what’s the problem.”

U.S. defense officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the sensitive issue, said the U.S. has seen an increasing number of Russian transport planes seeking diplomatic approval for flights into Syria. They also have seen the movement of some prefabricated housing in Syria, although they haven’t seen any troops moving in or becoming involved in actual combat activities, as some media reports suggested.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, over the weekend to express concern, warning that if reports about the Russian military build-up in Syria were accurate, it could further escalate the conflict, increase refugee flows and raise the threat of confrontation with the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group.

Russia has staunchly backed Syrian President Bashar Assad throughout the nation’s 4 ½-year civil war, providing his regime with weapons and keeping military advisers in Syria.

President Vladimir Putin said again Friday that Russia is providing the Syrian military with weapons and training. Asked if Russia could deploy its troops to Syria to help fight the Islamic State, Putin answered coyly, saying “we are looking at various options.”

Bogdanov said Tuesday that Russian military experts are in Syria to train its military how to use weapons shipped by Russia under existing contracts. He didn’t mention their number or offer any other details.

Russia also has a navy facility in the Syrian port of Tartus intended to service and supply visiting ships, the last remaining Russian military outpost outside the former Soviet Union. Bogdanov said that Russia has no intention to expand the Tartus base.