Damascus: Syria said Tuesday it had received sophisticated new arms from Russia including warplanes and deployed them against jihadists, as signs grew of a major shift in the country’s four-year conflict.
A senior Syrian military official told AFP Damascus had received a fresh batch of arms, including at least five fighter planes, while a monitoring group said there had been a marked increase in regime attacks on the Islamic State group.
The deliveries came amid a rapid Russian military build-up in Syria, with US officials saying Moscow had deployed 28 combat planes and begun drone flights in the country.
Syria’s devastating conflict has taken on a new dimension in recent days as Moscow has moved to boost its military presence in the country, raising deep concerns in Washington.
The Syrian military official told AFP the new warplanes had arrived on Friday along with reconnaissance aircraft at a military base in Latakia province, the traditional heartland of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
The regime had also received “sophisticated military equipment to fight IS” including targeting equipment and precision-guided missiles, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The new weapons had already been deployed against IS in the cities of Deir Ezzor and Raqa, the jihadist group’s de facto capital in Syria.
“Russian weapons are starting to have an effect in Syria,” the official said.
Another military source in Latakia confirmed to AFP that the army had received spy planes and other equipment “that will allow Syrian ground and air forces to accurately identify targets.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, said new Russian equipment was being put into action, with at least 38 IS fighters killed in air strikes in jihadist-held towns in central Syria on Monday.
‘Not going to sit around’
“The number of raids is growing and the strikes are more precise after the Syrian air force received arms and more efficient planes from Moscow,” Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.
Moscow has been an unwavering supporter of Assad during a conflict that has seen more than 240,000 killed since March 2011, insisting it would continue arms deliveries to his regime.
But Russia’s intentions have been unclear in recent days as it deployed a range of new weaponry and troops to its airbase near Latakia.
On Monday, US officials said Moscow had deployed 28 fighter and bomber aircraft at the airfield, including 12 SU-24 attack aircraft, 12 SU-25 ground attack aircraft and four Flanker fighter jets.
The officials said there were also about 20 Russian combat and transport helicopters at the base and that Moscow was operating drone flights, but did not give additional details.
“They are not going to sit around and defend the airfield or maybe even the province of Latakia,” said Jeffrey White of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“This kind of aircraft suggests that the Russians intend to exert their combat power outside of Latakia in an offensive role.”
The deployments have raised fears of an inadvertent confrontation between Russian forces and the US-led coalition that has been carrying out almost daily air strikes against IS in Syria for more than a year.
After an 18-month freeze in military relations triggered by NATO anger over Moscow’s role in the Ukraine crisis, US and Russian military officials held talks Friday aimed at avoiding unintended incidents in Syria.
In another potential sign of an increasing Russian role, President Vladimir Putin agreed a deal with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday aimed at avoiding incidents in Syria.
“A joint mechanism for preventing misunderstandings between our forces” was agreed to at talks in Russia, Netanyahu’s office said.
Israeli forces have reportedly carried out several strikes in Syria on Iranian arms transfers to Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah.
Bid to revive talks
The deployments come as Russia pushes for the coalition of Western and regional powers fighting IS in Syria to join forces with Assad against the jihadists.
Western and Gulf powers have long resisted any role for Assad in the fight against IS, insisting he must go for Syria to have any hope of peace.
Western diplomats suggest Putin — who has been isolated by the West over the crisis in Ukraine — is trying to switch the focus to Syria, ahead of a key address to the UN General Assembly on September 28.
Efforts to find a negotiated solution to Syria’s war have repeatedly failed, despite the enormity of a crisis that has forced millions from their homes, many of them seeking refuge in Europe.
The UN’s envoy on Syria, Staffan de Mistura, held meetings this week in the latest bid to revive peace talks, his office said in a statement Tuesday.
De Mistura in July proposed a fresh approach that would see Syrians taking part in “thematic” working groups on resolving the conflict.
The envoy met with the heads of these groups in the past two days, with the goal to “set the stage for a Syrian agreement to end the conflict,” the statement said.
“This is the defining humanitarian challenge of our times,” de Mistura said. “The Syrians deserve that we move faster towards a political solution”.