Russian jets in Syria appear to be to protect own base: Kerry

Russian warplanes have been flying over Syrian territory since September 30 (AFP Photo/Sergey Venyavsky)

Washington (AFP) - Russia has increased its deployment of warplanes to Syria but so far they appear to be positioned to defend their own base rather than to mount an offensive campaign, US Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday.

"Yes, they have increased aircraft and there are certain kinds of aircraft there which, depending on what Russia's decision is about its long-term intentions, could raise questions," Kerry said.

"But for the moment, it is the judgment of our military and most experts that the level and type represents basically force protection for their deployment to an airbase, given the fact that it is in an area of conflict."

In his response, Kerry appeared to be playing down reports that the large build-up of Russian warplanes, vehicles and supplies at its Syrian airbase in Latakia marks a turning point in the war.

Syrian military officials from Bashar al-Assad's government say that new weapons delivered to them by Moscow have allowed them to step up their operations against rebel fighters.

It is not clear to what extent Russian forces will be directly involved in fighting, but Washington is concerned the build-up will embolden Assad to hold out against calls to step down in favor of a transitional government.

"Support for Assad is support for a Shiite minority government that dropped barrel bombs on its own people, that has gassed its own people, that has committed war crimes, starved and tortured its own people," Kerry said.

The top US diplomat said it was not new that Russia is supporting Assad, but argued that its actions would alienate Syrians and neighboring governments and serve to destroy Moscow's influence in the region.

US officials said Monday that Russian President Vladimir Putin's government had deployed 28 combat planes -- 12 SU-24 attack aircraft, 12 SU-25 ground attack aircraft and four Flanker fighter jets -- to its Syrian base.

Independent analysts said the numbers and types of jets suggested they could adopt an offensive role, perhaps carrying out air raids beyond the immediate surroundings of the base, but no such strike has been confirmed.