Russian aircraft in Syria appear defensive: Kerry

The U.S. military has assessed that the type of Russian aircraft in Syria is consistent with protecting their own forces, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday and called on Russia and Iran to be helpful in ending the 4-year-old conflict. “For the moment it is the judgment of our military and experts that the level and type represents basically force protection,” Kerry told reporters.

However, depending on Russia’s long-term decisions, the presence of Russian aircraft in Syria could raise some questions about Moscow’s intentions, he added.

Kerry said while both the United States and Russia want ISIS defeated in Syria, Washington believed Moscow’s support for Syrian President Bashar Assad was attracting foreign fighters who want Assad to go.

Still, Kerry repeated that Russia’s intentions in Syria were unclear and called on both Moscow and Tehran to help with diplomatic efforts to end the crisis.

“If [Russia is] there to shore up Assad and to certainly provide Assad with the continued sense he doesn’t have to negotiate, then I think it’s a problem for Syria, and it’s a problem for everybody who wants to bring an end to this conflict, which has gone on for too long,” he added.

Two new sites north of Syria’s Latakia airport could be preparing to receive Russian forces, specialist defense publication IHS Jane’s Intelligence Review said Tuesday citing satellite imagery.

At the Istamo weapons storage complex and the Al-Sanobar military complex “preparations appear to be underway to introduce Russian forces,” said Robert Munks, editor of the London-based publication.

“This activity includes the construction of new buildings, significant surface clearing, the grading and paving of terrain and the presence of tents of the same type as those used by Russian military units.”

Munks also noted a “substantial increase” in Russian jets on the runway at Latakia airport in satellite imagery from Monday, saying it pointed to a “rapid buildup of Russia’s expeditionary force.”

“Deployed Russian military aircraft now include 4 Su-30SM multirole combat aircraft, 12 Su-25 ground attack aircraft, 12 Su-24M attack fighters and six possible Ka-52 attack helicopters.”

Kerry said the U.S. was ready to immediately begin discussions on a political solution for Syria.

The U.N.’s envoy on Syria, Staffan de Mistura, held meetings this week aimed at reviving peace talks, a statement said Tuesday.

After several attempts to find a political solution, de Mistura in July proposed a fresh approach whereby Syrians would take part in “thematic” working groups.

The envoy met with the heads of these groups over the last two days, seeking to “set the stage for a Syrian agreement to end the conflict,” de Mistura’s office said in a statement.

The group heads include Jan Egeland, a former top U.N. official and current chair of the Norwegian Refugee Council who will lead the safety and protection group, as well as Nicolas Michel, a Swiss national and former U.N. legal counsel, in charge of the group on political and legal affairs. Also named was Volker Perthes, a German academic and Syria specialist who will focus on the military and counterterrorism, with the fourth group headed by Sweden’s Birgitta Holst Alani, who will lead the group on reconstructing the country.

De Mistura said he hoped these groups could lay the groundwork before representatives of the various factions in Syria join the talks.

But Assad’s regime has reportedly warned him the outcomes of the working groups cannot be binding.

“This is the defining humanitarian challenge of our times,” de Mistura said. “The Syrians deserve that we move faster toward a political solution.”

The Iranian president lauded his country’s military as the most reliable force to take on “terrorists in the region,” a reference to ISIS, in a speech during an annual military parade.

At least 38 ISIS fighters were killed in airstrikes by the Damascus regime against three Islamist-held towns in central Syria, an activist group said Tuesday.

Monday’s strikes hit Palmyra and two other towns in Homs province, Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel-Rahman told AFP.