US Officials: Russia Begins Syria Drone Surveillance Missions

US Officials: Russia Begins Syria Drone Surveillance Missions
Tue Sep 22, 2015 20:05:20

Russia has started flying drone aircraft on surveillance missions in Syria, US officials claimed, in what the West sees as Moscow's first military air operations there since staging a rapid buildup at a Syrian air base.

The US and Moscow have a common adversary, namely, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant militants in Syria. But Washington opposes Moscow's support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, seeing him as a driving force in the four-and-a-half year-long civil war, Reuters reported on Monday.

Moscow has made clear it does not want to see Assad toppled, and has urged his foreign foes, including the United States and Saudi Arabia, to work with Damascus to combat the common enemy.

The Pentagon declined comment at a news briefing when asked about the Reuters report on Russian drones, saying it could not discuss intelligence matters. But it said the US Department of Defense was "keenly aware" of what was happening on the ground in Syria.

The White House said that Moscow's intentions were unclear and that the prospect of deepening Russian military backing for Assad was troubling.

"We've made clear both in public and in private that doubling down on supporting Assad is a losing bet," said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.

Some western states and their allies support militants fighting Assad's government during a four-year war that has seen more than 220,000 people killed and one million wounded since March 2011.

One US official, speaking on condition of anonymity claimed the number of fixed-wing, piloted Russian aircraft stationed at the air base near Latakia, an Assad stronghold, had also grown dramatically in recent days.

That included Russia's positioning of a dozen "Fencer" advanced-attack aircraft and a dozen "Frogfoot" jets, used for close air support. Those were in addition to Russia's first purported deployment of fighter jets last week.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said over the weekend the United States welcomed Russia's involvement in tackling ISIL militants in Syria. But he said a worsening refugee crisis highlighted the need to find a compromise that could also lead to political change in the country.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has pledged to continue military support for Assad in line with international law.

US and Russian defense chiefs agreed on Friday to explore ways to avoid accidental interactions, also known as "deconfliction" in military parlance. But those discussions were described as only at their inception.

It was unclear whether the US-Russian talks might gain added urgency, now that Moscow has started drone flights.

Russia's drone operations appeared to be staged out of the air base near Latakia, officials said.

Two US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was not immediately clear how many Russian drone aircraft were operating or the scope of their missions; Tasnim reported.

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