Russia has begun drone surveillance missions in Syria, US defense officials said Monday. The move marks Moscow's first military air operations there since undertaking a rapid buildup at a Syrian air base.
US officials said the drone operations appear to based out of the air base near the western port city of Latakia, where last week a monitoring group said Russia was working to extend an airstrip near a military airport.
The start of the drone flights highlights the risks of Russian aircraft operating in the same airspace as US-led coalition planes, as the two Cold War rivals have not agreed on coordination or objectives in Syria's civil war.
Both Moscow and Washington oppose the "Islamic State" (IS) militant group in Syria, but the US opposes Russia's support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The US blames Assad for prolonging the nation's four-and-a-half year-long civil war, which has killed an estimated 250,000 people.
The Pentagon did not disclose any further information about the Russian drone flights, saying it could not discuss intelligence matters, but added it was "keenly aware" of the situation in Syria.
"There are 28 fighter and bomber aircraft" currently located at an airfield in the western Syrian province of Latakia, a US official speaking anonymously told news agency Agence France-Presse. A second official also speaking anonymously to AFP confirmed that number, adding that there were also 20 Russian combat and transport helicopters at the base.
Washington has voiced its concern over Russia's military buildup in Syria in support of Assad, warning that any military backing for the Syrian regime would draw more extremists to the country and could delay any prospect of peace.
"We've made clear both in public and in private that doubling down on supporting Assad is a losing bet," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday.
Moscow for its part has expressed its desire to get the coalition of Western and regional powers currently battling the "Islamic State" group to join with Assad against the militants.
US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter recently held talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu, marking an end to the 18-month freeze in military relations triggered by anger over Russia's role in the Ukraine crisis.
The US-led coalition has been carrying out almost daily airstrikes against IS militants in Syria. Both Moscow and Washington have agreed to continue discussions in order to lessen the risk of incidents between coalition forces and Russian forces operating in the same airspace.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has vowed to continue his support of Assad, aid that Moscow says is in accordance with international law.
bw/cmk (Reuters, AFP)