American officials have confirmed the presence of multiple Russian fighter jets in Syria, boosting Russia’s ground presence in that country with “significant air power,” Reuters reported today.
One of the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said there were four Russian jets at the airfield near Latakia, a stronghold of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The second official declined to offer a precise figure.
Defense officials said at least four tactical fighter jets had arrived at the rapidly expanding airfield on the Syrian coast south of Latakia. Over the past two weeks, defense officials said, Russia has dramatically stepped up development of the airfield by sending in housing for up to 2,000 people, attack helicopters, choppers to transport troops around the country, and artillery.
The arrival of the jet fighters is the most concerning development for the U.S., which regularly flies surveillance flights and airstrikes against Islamic State forces in Syria.
Defense officials said they weren’t certain how Russia planned to use the jets, but noted that the Soviet planes are designed for air-to-air combat.
This admission is the latest evidence of a growing Russian military presence supporting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. At the beginning of the month, Russian troops were reported to be fighting on behalf of the Assad regime. Earlier this week, Syrian troops were reported to be using advanced Russian weapons.
While overt Russian aid for Assad is new, Iran and its Lebanon-based terror proxy Hezbollah have long been supporting his government. Two years ago, Hezbollah troops were instrumental in helping Syrian forces capture the crucial border city of Qusayr. Iran continues to provide troops, supplies, and money to Assad. Earlier this week, Politico reported that an Iranian airline sanctioned by the United States was flying planes to Syria, likely ferrying weapons and personnel. Assad publicly praised the Iran nuclear deal between Iran a week after Iran extended him a $1 billion line of credit.
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