By Robin Emmott
NATO on Tuesday rejected Moscow’s explanation that its warplanes violated the air space of alliance member Turkey at the weekend by mistake and said Russia was sending more ground troops to Syria.
With Russia extending its air strikes to include the ancient city of Palmyra, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said he was losing patience with Russian violations of his country’s air space.
“An attack on Turkey means an attack on NATO,” Erdogan warned at a Brussels news conference.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance had reports of a substantial Russian military build-up in Syria, including ground troops and ships in the eastern Mediterranean.
“I will not speculate on the motives … but this does not look like an accident and we have seen two of them,” Stoltenberg said of the air incursions over Turkey’s border with Syria. He noted that they “lasted for a long time”.
The incidents, which NATO has described as “extremely dangerous” and “unacceptable”, underscore the risks of a further escalation of the Syrian civil war, as Russian and U.S. warplanes fly combat missions over the same country for the first time since World War Two.
The Russian Defence Ministry had said that an SU-30 warplane had entered Turkish air space along the border with Syria “for a few seconds” on Saturday, a mistake caused by bad weather. NATO says a plane also entered Turkish air space on Sunday, an incident Russia says it is looking into.
Stoltenberg declined to comment on whether the Russian planes had locked their radar on the F-16 Turkish jets scrambled on Saturday to remove Russian aircraft from the air space, usually a prelude to firing.
WAR OF WORDS
Separately, a U.S. official told Reuters the incursions lasted more than a few seconds and described Moscow’s assertion that the incursions were an accident as “far-fetched”.
Stoltenberg said the U.S.-led alliance had not received “any real explanation” from Russia about the incursions. He had not had any direct contact with Moscow but NATO has discussed the possibility of using military lines of communication with Russia.
Russia’s NATO envoy said the alliance was using the accidental incursion to distort the aims of Moscow’s air campaign in Syria, according to the TASS news agency.
“The impression is that the incident in Turkish air space was used to plug NATO as an organisation into the information campaign waged by the West to distort the aims of the operations carried out by the Russian air force in Syria,” Alexander Grushko was quoted as telling reporters in Brussels.
The United States, leading the coalition attacking Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, wants to avoid being drawn into a proxy war with Russia, which is defending its ally Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he would not put ground forces in Syria, where the civil war has killed 250,000 people. However, Stoltenberg said there was a large presence of Russian forces in Syria.
“I can confirm that we have seen a substantial build-up of Russian forces in Syria: air forces, air defences, but also ground troops in connection with the air base they have, and we also see an increased naval presence,” Stoltenberg said.
U.S. officials have previously said Russia has sent seven T-90 tanks, some artillery, plus about 200 marines. It also has deployed temporary housing units, a portable air traffic control station and components for an air defence system.
Russian defence ministry sources have been quoted in Russian media as saying about 1,500 Russian servicemen are involved in supporting the air strikes and supplying the Syrian army with equipment.
The Russian Defence Ministry itself has said in a statement it has more than 50 warplanes and helicopters based in Syria. Russia’s Tartus naval facility in Syria is a logistics base and has been overhauled in recent years. It is being used to unload equipment, some of which is also being flown in.
Admiral Vladimir Komoyedov, the head of the lower house of the Russian parliament’s defence committee, said on Monday that Moscow was not conducting operations in Syria involving its own ground troops and would not do so, according to the RIA Novosti news agency.
Komoyedov, who on Monday had said it was likely that Russian volunteers would travel to Syria to fight there, said Russia was blocking any attempts by its citizens to fight on either side in the Syrian conflict.
Pressing ahead with an air campaign that began nearly a week ago, Russian jets hit Islamic State targets in Palmyra and the northern province of Aleppo, Syrian state television said, in some of the heaviest Russian attacks on the hardline group.
The strikes destroyed 20 vehicles and 3 weapons depots in Islamic State-held Palmyra, it said. In Aleppo, they hit the towns of Al-Bab and Deir Hafer, about 20 km (10 miles) east of a military airport currently besieged by Islamic State fighters.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based group tracking Syria’s civil war, said the Palmyra strikes killed 15 Islamic State fighters.
Al-Manar television, run by the Lebanese Hezbollah group which is allied to Assad, said the Russian air force also carried out four raids in the Jabal al-Zawiya area in the northwestern province of Idlib.
Islamic State forces captured Palmyra in May, an advance which brought them closer to the core of government-held territory in western Syria. It also put the city’s Roman-era ruins under the militants’ control.
In Moscow, the upper chamber of parliament said Russia would consider extending its air strikes against militants in Syria to Iraq if Baghdad asked, the RIA news agency reported. No such request had so far been received, however.