On Wednesday, Russia's Foreign Ministry gave the first official confirmation that Russian military personnel are on the ground in Syria — something Western intelligence had already determined from Russian transport aircraft flights and selfies and social media posts from Russian soliders. Russia said that its military experts are in the country to help combat terrorism by training and supplying the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a Moscow ally.
"Russia has never made a secret out of its military cooperation with Syria," said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova. "Russian specialists are helping Syrians to use Russian equipment. It's difficult to understand the anti-Russian hysteria in this regard." As early as last weekend, when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to warn Russia not to expand its military presence in Syria, Russian media had said the transport flights were humanitarian.
The U.S. is concerned that Russia appears to be building up a military force at an airfield south of the Syrian Mediterranean port of Latakia, possibly to enable Russian airstrikes. "They're clearly establishing some sort of forward operating base," an American official tells The New York Times. Russia and the U.S. both oppose Islamic State, but Assad is mostly attacking various non-ISIS rebel groups trying to remove him from power. On Tuesday, Bulgaria agreed to a U.S. request to block Russian aircraft from using its airspace, but on Wednesday said Moscow can fly planes over the country as long as they agree to be checked at a Bulgarian airport. Russia can still fly planes to Syria through Iran and Iraq.