- The Washington Times - Monday, September 21, 2015

Russia has begun aerial surveillance missions over war-torn Syria, U.S. officials said Monday, signaling the start of Moscow’s military operations in Syrian airspace.

Two senior U.S. officials told Reuters this week that Russia has begun deploying an undisclosed number of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, to gain a better understanding of the brutality occurring on the ground between Syrian President Bashar Assad’s military and opposition forces, including the Islamic State terror group, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

Both sources spoke on condition of anonymity, and the U.S. Department of Defense declined to respond to Reuters’ request for comment.

Nevertheless, claims concerning Moscow’s operations in Syrian airspace come in the wake of recent reports in which American defense officials said Russia had moved multiple attack helicopters, transport choppers, tanks and fighter jets to a base in Latakia, an Assad regime stronghold.

Officials in the U.S. and Israel both spoke out last week against Russia’s apparent establishment of an arsenal in the area, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry saying Friday that Moscow’s recent actions “raises serious questions.”

American forces are currently leading an anti-ISIS coalition made up of fighters from more than 60 nations, but Russia has until now avoided taking any direct military action in Syria, be it against the Islamic State or other rebel groups going up against the army of Mr. Assad, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“What they’ve stated is what they want to focus on is helping to counter ISIL, as I understand it. That’s left to be seen. And as you know, Russia is not very transparent, and so we really don’t know what their true intentions are,” Gen. Lloyd Austin, the head of U.S. Central Command, said during a Senate hearing that same day.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is slated to meet with Mr. Putin in Moscow on Monday to discuss the Kremlin’s increased presence in the region.

Last week, the prime minister’s office said in a statement that Mr. Netanyahu planned to voice concerns to the Russian leader over the unintended consequences that could arise if military gear supplied to Mr. Assad’s army falls into the hands of terrorists.

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