by Boaz Bismuth, Daniel Siryoti, News Agencies and Israel Hayom Staff
Intentions behind Moscow's latest deployment of heavy military equipment still unclear, but tanks could be sign of planned offensive against rebel groups • Russian president says his country is a stabilizing force, vows to continue military buildup.
Russia is building a forward operating base in western Syria, according to U.S. military officials, who are not concealing their concern, mainly over the arrival of Russian tanks.
Russia has positioned seven T-90 tanks at an airfield in Latakia, two U.S. officials told Reuters on Monday, adding that the intentions behind Moscow's latest deployment of heavy military equipment are unclear.
The officials said Russia had also stationed artillery that appeared to be arrayed defensively to protect Russian personnel stationed there. From the American perspective, the tanks could be a sign of intentions to initiate an offensive measure.
"We have seen movement of people and things that would indicate that they plan to use that base there, south of Latakia, as a forward air operating base," Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis told a news briefing.
The Americans are tracking Russian movements with open concern. Last week U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, and warned him that a Russian military buildup in Syria could exacerbate the civil war there even further.
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin says his country is a stabilizing force.
"We provided and will continue to provide all the necessary military equipment, and we are calling on other countries to join us," said Putin. "If Russia was not supporting Syria, the situation there would be much worse than in Libya, and we would even see a larger number of refugees."
The Russian military buildup in Latakia, a stronghold of Syrian President Bashar Assad, is first and foremost intended to prevent its fall to rebel forces. It is doubtful, however, that this is the only purpose. According to a CNN report, the Russians are planning a counter-attack against Islamic State forces or -- and this is the more likely option -- an attack against the more moderate rebels. Another possibility is Russia's desire to maintain its influence in Syria if Assad falls.
Regardless, the Pentagon refused on Monday to reveal intelligence information about the developments in Latakia. A Pentagon spokesperson, however, said that despite not yet identifying Russian fighter jets, attack helicopters or warships, the Russian military buildup was growing by the day.
Fox News reported that the Pentagon has now tracked a total of 15 Russian Antonov An-124 Condor cargo flights into Syria, reflecting a steady stream of military equipment for the Assad regime.
Meanwhile, a suicide car bomber struck in a predominantly Kurdish city in northeastern Syria on Tuesday, killing seven people, a day after twin car bombings in the same city killed at least 32, including 19 civilians.
Also on Tuesday, insurgents shelled five government-held neighborhoods in the northern city of Aleppo, killing 20 people and wounding 100, Syrian state media said.
The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for Tuesday's deadly suicide blast in the mostly Kurdish city of Hassakeh, saying it targeted an office of the main Kurdish militia in Syria. Monday's car bombs in Hassakeh were also swiftly claimed by Islamic State, which controls large parts of Syria and neighboring Iraq.
The conflict in Syria has killed more than 250,000 people since it began in March 2011, according to U.N. figures.
Boaz Bismuth, Daniel Siryoti, News Agencies and Israel Hayom Staff
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