NATO’s chief has warned of a "troubling escalation" of Russian military activity in Syria аs Damascus announced a wide-ranging ground offensive backed by more Russian air strikes.
With Russian jets continuing to hit targets in Syria and the United States and its regional allies trying to craft a concerted response, NATO defense ministers met in Brussels оn October 8 for meetings dominated by Moscow’s actions, both in Syria and Ukraine.
Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance was prepared to deploy forces to Turkey if necessary after Russian warplanes violated the alliance member’s airspace earlier this week, violations that prompted a sharp rebuke from Ankara.
"In Syria, we have seen a troubling escalation of Russian military activities," Stoltenberg said.
Russia’s actions, which included cruise missiles launched from ships in the Caspian Sea on October 7, has stunned the U.S.-led coalition conducting air strikes against Islamic State (IS) militants. It has also deepened concerns among NATO’s 28 members about Russia’s new assertive policies in Europe and the Middle East.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, in Brussels for the NATO meeting, called Russia's actions "erratic and self-defeating,” and warned Moscow was further isolating itself.
He also appeared to diminish the possibility of U.S. and Russian military officials holding another discussion about the Syrian situation. Fears are growing that Russian jets flying in close proximity to those of the United States and its allies could result in mishaps or even conflict.
"We have not and will not agree to cooperate with Russia so long as they continue to pursue this misguided strategy," Carter said.
"We've seen increasingly unprofessional behavior from Russian forces. They violated Turkish airspace, which ... is NATO airspace. They shot cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea without warning," he said. "This will have consequences for Russia itself, which is rightfully fearful of attack upon Russia. And I also expect that in coming days, the Russians will begin to suffer casualties in Syria."
Carter's predictions about Russian casualties prompted a unusually quick and sharp rebuke from Russia's Defense Ministry, which isn't typically known for using harsh rhetoric and press statements.
WATCH: Turkey's border town of Kilis is struggling to cope with more than 100,000 refugees from Syria. Authorities have now closed the border to everyone except seriously ill or injured people. Shahida Yakub, a correspondent for RFE/RL's Current Time program, sent this report from the border, where many desperate Syrians are trying to escape from ongoing violence.
"In their assessments of U.S. military operations in various operations they have conducted all over the world, representatives of the Russian Defense Ministry have never stooped to make public predictions of American soldiers’ deaths,” the ministry said in a statement posted on its Facebook page. “Today's announcement by the Pentagon chief Ashton Carter, unfortunately, clearly reflects the current level of political culture among certain representatives of the U.S. government. Or rather, their degree of cynicism in relation to the rest of the world.
“No U.S. general would never allow himself” to make any statement to that effect, the ministry said.
The comments by the NATO chief and the U.S. defense secretary came as the Syrian government and activists claimed that Russian strikes have helped a ground campaign by government troops to recapture territories from rebel groups.
Syrian government forces "have launched wide-ranging attacks to deal with the terrorist groups, and to liberate the areas which had suffered from the terrorist rule and crimes," Lieutenant General Ali Abdullah Ayoub, the Syrian army chief of staff, was quoted by state media as saying.
Ayoub didn't specify the areas being targeted by government troops.
Activists said on October 8 that the Syrian Army and allied militia targeted rebel-held areas in the Ghab Plain in western Syria.
The troops attacked rebels with heavy barrages of surface-to-surface missiles as Russian jets bombed from above, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and a rebel fighter on the ground said. The Syrian newspaper Al-Watan, which is close to the regime, said the army recaptured about 10 villages in Hama Province.
Moscow and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad characterize all armed groups in Syria as terrorists, while the United States and its allies have focused their air war on Islamic State militants.
Washington has also provided weaponry and training to some moderate Syrian rebel groups, some of whom have been targeted by Russian strikes, which began on September 30.
On October 8, the Russian Defense Ministry said Su-25, Su-24M, and Su-34 jets struck 27 “terrorist targets” near Hamah and Raqqa. The ministry asserted they were IS training camps.
Earlier this week, Russian warplanes twice violated Turkey's airspace, prompting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to say Turkey, a NATO member, "can't accept the current situation.”
"Russia's explanations on the airspace violations are not convincing," Turkish media quoted Erdogan as telling reporters.
Underscoring the degree to which ties between Moscow and Ankara are now strained, Russian’s state-owned natural gas giant Gazprom said a joint pipeline project under the Black Sea would be delayed.
The project, known as Turkish Stream or Turk Stream, was announced last year as a replacement to another subsea pipeline called South Stream that would have made landfall in Bulgaria. European Union pressure forced Gazprom to scrap South Stream, and Moscow turned to Turkey as an alternative.
Last month, the countries announced that work would continue despite difficulties and disagreements over the price of Russian gas imports.
Erdogan, however, signaled this week that Ankara might be looking for alternatives to Russian gas supplies.
Russia is Turkey’s largest gas supplier, providing more than half of the country’s gas imports. Iran and Azerbaijan are Turkey’s other major supplies, with a small amount planned from Turkmenistan in the future.
In Brussels, Stoltenberg also said NATO defense ministers had agreed to double the size of a newly formed rapid response force, to 40,000 troops. The force was set up last year in response to Russian actions in Crimea and Ukraine.
"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.
With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, and dpa