The U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry (L) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. File photo
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Russia called on Friday for military-to-military cooperation with the United States to avert “unintended incidents” as it stages navy exercises off the coast of Syria, where U.S. officials believe Moscow is building up forces to protect President Bashar al-Assad.
The United States is using Syrian air space to lead a campaign of air strikes against Islamic State, and a greater Russian presence raises the prospect of the Cold War superpower foes encountering each other on the battlefield.
Both Moscow and Washington say their enemy is Islamic State. But Russia supports the government of Assad, while the United States says his presence makes the situation worse.
In recent days, U.S. officials have described what they say is a buildup of Russian equipment and manpower.
In the latest reports, two Western officials and a Russian source told Reuters Moscow is sending advanced SA-22 anti-aircraft missiles Syria. The system would be operated by Russian troops, rather than Syrians, the Western officials said.
Lebanese sources have told Reuters that at least some Russian troops are now engaged in combat operations in support of Assad’s forces. Moscow has declined to comment on those reports.
At a news conference, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia was sending equipment to help Assad fight Islamic State. Russian servicemen were in Syria, he said, primarily to help service that equipment and teach Syrian soldiers how to use it.
Russian naval exercises in the eastern Mediterranean were long-planned and in accordance with international law, he said.
A source close to the Russian navy told Reuters a squadron of five Russian ships equipped with guided missiles had set off to conduct maneuvers in Syrian waters.
“They will train to repulse an attack from the air and to defend the coast, which means firing artillery and testing short-range air defense systems, ” the source said, adding that the exercise had been agreed with the Syrian government.
Russia on has given notice of several rounds of navy drills with rocket firing tests in the sea off Syria from Sept. 8 to Oct. 7, according to Cypriot aviation authorities and international governmental databases of notices for airmen. Some flight paths will be temporarily closed.