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NATO defence chiefs meet as Russia ramps up Syria campaign

Alexander Kots, AFP | A picture taken on October 3, 2015, shows Russian Sukhoi fighter jets landing on a runway in the Syrian province of Latakia
3 min

The defence ministers of NATO are scheduled to meet Thursday in Brussels at a time when Russia’s growing military involvement in Syria has sparked concerns in the alliance.

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Speaking ahead of the talks, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Thursday that the alliance had seen a "troubling escalation" of Russian military activity in Syria.

The meeting comes a day after Syrian troops and militia backed by Russian warplanes mounted what appeared to be their first major coordinated assault on Syrian insurgents on Wednesday and Moscow said its warships fired a barrage of missiles at them from the Caspian Sea, a sign of its new military reach.

Islamic State militants have seized much of Syria since civil war grew out of anti-government protests in 2011, but the areas targeted in Wednesday’s combined assault are held by other rebels, some US-backed, fuelling accusations by Russia’s critics that its real aim is to help the government.

Moscow says it shares the West’s aim of preventing the spread of the Islamic State group, and Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu told President Vladimir Putin during a televised meeting that four Russian warships in the Caspian Sea had launched 26 missiles at Islamic State in Syria earlier in the day.

The missiles would have passed over Iran and Iraq to reach their targets, covering what Shoigu described as a distance of almost 1,500 km (900 miles), the latest display of Russian military power at a time when relations with the West are at a post-Cold War low over Ukraine.

The air campaign in Syria has caught Washington and its allies on the back foot and alarmed Syria’s northern neighbour Turkey, which says its air space has been repeatedly violated by Russian jets.

Ankara summoned Russia’s ambassador for the third time in four days over the reported violations, which NATO has said appeared to be deliberate and were “extremely dangerous”.

Thursday’s meeting comes just a day after the prime minister of Turkey, Ahmet Davutoglu, said that despite Russian claims that its air strikes in Syria were targeted at jihadists from the Islamic State group, only two of their strikes actually did so.

NATO is ready to send troops to Turkey to defend against threats on its southern flank, the head of the alliance said on Thursday.

“NATO is ready and able to defend all allies, including Turkey, against any threats,” Stoltenberg told reporters before the meeting in Brussels.

Turkey, which has more than 1.8 million Syrian refugees on its soil, has argued for months in favour of a no-fly "safe zone" in northern Syria, where refugees could take shelter from the country's bloody civil conflict.

But US administration officials on Wednesday said the longstanding issue of a no-fly zone in Syria has been discussed but no had yet been decision made.

(FRANCE24 with AFP, REUTERS)

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