Russia has moved its first fighter jets to a growing base in Syria, defense officials said Friday, raising new concerns Moscow is preparing to play a direct role in helping embattled President Bashar al-Assad against Islamic State militants.
Moscow’s military moves came as U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter spoke to his Russian counterpart about Russia’s deepening role in Syria, ending a long pause in high-level military ties between the two countries.
Defense officials said at least four tactical fighter jets had arrived at the rapidly expanding airfield on the Syrian coast south of Latakia. Over the past two weeks, defense officials said, Russia has dramatically stepped up development of the airfield by sending in housing for up to 2,000 people, attack helicopters, choppers to transport troops around the country, and artillery.
The arrival of the jet fighters is the most concerning development for the U.S., which regularly flies surveillance flights and airstrikes against Islamic State forces in Syria.
Defense officials said they weren’t certain how Russia planned to use the jets, but noted that the Soviet planes are designed for air-to-air combat.
The arrival of the jets was first detected Friday, hours before Mr. Carter spoke to Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu. The call marks the first time the two men have spoken this year.
During their 50-minute call, Mr. Shoygu told the Pentagon chief that Russia’s military buildup in Syria is “defensive in nature,” according to a senior U.S. defense official.
The moves “were designed to honor commitments made to the Syrian government,” the official said.
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