Bulgaria Denies Russian Planes Permission to Pass to Syria

  • Government suspects planes not carrying humanitarian aid
  • Russia denies any military intervention in Syrian confict

Bulgaria denied Russian military-transport planes permission to cross its airspace on their way to Syria on suspicion they weren’t carrying humanitarian aid as claimed as tensions grew over reports that Russia is stepping up its intervention in the Middle Eastern country.

Russia asked to use Bulgaria’s airspace on Sept. 1-24 several days ago to carry assistance to Syria, Betina Zhoteva, spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry in Sofia, said by phone on Tuesday.

“We have enough information to express doubts that what Russia says these planes are transporting, humanitarian aid, may not correspond to the truth,” Zhoteva said.

Russia, still under U.S. and European sanctions over the standoff in Ukraine, has been at the center of a burst of diplomatic activity aimed at brokering a deal to resolve the more than four-year Syrian conflict. The U.S. asked Greece to revoke special permission for Russian overflights after expressing concern about reports Moscow is engaged in a military build-up in Syria. Russia has denied any direct military intervention.

Three years ago, Turkish warplanes forced a Syrian passenger jet flying from Moscow to Damascus to land in order to search the aircraft, which was carrying radar equipment for Syrian air defense systems, according to Russian media. The flight route to Syria via Bulgaria and Greece allows planes to bypass Turkish airspace.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov demanded an explanation from Bulgaria. “If there are some doubts among our Greek and Bulgarian partners, then they need to explain what the problem is,” Bogdanov was quoted as saying by the Interfax news service. “If they are just imposing restrictions at the Americans’ request, it raises questions about their sovereign right to decide which foreign planes use their airspace.”

Advance Team

The New York Times reported Sept. 5, citing unidentified U.S. administration officials, that Russia filed overflight requests with neighboring countries through September as it stepped up military activity in Syria. Russia sent an advance military team and prefabricated housing for as many as 1,000 people as well as a portable air-traffic control station to a Syrian airfield, the NYT said.

President Vladimir Putin has said his country is training and supplying the Syrian army, though he didn’t rule out deeper involvement.

It’s unlikely that Russia would risk getting directly involved in the Syrian conflict, but the pace of weapons deliveries to Assad is accelerating, according to Ruslan Pukhov, head of the Moscow-based Center of Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, which advises the Defense Ministry.

Russia has been holding talks on a political settlement in Syria with Saudi Arabia and the U.S., which have both supported rebels seeking Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s ouster, as well as other key Arab states and Assad ally Iran. The Kremlin has refused demands for an immediate removal of Assad, a long-time ally.

Putin said last week that Assad had agreed to call early parliamentary elections and invite “healthy” opposition into government, a concession the Russian leader argued would help forge a broader international coalition against Islamic State.

The Russian strategy appears twofold, said Theodore Karasik, a U.A.E.-based geopolitical analyst. First, it’s shoring up its naval base in Syria’s Mediterranean port of Tartus with additional assets at the air base to protect Assad’s Alawite heartland in the coastal region of Latakia. At the same time, the beefed-up military presence is increasing leverage over both Assad and the U.S. and its allies, he said by phone.

“They’re preparing the ground for some kind of transition,” Karasik said. “The Kremlin is dictating a way out for Assad and the goal of the deployment is also to inform the U.S. and others of its intention and that this is non-negotiable.”

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