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US, NATO Leery of Russian Actions in Syria

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, right, shakes hands with members of the Syrian delegation prior to a meeting with Qadri Jamil, former deputy prime minister representing Syria's opposition Popular Front of Change and Liberation, in Moscow, Aug. 31, 2015.

U.S. suspicions about Russian activity in Syria are not confined to Syria’s borders. Officials in Washington are concerned the moves could be part of a broader strategy by Moscow to extend its influence, while at the same time acting as a counterbalance to the United States in the Middle East.

U.S. officials are investigating reports that Russia is increasingly sending supplies — and possibly advisers and combat troops — to aid the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The reports indicate that the Russian navy has transported many military supplies, with full-sized vehicles being unloaded in some cases.

On Tuesday, a senior U.S. defense official told VOA that Russia has also been airlifting military supplies to Syria. He called such activities “unhelpful.”

The official also cautioned that Russia’s intentions, both in Syria and in the region, remained unclear and that there were "a lot of things to worry about. Their efforts there should look to enhance stability, not undermine it.”

Moscow and Damascus have denied allegations of an increased Russian military presence in Syria. Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi told a television station owned by the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah that such reports were "concocted in Western intelligence circles."

Worrisome developments

But during a briefing Tuesday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said U.S. concerns were based on “steps that we have detected.”

“This is all in the context of a Russian military buildup inside of Syria that, you know, that could be used to support the Assad regime,” Earnest said. “And we've made clear that it would be unconscionable for any party, including Russia, to provide any support to the Assad regime.”

Former officials and analysts said the developments in Syria were worrisome.

“It suggests that Moscow, that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is trying to flex his muscles not just via aggression in Ukraine, not just by the sale of military equipment, but by the use of Russian military personnel in the Middle East,” said former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst.

The director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, Herbst warned that Russia’s efforts in Syria also must be viewed in light of its attempts, with some success, to increase arms sales throughout the Middle East, seeking deals with U.S. allies like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and even Iraq.

“Moscow sees things around the world largely in zero-sum terms,” he said. “So their quest to gain influence in the Middle East is meant exclusively to be at the expense of American interests and influence and to a lesser extent broader Western interests and influence.”

U.S. intelligence officials are not willing to go that far in ascribing motives, but an official speaking to VOA on the condition of anonymity said the Russian buildup in Syria “raises a number of concerns, especially because it does not appear to be coordinated with the other countries operating in the area.”

“It is not clear what Russia intends to actually do,” the official said. “However, Russia has generally not exercised restraint in military confrontations.”

NATO monitoring

U.S. officials are not alone in their worry.

A NATO official told VOA the organization continues to “closely monitor the situation in the region,” pointing out the treaty organization has been working with partners across the Middle East and North Africa to build defense capabilities and foster stability.

“I am concerned by reports that Russia may have deployed military personnel and aircraft,” said NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg during a Facebook town hall meeting Tuesday. “We are trying to stabilize, to help these countries, to enable them so they can secure their own countries and their own region."

But Russia must also be careful, or risk damaging the powerful reputation it is trying to create.

“The Russians are concerned about having their own forces being captured by extremists in the region and then being embarrassed about not being able to rescue them,” said Stratfor military analyst Omar Lamrani. “There are all sorts of embarrassing questions that would arise about Russian forces dying or being captured so far away in Syria.”

Lamrani said a more practical reason for Moscow to maintain some distance is its arms sales to countries backing elements of the Syrian opposition.

“Russia on the one hand is going to be very interested in bolstering their traditional ally in Syria, but on the other hand they also have a growing relationship with the GCC, the Gulf Cooperation Council, with other Arab states,” he said. “So they are going to be very careful to maintain a certain balance.”