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Russia raises troop levels in Syria

Russia has been reinforcing its troops in Syria following a deadly strike that last month claimed the lives of 34 Turkish soldiers.

A Reuters analysis of flight data and correspondents’ monitoring of shipping in the Bosphorus Strait in northwestern Turkey shows Russia began to step up naval and airborne deliveries to Syria on February 28, the day after the deadly airstrike in Syria.

The Russian Defence Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A Turkish official, who asked not to be identified, said there was no plan to close the strait, which would force Russia to take longer routes to Syria.

But Russia appears to be reinforcing Syria at its fastest rate since October, when U.S. forces withdrew from some parts of Syria and Moscow scrambled to fill the vacuum.

Reuters’ monitoring of the Bosphorus since February 28 shows Russia has sent five warships towards Syria within six days. That exceeds a usual pattern of one or two warships ships per week.

The Russian military announced the departure of the Admiral Grigorovich and Admiral Makarov frigates for Syria, but three other warships have followed unannounced.

One is the Orsk, a landing ship capable of carrying 20 tanks, 50 trucks or 45 armored personnel carriers and up to 400 troops. The others – the Novocherkassk and the Caesar Kunikov – are landing ships that can carry over 300 troops, tanks, and armor.

Turkey responded by beefing up its escort protocol for Russian warships using the Bosphorus. Three Turkish patrol boats and a helicopter escorted the Russian frigates – such ships are usually accompanied by a single coast guard vessel.

At least five passenger and cargo planes operated by the Russian military have also flown to Syria during the same time, including three in a single day, the flight data showed.

That followed a further 12 military planes in the previous 18 days and represents the most intense level of Russian military air activity with Syria since October.

Publicly available tracking data gives only a snapshot of Russian military flights to Syria because not all such planes can be tracked.

One person who has worked closely with Russian forces in Syria said Moscow’s reinforcement effort was meant to send Ankara a message and was “a show of muscles.”

The same person said the swift build-up was an insurance policy in case the Putin-Erdogan meeting flopped and Ankara applied restrictions on the Bosphorus or in its airspace.

Turkey shows signs of having noticed Russia is also concentrating its forces near its main airbase in Syria, Hmeymim, in Latakia province.

“Russia is conducting a serious build-up near Hmeymim,” said a Turkish security official, who added that Moscow had also stepped up its logistical support for the Syrian army.

At the beginning of the week, the Russian Defense Ministry confirmed to Russia Today that it had deployed Russian military police to Saraqeb in Idlib, which Syrian regime forces had earlier seized from Turkish-backed rebels.

Sources: Reuters, RT

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