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NATO to discuss Russia’s growing military involvement in Syria

NATO’s secretary-general warned of intensified Russian military activities in the Syria conflict on Thursday, ahead of a meeting of the alliance’s defense chiefs in Brussels as Russian warships launched cruise missile strikes against insurgent targets in Syria. Russia’s growing military intervention is expected to be high on the agenda of NATO defense ministers meeting, following violations of Turkish airspace by Russian jets conducting airstrikes in Syria. Leaders of NATO threatened a military operation against Russian forces in Syria Tuesday, after a series of attacks involving Russian warplanes operating along the Syrian-Turkish border. NATO member Turkey said Russia fired missiles from a warship in addition to airstrikes to support Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

“NATO is ready and able to defend all allies, including Turkey against any threats,” Jens Stoltenberg, the organization’s secretary-general, told reporters before the Brussels meeting.

“In Syria, we have seen a troubling escalation of Russian military activities. We will assess the latest developments and their implications for the security of the alliance. This is particularly relevant in view of the recent violations of NATO’s airspace by Russian aircraft. NATO has already responded by increasing our capacity, our ability, our preparedness to deploy forces including to the south, including in Turkey.”

The ground offensive backed by Russian airstrikes was an escalation in Moscow’s week-long campaign, which had previously been restricted to bombing runs to soften up rebel positions near major loyalist strongholds.

The Russian ministry said Thursday that its warships in the Caspian Sea fired four cruise missiles at Islamic State targets in Syria overnight, hitting a command center and explosives depot. The announcement came one day after Russia’s Caspian Sea fleet launched a complex cruise missile strike against Syrian rebels from nearly a thousand miles away – a potent exhibition of Moscow’s firepower as it backs a government offensive in Syria’s multi-faction civil war. On Thursday, Russian warplanes also backed Syrian troops and allied militias in a new operation in the al-Ghab plain in western Syria.

The incursion into al-Ghab came the day after Russian fighter jets bombed a series of towns held by the opposition in the countryside of Hama and Idlib provinces, in concert with a push by regime troops and armored vehicles and the deployment of Russian helicopters in what was described as the fiercest combat since Moscow began its intervention in the conflict on Sept.30. Most of the attacks appeared to be concentrated in Hama, a central province backed by a majority Sunni capital that has remained in the hands of the regime since the start of the war. The Free Syrian Army posted a series of videos showing rebels striking Syrian regime tanks with U.S.-made anti-tank missiles.

The U.S. Department of State, however, accused that a large majority of Russia’s military strikes in Syria have not been aimed at ISIS or al-Qaida-affiliated terrorists, and that more than 90 percent of the strikes have targeted opposition fighters fighting the regime of al-Assad, an ally of Russia. But Moscow denied accusations that its strikes have mainly hit Assad opponents, some supported by the West, and not Islamic State militants.

The U.S. Department of State, however, accused that a large majority of Russia’s military strikes in Syria have not been aimed at ISIS or al-Qaida-affiliated terrorists, and that more than 90 percent of the strikes have targeted opposition fighters fighting the regime of al-Assad, an ally of Russia. But Moscow denied accusations that its strikes have mainly hit Assad opponents, some supported by the West, and not Islamic State militants.

Russia’s air campaign has raised fears of accidental contact between Russian warplanes and those of the US-led coalition which have been targeting ISIS for the past year. On Wednesday, the Pentagon said it diverted at least one U.S. aircraft to avoid confrontation with Russian warplanes in Syrian airspace. U.S. and Russia defense officials have agreed to hold more talks on so-called “deconfliction” to reduce the chances of a direct clash between U.S. and Russian warplanes.

Ahead of the Brussels meeting, UK defense secretary Michael Fallon said in an interview, NATO should increase pressure on Russia to use its influence to get the Assad regime to stop the bombings of its civilians. U.S. defense secretary Ash Carter is to visit London to discuss the situation in Syria and other issues with Mr. Fallon on Friday. Britain stands beside Turkey, a fellow NATO member, after Russian jets recently violated the country’s airspace, he said.

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