Damascus downplays Russian military role in Syria

Published September 9th, 2015 - 11:17 GMT
Russia has been a long-term ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. (AFP/File)
Russia has been a long-term ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. (AFP/File)

Syria has denied reports of increased military activity by Russian troops on its soil, after Washington said it was following up on claims of ramped up support from Moscow, AFP reported Tuesday.

Speaking late Monday to Hezbollah's Al-Manar television station, Syria’s Information Minister Omran Zohbi dismissed the reports as “baseless”, according to the news agency.

"There is absolutely nothing to these rumors and what was said a few days ago," Zohbi said of reports of increased aid from Russia, a key supporter of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

"There are no Russian forces, and there is no Russian military activity on Syrian territory by land, sea or air," Zohbi told Al-Manar.

The New York Times reported late last week that Russia had sent a military advance team to its ally Syria and was taking other steps that Washington fears may signal plans to vastly expand military support for the beleaguered Assad.

That report was followed up by new images which came to light and which appeared to confirm previous reports of Russian "boots on the ground" in Syria.

On the weekend, Secretary of State John Kerry phoned his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov to express concern about the reports.

Moscow, however, said on Monday that the aid it provides to Damascus is normal.

Russia maintains a naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus, the origins of which date back to Moscow's close relationship with Damascus under the Soviet Union.

Zohbi said rumors about increased Russian aid were "circulated by Western intelligence and in some Arab intelligence services to give the impression... that Russia is intervening directly in order to put pressure on Syria... and that the Syrian state has weakened so much it needs direct help from its friends."

"Syrian-Russian ties in the military context are a prolonged relationship, and whatever is coming from the Russian military to Syria is a result of previous agreements that were settled in the past, and are not something new," Zohbi told Al-Manar.

He accused the United States and others of providing "lethal aid to armed terrorist groups" that he said were falsely presented as being part of the moderate opposition, according to AFP.

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