White House 'monitoring' reports Russian military is in Syria
The White House on Thursday said it was closely monitoring reports that Russia is carrying out military operations in Syria, warning such actions, if confirmed, would be "destabilising and counter-productive".
"We are aware of reports that Russia may have deployed military personnel and aircraft to Syria, and we are monitoring those reports quite closely," said spokesman Josh Earnest.
"Any military support to the Assad regime for any purpose, whether it's in the form of military personnel, aircraft supplies, weapons or funding, is both destabilising and counterproductive."
The comments come after images appeared on a social media account linked to Syrian fighters purporting to show Russian aircraft and drones near Idlib province.
Syrian state television made the same claim, along with several other reports.
The Telegraph reported that video footage claimed to show troops and a Russian armoured vehicle battling Syrian rebels with President Bashar al-Assad's troops in Latakia.
Other reports said that people heard Russian being spoken by the troops in the footage.
The Telegraph also reported that a Twitter account linked to al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda's Syrian branch, showed pictures of what seemed to be Russian planes and drones flying over Idlib.
Unconfirmed reports suggested the aircraft may have included a Russian Sukhoi 34 advanced strike fighter, which Syria is not thought to own.
A US official confirmed that "Russia has asked for clearances for military flight to Syria," but added "we don't know what their goals are".
"Evidence has been inconclusive so far as to what this activity is."
Other reports have suggested Russia has targeted Islamic State (IS) group militants, who have attacked forces loyal to Russian-backed Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.
Both the White House and the Pentagon refused to say whether they had intelligence suggesting the reports were accurate.
"It's up to the Russians to explain exactly what they are doing," said Peter Cook, Pentagon spokesman.
The United States and its allies have repeatedly called for Assad to step down, and are likely to oppose any effort that would have the effect of supporting him.
The White House said, however, that it would welcome Russia's involvement in the international coalition established to counter IS and in diplomatic efforts to end the brutal civil war.