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Israel: Russian Troops Already in Syria

JERUSALEM -- Russian troops have arrived in Syria to aid Bashar Assad's beleaguered government in the battle against Islamic State militants, Israel's defense minister said Thursday, a development could help the Syrian president reverse his recent battlefield losses in the country's bitter civil war, now in its fifth year.

Moshe Yaalon said the Russians in recent days dispatched military advisers as well as an active force, with the main goal of setting up an air base. The base, near the Syrian city of Latakia, could deploy fighter jets and helicopters in strikes against IS militants.

"As far as we understand, at this stage we are talking about a limited force that includes advisers, a security team and preparations for operating planes and combat helicopters," Yaalon said in a briefing with Israeli reporters.

The claim was the latest indication of a Russian military buildup in Syria that has raised U.S. and NATO concerns.

Earlier Thursday, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russian aircraft flying into Syria have been delivering military supplies and humanitarian aid. But he shed no light on the Western claims of a buildup at the airfield.

Moscow has backed Assad throughout the nation's civil war, which has killed more than 250,000 people. Russian President Vladimir Putin has sought to cast arms supplies to Assad's government as part of international efforts to combat the Islamic State group and other militant organizations in Syria.

But Putin has not ruled out a larger role and the move could mean that he has now decided to intervene directly on Assad's behalf.

The United States and its allies see Assad as the cause of the Syrian crisis, and Washington has warned Moscow against beefing up its presence.

But those warnings have been softer in tone, compared to the original American position that demanded Assad's ouster. After years of heavy fighting, it seems that Assad can continue clinging to power, propped up by Russian and Iranian aid, as well as the West's focus on the struggle against the extremist IS group, which now controls a third of Syria.

Yaalon described the Russian move as "significant," and said if the Russians plan on carrying out airstrikes against IS militants, they would have to coordinate it with a U.S.-led campaign.

The Israeli minister added that Russia's first goal is likely to protect its interests in Syria, namely the navy base of Tartus on the Mediterranean Sea. Yaalon did not elaborate on how Israel knew of the Russian deployment in Syria.

Israel has been careful to stay out of the fighting in Syria and has not made its preferences clear. On one hand, it has no interest in seeing its long-time nemesis Assad prevail, particularly given his close ties to archenemies Iran and Hezbollah.

On the other hand, it fears that any Islamic militants or rebels that depose him will ultimately be far more hostile to Israel.

In Moscow, Lavrov confirmed Thursday that Russia has military personnel in Syria for training purposes, but said nothing about reported deployments of additional troops.

Asked about Russian planes flying to the airfield near Latakia, Lavrov said they were carrying "military goods in accordance with existing contracts and humanitarian aid."

When asked if Russia could deploy its troops to Syria to help fight IS, Putin said last week that Russia was "looking at various options," but it was too early to talk about it. His spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Thursday that nothing had changed and Putin's comments still stood.

Peskov stressed that Russia sees Syrian government forces as the only ones capable of fighting IS militants and said it is Russia's mission to support them.

Putin is expected to focus on the situation in Syria when he addresses the U.N. General Assembly at the end of the month. By playing with the idea of joining the U.S.-led coalition fighting IS, Putin may hope to improve ties with the West, which have been damaged by the Ukrainian crisis.

So far, Russia's maneuvers do not appear to be coordinated with other countries operating in the area.

Yaalon's information closely resembles that of a U.S. defense official who said the U.S. has seen the Russians fly a variety of military assets into the airfield south of Latakia, including troops capable of protecting Russian forces there and modular housing units. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to publicly discuss the issue, said it indicated that the Russians were preparing for some sort of air operations.

Assad's forces have recently suffered a series of setbacks on the ground. He has acknowledged those losses, saying the army has had to relinquish some areas in the north to be able to better defend core areas seen as more critical to the government.

So far, two out of Syria's 14 provinces are totally out of government control -- Idlib, which fell Wednesday to al-Qaida militants and other Islamic fighters, and Raqqa, which was seized in 2014 by the Islamic State. The IS has declared a caliphate on the territory it controls in Syria and Iraq.

-- Associated Press writers Lynn Berry in Moscow and Sarah El Deeb in Beirut contributed to this report.

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