Russia steps up military lifeline to Syria's Assad
In recent weeks Russia has stepped up supplies of military gear to Syria, including armoured vehicles, drones and guided bombs, boosting President Bashar al-Assad just as rebel infighting has weakened the insurgency against him, sources with knowledge of the deliveries say.
Moscow, which is trying to raise its diplomatic and economic influence in the Middle East, has been a major provider of conventional weapons to Syria, giving Assad crucial support during the three-year civil war and blocking wider Western attempts to punish him with sanctions for the use of force against civilians.
The new Russian supplies come at a critically fluid stage of the conflict, with peace talks scheduled for next week in Switzerland, the factious opposition losing ground, and Western support for the rebellion growing increasingly wary of the role played by foreign militants. Syria has even said some countries formally opposed to Assad have begun discussing security cooperation with his government.
Several sources told Reuters that Assad's forces had since December received deliveries of weaponry and other military supplies, including unmanned spy drones known as UAVs, which have been arranged by Russia either directly or via proxies.
"Dozens of Antonov 124s (Russian transport planes) have been bringing in armoured vehicles, surveillance equipment, radars, electronic warfare systems, spare parts for helicopters, and various weapons including guided bombs for planes," a Middle East security source said.
"Russian advisers and intelligence experts have been running observation UAVs around the clock to help Syrian forces track rebel positions, analyse their capabilities, and carry out precision artillery and air force strikes against them," said the source, who declined to be identified.
Vyacheslav Davidenko, spokesman for Russia's arms export monopoly Rosoboronexport, said they could not comment on arms deliveries to Syria.
Russia has said it violates no international laws with its military supplies to Syria and does not sell Damascus offensive weapons.
Syrian officials could not be reached for comment.
The U.S. State Department said it had no independent confirmation that Russia had increased military supplies to Syria but said such actions would be concerning if true.
Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said she discussed the Reuters report with Secretary of State John Kerry earlier on Friday.
"His view is that if these reports are true that would certainly raise great concerns about the role that Russia is playing in continuing to enable the Assad regime of brutalizing the Syrian people," said Psaki, adding: "We don't have independent confirmation of the reports."