Russia delivers warplanes to Syria in latest boost to Assad regime
DAMASCUS - Russia has delivered new arms including warplanes to Syria as the regime increases attacks on jihadists, officials said Tuesday, in a sign that Moscow's growing support for its ally is having an effect.
A senior Syrian military official said Damascus had received a fresh batch of arms, including at least five fighter planes, while a monitoring group said there had been a marked increase in regime attacks on the Islamic State (ISIS) group.
The deliveries came amid a rapid Russian military build-up in Syria, with US officials saying Moscow had deployed 28 new combat planes and begun drone flights in the country.
Syria's devastating four-year conflict has taken on a new dimension in recent days as Moscow has moved to boost its military presence in the country, raising deep concerns in Washington.
The Syrian military official said the new fighter planes had arrived on Friday along with reconnaissance aircraft at a military base in Latakia province, the traditional heartland of President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
The regime had also received "sophisticated military equipment to fight ISIS" including targeting equipment and precision-guided missiles, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The new weapons had already been deployed against ISIS in the cities of Deir Ezzor and Raqa, the jihadist group's de facto capital in Syria.
"Russian weapons are starting to have an effect in Syria," the official said.
Another military source in Latakia confirmed that the army had received spy planes and other equipment "that will allow Syrian ground and air forces to accurately identify targets."
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, said new Russian equipment was being put into action effectively, with at least 38 ISIS fighters killed in air strikes in jihadist-held towns in central Syria on Monday.
"The number of raids is growing and the strikes are more precise after the Syrian air force received arms and more efficient planes from Moscow," Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said.
Monday's strikes hit jihadists in the town of Palmyra -- where IS has destroyed a series of ancient ruins -- and two other towns in Homs province, he said.
Moscow has been an unwavering supporter of Assad during a conflict that has seen more than 240,000 killed since March 2011, insisting it would continue arms deliveries to his regime.
But Russia's intentions have been unclear in recent days as it deployed a range of new weaponry and troops to its airbase near Latakia.
On Monday, US officials said Moscow had deployed 28 fighter and bomber aircraft at the airfield, including 12 SU-24 attack aircraft, 12 SU-25 ground attack aircraft and four Flanker fighter jets.
The officials said there were also about 20 Russian combat and transport helicopters at the base and that Moscow was operating drone flights, but did not give additional details.
Experts said it was unlikely the aircraft were only for defensive purposes.
"They are not going to sit around and defend the airfield or maybe even the province of Latakia," said Jeffrey White of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"This kind of aircraft suggests that the Russians intend to exert their combat power outside of Latakia in an offensive role."
The deployments have raised fears of an inadvertent confrontation between Russian forces and the US-led coalition that has been carrying out almost daily air strikes against ISIS in Syria for more than a year.
After an 18-month freeze in military relations triggered by NATO anger over Moscow's role in the Ukraine crisis, US and Russian military officials held talks on Friday aimed at avoiding unintended incidents in Syria.
In another potential sign of an increasing Russian role, President Vladimir Putin agreed a deal with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday aimed at avoiding incidents in Syria.
After talks in Russia, "a joint mechanism for preventing misunderstandings between our forces" was agreed to, Netanyahu's office said.
Israeli forces have reportedly carried out several strikes in Syria on Iranian arms transfers to Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah.
The deployments come as Russia pushes for the coalition of Western and regional powers fighting ISIS in Syria to join forces with Assad against the jihadists.
Western and Gulf powers have long resisted any role for Assad in the fight against ISIS, insisting he must go for Syria to have any hope of peace.
Western diplomats suggest Putin -- who has been isolated by the West over the crisis in Ukraine -- is trying to switch the focus to Syria, ahead of a key address to the United Nations General Assembly on September 28.