Russia Denies Sending Troops to Syria, but Would Consider if Asked by Damascus

Russia will consider troops if Syria asks
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R), Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L) and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem (back to camera) attend a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, June 29, 2015. Muallem said on a visit to Moscow on Monday that top ally Russia had promised to send political, economic and military aid to his country. Alexei Nikolsky/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/Reuters

The Russian Ministry of Defence has denied reports that it is sending troops to fight in Syria, state news agency Itar Tass reports, as Kremlin spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov announced that Russia would consider any request from Damascus to send soldiers.

"Until this [happens] however it is difficult to discuss things hypothetically," Peskov added.

Russia is a known backer of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and earlier this month Israeli and U.K. media published evidence purporting to show Russian military intervention in Syria in the form of equipment and troops, sent to assist Syrian soldiers. A White House spokesperson told press that the U.S. was closely monitoring those reports.

The Russian government denied the reports and insisted that it is only providing support to Syria in the form of equipment. This echoed the words of Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who in August said that Russian troops' involvement in the Syrian conflict had never been discussed and the issue was not on the agenda.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem also dismissed accounts of Russian military intervention in Syria on state television on Thursday, saying only Syrian troops are involved in fighting. However Muallem also said that the country is open to receiving Russian troops in the future "if such a need arises."

However, on Friday the Russian new site Gazeta published an interview with a man it said was a Russian soldier based in Russia's Eastern military district. Over several interviews with the publication, the man says that he believes he was going to be stationed in Syria alongside other servicemen.

According to Gazeta, the soldier, who is identified only as Alexey N., said that in August he and other servicemen from his district were sent to the port of Novorossiysk near Ukraine. They initially thought they would be sent to eastern Ukraine but soon found out that they were being prepared for a country with a "warm" climate. The soldiers reportedly asked where they were heading to, but were not told or given any indication of how long they might be away for. Alexey said they were eventually told about the need to strengthen an unspecified airbase in Syria, although it's not clear if he was specifically told he would be sent there. Newsweek could not independently verify the veracity of the interviews.

Shortly after the interview was published, Russia's Eastern Military District denied that Russian servicemen from the district were being prepared to be stationed in Syria, in an apparent response to the Gazeta article.

"The Eastern Military District is astounded by the attempts of correspondents of online publications to conflate the daily activities of servicemen to events in the Middle East," a spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence told Tass. "The movement of military units attached to the military district as part of military training are carried out in an organised manner entirely within the Eastern Military District itself."

U.S. secretary of state John Kerry said on Friday that he believed talks with Russia about Syria would take place "very shortly."

"We're looking for ways in which to find a common ground," Kerry said.