Bulgaria Blocks Airspace for Russian Planes as Putin Boosts Involvement in Syrian War
Kremlin reportedly planning to send more troops to support Bashar al-Assad
Bulgaria has blocked Russian planes from flying in its airspace amid mounting concerns about an escalation in Russian support for Syria’s government, according to reports.
A spokeswoman for Bulgaria’s foreign ministry told Reuters that officials in the country were concerned about the contents of the Russian military transport planes, which were headed to Syria. Russia is one of the chief allies of Bashar al-Assad’s embattled government in Damascus.
“We have enough information that makes us have serious doubts about the cargo of the planes, which is the reason for the refusal,” the Bulgarian spokeswoman said.
Western nations have accused Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government of expanding its military support for Assad in recent days. The Kremlin has reportedly established an air traffic control tower and housing units for 1,000 troops in Assad’s coastal stronghold of Latakia.
Additionally, there are some reports that Russia has already embedded troops in the Syrian regime’s forces and might be considering more substantial support. The Syrian government denied on Tuesday that there are any Russian soldiers in the country.
An increase in Russian support for Assad could further destabilize a tumultuous civil war in Syria. Assad’s forces have suffered a string of defeats in recent months and have been forced to retreat closer to the capital in Damascus, where they are attempting to hold ground against the Islamic State terrorist group (IS), other Islamist fighters, and a small group of more moderate rebels backed by the United States. More than 200,000 people have been killed in the war and millions displaced, including many who are now seeking asylum in Europe.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, on Saturday that expanded Russian support for Assad could add to the death toll and disrupt the operations of other groups fighting IS.
Top Russian lawmakers reacted angrily to the move by Bulgaria to deny access to its airspace. Nikolay Levichev, vice-speaker in the Russian State Duma, said Bulgaria had “joined the camp of adversaries” after the “unfriendly move,” according to TASS, a Russian state news agency.
He also claimed that the Russian planes were transporting humanitarian supplies.
“Closing access to its airspace to planes with relief cargoes for the war-torn Syria is an inhumane and clearly short-sighted act,” he said.
The United States has requested that Greece also ban Russian overflights to Syria, the New York Times reported. However, it remains unclear whether U.S. officials advised Bulgaria to bar Russian planes from its airspace.
The State Department did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
Russian officials have said they would like to contribute to an international coalition fighting IS. However, the United States and Western governments fear that Russia intends to bolster Assad, who has been widely condemned for fueling the rise of the terrorist group through his brutal crackdown on the Syrian opposition.
The U.S.-led coalition has largely focused its efforts on assisting Iraqi forces in their battle against IS, while Russia has shown more interest in attacking IS positions in Syria, the group’s base of operations.
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