The US-led NATO alliance and Russia are playing a game of cat and mouse over allegations President Vladimir Putin is stoking up the war in Syria by secretly sending troops and military supplies to President Assad’s beleaguered armed forces.
Ahead of a summit in New York, The Kremlin is refusing to comment on reports from Syria and Lebanon accusing Russia of propping up the Syrian army with weapons and vehicles.
Sources in the country suggest President Assad asked Putin for a sophisticated air defence system to offer protection against air strikes by the US and other NATO forces, but this was denied.
Syria and Russia are long-term allies. Russia claims flights and ships landing supplies in the country are humanitarian aid, but others suggest the cargo is more sinister.
Other countries are now responding to a US appeal to stop Russian flights crossing their airspace.
Turkey has not sanctioned the flights, so the Russians diverted over Bulgaria, where the government has agreed to the overflights providing the planes land at a Bulgaria airport to have their cargo inspected.
So far, the Russians have declined to comply with the request.
The US State Department also claims small numbers of Russian troops are on the ground conducting military operations in Syria.
One theory is the Russians are propping up the Syrian army in a bid to maintain their only Mediterranean seaport for Russian navy ships at Tartous.
Tartous is Russia’s only military base outside of sovereign territory and acts as a refueling point for ships. Tactically, the base allows Russian ships in the Mediterranean to avoid returning to the Black Sea through the straits in Turkey.
Call for action
NATO countries are stepping up the pressure on Putin to pull out of backing Assad.
France, Germany and Britain all see him as part of the problem in finding a solution to the Syrian crisis which has seen 12 million civilians displaced from their homes.
Large tracts of Syria are also controlled by the Islamic State.
British Prime Minister David Cameron is building a case for more air and cruise missile strikes against Syria.
“Hard military force is needed to deal with Assad and the Islamic State,” he said.
Cameron accused Assad of butchering his own people and pledged more humanitarian aid for refugees.