Russian military boots are now on the ground in Syria, Russia's Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday after weeks of increased talk that Moscow may be growing its presence there.
Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry, said military "experts" were assisting with Russian arms deliveries to Syria which Moscow says are aimed at combating terrorism, reported Reuters.
Earlier this week, the United States asked Greece and Bulgaria to deny overflight access, concerned by reports of the Russian military build-up in Syria. Moscow said on Wednesday that the requests to close airspace for Russian flights to Syria amount to "international boorishness."
Bulgaria has said it would allow Russian supply flights to Syria to use its airspace if Moscow agrees to checks of their cargo at a Bulgarian airport, Bulgarian Foreign Minister Daniel Mitov said on Wednesday.
The Balkan country said on Tuesday it had refused a Russian request to use its airspace for the flights due serious doubts about the cargo onboard planes Russia says contain aid for Syria.
"If our Russian colleagues agree these flights to be checked at a Bulgarian airport we will issue such a permission," Mitov told reporters.
U.S. officials have expressed increasing concern about the number of Russian military cargo flights to Syria, Fox News
Officials who have reviewed the latest intelligence in Syria told Fox News on Tuesday that the U.S. military was tracking multiple flights of Russia's largest military cargo plane, the Antonov An-124 Ruslan -- better known by its NATO codename, "Condor."
Moscow has reaffirmed its military backing for Damascus In recent days, according to Reuters, but said it was premature to talk about Russian participation in military operations in Syria.
U.S. authorities have detected "worrisome preparatory steps," including transport of prefabricated houses for hundreds of people to a Syrian airfield, that could signal Russia is readying for deployment of heavy military assets, a senior U.S. official told Reuters last week.
Syria has not formally responded to the reports. But one of its military officials has spoken of a "big shift" in Russia's military support for Damascus.
Meanwhile, indications of increased Russian involvement in Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad are prompting a reassessment in Israel about how to handle fall-out from the conflict without risking a clash with Moscow.
Since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, Israel has occasionally fired across the Golan Heights in response to spillover shelling or bombed advanced arms it suspected were to be transferred to Assad's Lebanese guerrilla allies, Hezbollah.
U.S. and regional reports that Moscow's diplomatic and logistical support for Assad is shifting into major military backing has raised the prospect of Israel and Russia accidentally coming to blows.
"There could be ramifications for us, certainly," Ram Ben-Barak, director-general of Israel's Intelligence Ministry, told Reuters when asked if Russian intervention in Syria might necessitate new Israeli rules of engagement.
He was speaking at a security conference organized by the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center, where Russian policy in Syria was described both as an effort to shore up Assad and mobilize with other world powers in suppressing Islamic State insurgents.
"We have been informed that the Russians are entering into active intervention, the Americans are attacking ... The West and now, in fact, the Russians and the whole world are trying to unite against them (Islamic State)," Amos Gilad, senior adviser to Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, said in a speech.
In separate remarks to Reuters, Gilad said it was too early to know how extensive Moscow's military involvement in Syria would be and whether it might clip Israel's wings operationally.
"I don't know, because the scale is not yet clear. They haven't started working. They are just building up the capability," Gilad said of the Russian activity.
Asked if Israel was communicating with Russia in a bid to head off any unintended confrontations between their forces, he said only: "There are ways. They are not our enemies today."
In Moscow, the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said she had no information about any communication between Israel and Russia.
Israel has sought to stay out of the Syrian civil war, seeing enemies on all sides. It says it intervenes militarily only when fired upon from Syria or to prevent Hezbollah operatives reinforcing Assad there from gaining advanced weapons that could pose a threat to it from Lebanon in the future.
Past Israeli strikes in Syria killed Syrian troops as well as Hezbollah fighters, according to both countries and the guerrilla group - though the exact number remains unclear.
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