CreditPool photo by Evan Vucci
LONDON — Russia’s military buildup in Syria now includes surface-to-air missiles as well as combat aircraft with air-to-air capability, deployments that raise “serious questions” about Moscow’s role in the region, Secretary of State John Kerry said Saturday.
Russian officials have said that the purpose of the buildup at a base near Latakia, Syria, is to combat the Islamic State.
But the deployment of air defense systems and fighter aircraft — weapons that can be used against a conventionally armed foe but that have little utility against extremist fighters — has spurred concerns that Moscow’s goal is also to establish a military outpost in the Middle East.
It has also added to the Pentagon’s worries about the risk of an inadvertent confrontation between Russia’s military and the American-led coalition that is carrying out airstrikes in Syria against the Islamic State.
“Clearly the presence of aircraft with air-to-air combat capacity” as well as “surface-to-air missiles raise serious questions, which is precisely why Secretary Carter talked with the Minister of Defense of Russia Shoigu yesterday,” Mr. Kerry said, referring to Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter and Russia’s defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu.
At the White House’s direction, Mr. Carter began a dialogue Friday with Mr. Shoigu aimed at ensuring that American and Russian aircraft avoid unintended incidents as they operate over Syria.
While Mr. Kerry did not provide details, an American official, who requested anonymity because he was discussing intelligence reports, said that a Russian SA-22 air defense system was already in place at Latakia. The United States had observed elements of the system at the base in the last week, but now the launcher and the missiles it fires are there, too, the official said.
The American official added that the four Su-27 aircraft Russia had flown to the air base were armed with air-to-air missiles.
“What’s the air-to-air threat there for them?” asked the official, who called the development “troubling.”
Other American officials suggested, however, that the deployment might simply reflect the Russian military’s standard defensive precautions as it established an air hub in a foreign country.
The prefabricated building Russia has erected at the base now has the capacity to house 2,000 military advisers and personnel. Ferrying weapons and equipment to the base has involved well over 20 flights by Russian Condor transport planes — almost all of which have flown to Syria by passing over Iran and Iraq.
Syria, and the migrant crisis it has spawned, has been a major focus of Mr. Kerry’s trip to Europe. After a meeting Saturday morning with Philip Hammond, the British foreign secretary, Mr. Kerry said that it was vital to pursue a diplomatic solution to the crisis but that Moscow was not putting enough pressure on President Bashar al-Assad of Syria to make him negotiate seriously.
“We need to get to the negotiation,” Mr. Kerry said at a joint news conference with Mr. Hammond. “That’s what we’re looking for, and we hope Russia and Iran, other countries with influence, will help to bring that about, because that’s what’s preventing this crisis from ending.”