Russia has confirmed that members of its military are present in Syria, amid growing concerns in the West that the Russian military is becoming more deeply involved in supporting the embattled government of President Bashar al-Assad.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in a statement Wednesday that "Russian military experts" are in Syria to help its military master the use of Russian weaponry and other equipment.
Russia, she said, has never made a secret of its "military-technical cooperation" with Syria and has "long provided arms and military equipment in accordance with existing bilateral contracts." She noted that the Russian Navy maintains a "material-technical support" facility in the Syrian port of Tartus.
Zakharova said the Russian equipment delivered to Syria's army is designed "to counter the terrorist threat that has reached unprecedented heights in Syria and in neighboring Iraq."
That threat, she said, is a "challenge to the entire international community, including Russia," adding that about 2,000 Russian citizens are fighting in the ranks of extremist groups in Syria and Iraq.
The reports indicate many military supplies have been transported by the Russian navy, and in some cases ships were unloading full-sized vehicles.
Reuters reported on Wednesday that, according to three informed Lebanese sources, Russia forces have started participating in military operations supporting government troops in Syria.
The news agency quoted one of the unnamed sources as saying only a "small" number of Russians are currently involved in these operations.
U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said Wednesday that Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to express concern over the reports of Russian military involvement in Syria, saying that if they were true, it could "lead to greater violence" in that country.
Meanwhile, Russia's state news agency Tass on Wednesday quoted a spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Tehran (Maxim Suslov) as saying Iran had granted permission for Russian aircraft headed to Syria to fly over Iranian territory.
On Tuesday, Bulgaria refused permission for Russian planes to use its airspace because of doubts about their cargo. On Wednesday, it said it would allow Russian supply flights to Syria to use its airspace only if Moscow allowed the planes' cargo to be inspected at a Bulgarian airport.
FILE - White House press secretary Josh Earnest speaks during the daily news briefing at the White House in Washington.
Concerns about build-up
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Tuesday the U.S. is concerned about a Russian military build-up inside Syria.
"And we've made clear that it would be unconscionable for any party, including Russia, to provide any support to the Assad regime,” Earnest said.
Also Tuesday, a senior U.S. defense official told VOA that Russia has also been airlifting military supplies to Syria, calling such activities “unhelpful.”
U.S. officials are not alone in their worry. On Tuesday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said he was "concerned by reports that Russia may have deployed military personnel and aircraft" to Syria.
Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi told a television station owned by the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah the reports of increased Russian military involvement in Syria were "concocted in Western intelligence circles."