The White House and State Department said Thursday that it was monitoring reports that Russia is carrying out military operations in Syria's civil war on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad, with both warning that such actions would further destabilize Syria's perilous situation.
Syrian state media reported this week that Russian forces were fighting alongside Assad's army. The Times of London reported Thursday that video shot by a militia loyal to Assad and aired on SANA, Syria's state-run television station, showed troops backed by an armored vehicle. The newspaper also reported that Russian voices could clearly be heard in the film, which claimed to show government forces fighting rebels in the Latakia Mountains, near Syria's Mediterranean coast.
We are aware of reports that Russia may have deployed military personnel and aircraft to Syria, and we are monitoring those reports quite closely," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters Thursday
"Any military support to the Assad regime for any purpose, whether it's in the form of military personnel, aircraft supplies, weapons, or funding, is both destabilizing and counterproductive."
State Department spokesman Mark Toner echoed Earnest's message, saying "we have seen various reports that Russia may be deploying military personnel ... we're unclear what these might be used for." Toner added that he was "not sure that we have contacted [Moscow] about this yet."
"Russia has asked for clearances for military flight to Syria," a U.S. official was quoted as telling Britain's Daily Telegraph, "[but] we don't know what their goals are ... Evidence has been inconclusive so far as to what this activity is."
Observers have long believed that Russian military advisers are working with Assad as part of Moscow's longstanding support for Syria's regime. However, the video shown by SANA, if confirmed to be genuine, would be the first time Russian forces have been seen taking part in actual combat operations.
However, it was not immediately clear whether the Russians shown in the video were regular soldiers or civilian contractors, which would provide Moscow with deniability. Russian President Vladimir Putin has previously claimed that Russians fighting in Ukraine are volunteer civilian contractors.
The Times also reported that rebel activists in the area where the video was purportedly shot say the mountaintop town of Slunfeh, east of the port of Latakia, as a listening post run by Russian troops.
"The Russians have been there a long time,” one activist told The Times. "There are more Russian officials who came to Slunfeh in recent weeks. We don’t know how many but can assure you there has been Russian reinforcement."
The military relationship between Russia and the Assad regime in Damascus is longstanding. Many Syrian army officers have been trained in Moscow and Russia leases a naval facility at the Mediterranean port of Tartus. The SANA video was not the only sign that Russia has stepped up its involvement in the four-year-old conflict.
On Tuesday, a Twitter account linked to the al-Nusra Front, an Al Qaeda-linked group fighting against Assad, claimed to show Russian aircraft and drones over Idlib province in northwestern Syria. The Times reported that last month, photographs uploaded to a shipping blog showed a Russian vessel loaded with military vehicles passing through the Bosphorus Strait, heading to the Mediterranean.
Russian military involvement in Syria, if confirmed, would add a new layer of complexity to a war that has killed an estimated 220,000 people and displaced over 4 million, according to United Nations estimates. The conflict has facilitated the rise of the ISIS terror group, drawn in the United States as the head of a coalition launching airstrikes against ISIS, as well as the trainer and supplier of rebel groups who are asked to fight a three-way battle against Assad and ISIS.
In recent months, Syrian government forces have begun to lose ground to rebel groups, including ISIS, a situation that may have forced Moscow to increase its support. Last month, President Obama said that Russia and Iran, the Damascus regime's other key supporter, recognize "the trend lines are not good for Assad."