NATO slams Russia’s ‘troubling escalation’ in Syria

The head of NATO slammed Russia’s “troubling escalation” of military activities in Syria, a day after Moscow launched cruise missiles as part of an intensified air campaign against Syrian rebels.

Jens Stoltenberg made the comments Thursday as he arrived for a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels, where Russia’s intervention in the Syrian civil war was high on the agenda.

The issue took on more importance after reports this week that Russian jets involved in the Syrian air raids violated the airspace of Turkey, a member of the United States-backed military alliance.

“NATO is ready and able to defend all allies, including Turkey, against any threats,” Stoltenberg said. “NATO has already responded by increasing our capacity, our ability, to deploy forces including to the south, including in Turkey.”

Stoltenberg told reporters after the defense ministers’ meeting that he urged Russia to “play a productive role” in Syria, adding that its recent actions, such as breaching Turkish airspace, “are not helpful.”

“A political solution is more needed than ever” in the Syrian conflict, he said.

Defense ministers also discussed Afghanistan, especially the recent airstrike on a hospital run by the international medical charity Doctors Without Borders, Stoltenberg said.

“We underlined the need for a full, transparent investigation,” he said. “We need to have all the facts on the table.”

Internal probes are being conducted by the U.S., Afghanistan and NATO into the air bombardment that killed at least 22 people last week.

NATO’s secretary-general said the alliance has also finalized plans for a response force of up to 40,000, twice the current size, and new NATO headquarters offices in Hungary and Slovakia.

“All of this sends a clear message to all NATO citizens. NATO will defend you, NATO is on the ground, NATO is ready,” Stoltenberg said.

NATO ministers were using Thursday’s meeting to try to come up with ways to de-escalate the crisis, British Defense Minister Michael Fallon said, adding that Moscow is “making a serious situation in Syria much more dangerous.”

“The single most helpful thing Russia could do is use its influence to stop [Syrian President] Assad from barrel-bombing its own civilians,” Fallon told reporters before heading into the meeting.

U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, who also participated in the talks, on Wednesday offered a harsh critique of the Russian military campaign, and vowed Washington will not coordinate with Moscow on the matter.

“Russia has the wrong strategy – they continue to hit targets that are not ISIL,” Carter said, referring to an acronym for the Islamic State group, which controls large parts of Syria. “We believe this is a fundamental mistake.

Russia insists its air bombardments primarily target the Islamist extremist group and its allies. But the U.S. has said many of the strikes have targeted other rebel groups, including some supported by Washington.

The U.S. is also carrying out its own airstrikes against certain Syrian rebel groups, and there are concerns that the two countries’ warplanes could cross paths as a result of miscommunication.

“What we will do is continue basic, technical discussions on the professional safety procedures for our pilots flying about Syria,” said Carter, who ruled out any more extensive cooperation.

Russia on Wednesday ramped up its air campaign in Syria with heavy aerial bombardments and, for the first time, cruise missile strikes, in support of a major ground operation by the Syrian military.

It is unclear how much, if any, progress the ground offensive had made by Thursday.

Syrian Army General Ali Abdullah Ayoub said Thursday the Russian airstrikes have weakened the Islamic State group. He announced the beginning of a large-scale attack aimed at “liberating areas and towns which have been suffering the woes and crimes of terrorism.”

“Following the Russian airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and other terrorist organizations, which have reduced their fighting capacity, the Syrian armed forces have kept the reins of military initiative,” Ayoub told state media.

Activists have reported increased fighting in Hama and Idlib provinces, and said government troops are trying to push into Latakia province.

Russia is a staunch ally of Assad. U.S. President Barack Obama has called on Assad to step down, but has been reluctant to sufficiently arm rebel groups trying to overthrow him, partly because of fears the weapons could end up in the hands of extremists.