, ATHENS, Sep 8 – The United States has asked Greece to ban Russian supply flights to Syria from its airspace, a Greek official said Monday, amid growing US fears that Moscow is increasing its military backing for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Confirming the US request a Greek foreign ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: “We received the (US) request on Saturday and are examining it”.
Russia has asked Greece, which is a NATO member, to permit the passage of two planes between September 1 and 24, the Greek official said.
In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted by news agencies as saying “our Greek partners have said they will consider the US request” to bar the planes.
“It is too early for us to respond,” he added.
Washington is concerned that Moscow could be increasing its military support to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, an issue raised by US Secretary of State John Kerry to his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov over the weekend.
“The Americans are unhappy about this,” said Leonid Kalashnikov, deputy head of the Foreign Affairs Committee at the Duma, the lower house of parliament, was quoted as saying by the RIA Novosti news agency.
“Any country is entitled to close its airspace, but the big question is ‘Does Greece need to or not?’, because we too can do the same thing regarding their flights.”
The New York Times reported that Russia had sent a military advance team to Syria and was taking other steps that Washington fears may signal plans to vastly expand its military support for Assad’s regime
Moscow has dismissed American concerns, saying its aid to Assad is nothing extraordinary.
“The Russian side has never concealed the fact that it is sending military equipment to the Syrian authorities to help them fight terrorism,” Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told AFP earlier on Monday, commenting on the Kerry-Lavrov phone talks.
A Russian senator told the country’s RIA Novosti state agency that if Greece closes its air space for Russian planes Moscow would find other routes.
“This is a silly move and if Greece moves to support it then it would also be unfriendly towards Russia,” senator Vladimir Dzhabarov was quoted as saying.
He suggested that Russia could turn to countries like Iran and Turkey for help.
A prominent Russian blogger suggested over the weekend that Moscow was building up its military presence in Syria to help prop up Assad.
The blogger Ruslan Leviyev — known for his investigations into Russian military activity in Ukraine — referred to widely-circulated footage from Syria apparently showing a Russian-made BTR-82A armoured personnel carrier, as well as reports on social networks that Russian paratroopers have been dispatched to Syria.
Liberal lawmaker Dmitry Gudkov on Monday said he sent a formal enquiry to Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, asking whether Russian troops were fighting in Syria, and if so, whether any have died or been wounded.
“I’m doubtful that the Sunnis, the Shias and Alawites of the Middle East should be dearer to Russia than its own citizens,” he wrote on Facebook.