Russia Denies Military Intervention in Syria; U.S. Seeks to Block Russian Flights

By Patrick Goodenough | September 8, 2015 | 4:49am EDT
Russian President Vladimir Putin at a meeting with supporters in Moscow on Monday, Sept. 7, 2015. (AP Photo/Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA-Novosti, Kremlin Pool)

( – Amid Russian denials that it is stepping up its military intervention in the Syrian civil war, the United States reportedly has asked the Greek government to deny Russia access to its airspace for flights carrying supplies to Syria.

A Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told Russian news agencies Monday that the Greek government confirmed it was considering a U.S. request, but declined to respond further. Russian media outlets describe the air cargoes destined for Syria this month as “humanitarian.”

The U.S. request to Greece was reportedly made on Saturday, the same day Secretary of State John Kerry in a phone conversation with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, raised concern about reports that Moscow is expanding its military support for the Assad regime.

Recent U.S. and Israeli media reports have referred to deployments of a Russian military advance team and fighter planes to Syria, where Moscow has since the Soviet era maintained a strategically-important naval support facility at the port of Tartus.

The New York Times said Russia had also sent prefabricated housing and a portable air-traffic control post to a Syrian airfield.

The State Department said Kerry had discussed “U.S. concerns about reports suggesting an imminent enhanced Russian military build-up there.”

It said Kerry made clear that if the reports were accurate, the Russian action could worsen the conflict, lead to greater loss of life and refugee flows, and risk confrontation with the U.S.-led coalition that is carrying out airstrikes against Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL) jihadists in Syria.

Russia’s foreign ministry said later Lavrov had informed Kerry in the phone call that Russia has never hidden the fact it is sending military aid to help Damascus in its campaign against terrorism.

“Lavrov confirmed that this type of aid has always been provided and is being provided and that Russia has never concealed that it is providing military equipment to the official Syrian authorities with the aim of fighting terrorism,” the RIA Novosti news agency quoted foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova as saying.

The U.S. and Russia differ sharply in their approach to the various parties to the convoluted conflict:

The U.S. is leading a coalition carrying out airstrikes against ISIS positions and supporting “moderate” rebel forces in their fight against ISIS, but is not directly supportive of the rebels’ wider military campaign to unseat the regime. It says President Bashar al-Assad must go, but as a result of a negotiated political transition, not military action.

Russia is supporting Assad, a longstanding ally, and echoes his stance that all forces fighting the regime are terrorists. Russia wants the West and Arab Gulf states to embrace Assad as an ally in the fight against jihadists.

Zakharova said Lavrov in the conversation with Kerry urged the U.S. to work with Assad against ISIS, calling his army the most effective force on the ground in the fight.

Now in its fifth year, the civil war has cost more than 250,000 lives, seen more than four million Syrians seek refuge in neighboring countries, and hundreds of thousands make their way to Europe, often risking their lives and contributing to a growing humanitarian crisis over the summer.

On Monday Alexei Pushkov, a Russian lawmaker who chairs the State Duma’s international relations committee, blamed the migrant crisis roiling Europe on Western support for the so-called “Arab spring,”

With reference to Syria, Iraq and Libya – another key point of origin and transit for migrants seeking new lives in Europe – Pushkov told the Tass news agency the upheavals in those countries had not replaced undesirable regimes with democracy as envisaged by the West, but led instead to chaos, a bigger terrorist threat and the migrant crisis.

“I mean it is not an abstract humanitarian disaster stemming from nowhere, it is the outcome of the Western policy and this chaotic ‘Arab spring’ the Western leaders and media hailed so loudly as though they did not understand what could be the consequences of destabilization in countries that are not ready for democracy and that have very serious radical Islamist moods and organizations,” Tass quoted him as saying.

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