Tensions grow over mysterious Russian flights to Syria

A Russian Antonov 124 transport recently violated Bulgarian airspace. [Wikipedia]

Moscow demanded answers from EU and NATO members Greece and Bulgaria on Tuesday (8 September) after Sofia banned Russian flights to Syria from its airspace and Athens said it had been asked by Washington to do the same. Russia says the flights are humanitarian, but the US suspects a military build-up.

Washington has expressed concerns following reports suggesting Moscow may be boosting military support to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and had sent a military advance team to the war-torn country.

Earlier on Tuesday, NATO member Bulgaria confirmed it had refused permission late last night for an unspecified number of Russian aircraft to cross its airspace.

Greece said on Monday (7 September) that Washington had asked it to ban Russian supply flights to Syria from its airspace.

It said it was examining the US request but gave no further details.

CBS reported that three giant Russian Antonov 124 transport aircraft have flown into the Assad International Airport near Latakia, Syria, over the past few days. They have unloaded large containers but it’s not known yet what’s in the containers.

At the same time a passenger flight has arrived, presumably bringing people who will move into the modular housing which has been erected at the airfield and can now hold in excess of 1,000 people. A US official says every indication is that Russia is setting up a forward operating base, but for what reason remains unclear.

Recently US Secretary of State John Kerry expressed its concerns to Russia following reports of a major military build-up in Syria that could increase the exodus of refugees currently overwhelming the EU.

>>Read: US: Russian action in Syria could increase refugee flows

“If anyone — in this case our Greek and Bulgarian partners — has any doubts, then they, of course, should explain what the problem is,” deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov told the Interfax news agency.

“If we are talking about them taking some sort of restrictive or prohibitive measures on the Americans’ request, then this raises questions about their sovereign right to take decisions about planes from other countries — Russia in particular — crossing their air space,” he said.

“We explain where our planes are flying to, and what their purpose and their cargo is,” he added.

He said that ferrying cargo, which included humanitarian and military aid, through the airspace of a third party — as well as obtaining permission to do so — should be a routine procedure.

“We’ve never had any problems before,” he said.

Moscow has dismissed US concerns about its alleged Syria buildup, saying its military aid to the Assad regime was nothing out of the ordinary.

Bogdanov reiterated Moscow’s official position, stressing that the only Russian military personnel currently in Syria were there to train the local army.

“Our partners — representatives of the Syrian armed forces — need some help and guidance,” he said.

He denied Russia had any plans to boost its presence in the war-torn country and turn its naval facility at the Syrian port of Tartus into a fully-fledged base.

“We do not have such plans,” he said.

Syria was a close ally of Moscow’s during the Soviet era, receiving military backing at a time when Russia supported the Arab world in its confrontation with Israel.

Bogdanov said the current military cooperation between Syria and Russia was “rather modest” compared to previous years.

Vladimir Dzhabarov, vice president of the foreign affairs committee of the upper chamber of the Russian parliament, said that the overflight obstructions by Bulgaria and Greece didn’t really matter, because Russia uses corridors through the Caucasus and Iran to Syria. 

Subscribe to our newsletters