The United States has asked Greece to deny Russia the use of its airspace for supply flights to Syria, a Greek official said on Monday, after Washington told Moscow it was deeply concerned by reports of a Russian military build up in Syria.
The Greek foreign ministry said the request was being examined. Russian newswire RIA Novosti earlier said Greece had refused the U.S. request, quoting a diplomatic source as saying that Russia was seeking permission to run the flights up to Sept. 24.
Russia, which has a naval base in the Syrian port of Tartous, has sent regular flights to Latakia, which it has also used to bring home Russian nationals who want to leave.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on Saturday that if reports of the build-up were accurate, that could further escalate the war and risk confrontation with the U.S.-led alliance that is bombing Islamic State in Syria.
Lavrov told Kerry it was premature to talk about Russia's participation in military operations in Syria, a Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman told RIA Novosti on Monday.
Lavrov confirmed Russia had always provided supplies of military equipment to Syria, saying Moscow "has never concealed that it delivers military equipment to official Syrian authorities with the aim of combating terrorism".
Russia has been a vital ally of President Bashar al-Assad throughout the war that has fractured Syria into a patchwork of areas controlled by rival armed groups, including Islamic State, leaving the government in control of much of the west.
Foreign states are already deeply involved in the war that has killed a quarter of a million people. While Russia and Iran have backed Assad, rebel groups seeking to oust him have received support from governments including the United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
PHOTOS: Putin and Syrian Foreign Minister meet
Russia, Syria talks
U.S. asks Greece to deny Russian flights to Syria
SOCHI, RUSSIA- SEPTEMBER 17: Russian President Vladimir Putin speeches during the meeting with newly elected governors September 17, 2015 in Sochi, Russia. Putin said this week that it's impossible to defeat Islamic State group without support of the government of Syria and that Moscow has provided military assistance to President Bashar al-Assad's regime and will continue to do so. (Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)
This September 2015 satellite image with annotations provided by GeoNorth, AllSource Analysis, Airbus shows Russian transport aircraft, helicopters, tanks, trucks and armed personnel carriers at an air base in Latakia province, Syria. Russia on Thursday, Sept. 17, strongly urged the United States and its allies to engage the Syrian government as a "partner" in the fight against the Islamic State group, and offered to share any information about its military supplies to Damascus with Washington. (GeoNorth, AllSource Analysis, Airbus via AP)
SOCHI, RUSSIA- NOVEMBER 26: Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem in Bocharov Ruchey State Residence on November 26, 2014 in in Sochi, Russia. Foreign Minister of Syria is on a one-day visit to Russia. (Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)
Head of the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, Hassan Abdel Azim (R) and other members of the Syrian tolerated opposition attend a meeting with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on August 31, 2015. AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER NEMENOV (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - APRIL 29 : Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (3-R), Russian President Vladimir Putin (3-R) and Presidential Aide Yury Ushakov (R) meet with members of the Elders group (L-R) former Algerian Foreign Minister and UN envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, Mexico's former President Ernesto Zedillo, former President of Finland and Nobel Peace Laureate Martti Ahtisaari, former UN Secretary-General, Nobel Peace Laureate and Chair of The Elders Kofi Annan, former president of the United States and Nobel Peace Laureate Jimmy Carter and former Prime Minister of Norway and Deputy Chair of The Elders Gro Harlem Brundtland at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, Russia, 29 April 2015. (Photo by Russia Kremlin Press-Office/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Russia's President Vladimir Putin attends a ceremony of receiving foreign ambassadors' credentials in Aleksandrovsky (Alexander's) Hall in Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow, on January 16, 2014. Russia launched today a fresh round of Syrian diplomacy on as it hosted the foreign ministers of Iran and Syria ahead of peace talks in Switzerland. AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER NEMENOV (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Russia's President Vladimir Putin (L) and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attend a ceremony of receiving foreign ambassadors' credentials in in Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow, on January 16, 2014. Russia launched today a fresh round of Syrian diplomacy on as it hosted the foreign ministers of Iran and Syria ahead of peace talks in Switzerland. AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER NEMENOV (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) welcomes Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as they meet in Moscow's Kremlin, on January 16, 2014. Russia launched today a fresh round of Syrian diplomacy on as it hosted the foreign ministers of Iran and Syria ahead of peace talks in Switzerland. AFP PHOTO / POOL/ SERGEI KARPUKHIN (Photo credit should read SERGEI KARPUKHIN/AFP/Getty Images)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - NOVEMBER 22: Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan (R) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) arrive to the High-Level Russian-Turkish Cooperation Council meeting in the Konstantin Palace on November 22, 2013 in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Erdogan is on a two-day official visit to Saint Petersburg to attend the fourth session of the Russian-Turkish High-Level Cooperation Council with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two leaders are expected to discuss economic development and cooperation, with the Syrian Crisis expected to be top the agenda. (Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)
SOCHI, RUSSIA- NOVEMBER 26: Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Bocharov Ruchey State Residence on November 26, 2014 in in Sochi, Russia. Foreign Minister of Syria is on a one-day visit to Russia. (Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) welcomes Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem (L) during their meeting at the residence of Bocharov Ruchei in Sochi on November 26, 2014. President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday hosted Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem in his first meeting with a top envoy from Damascus since the old Moscow ally plunged into civil war more than three years ago. AFP PHOTO / RIA NOVOSTI / KREMLIN POOL / ALEXEY DRUZHININ (Photo credit should read ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images)
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BACK TO SLIDE
The Syrian army and allied militia have lost significant amounts of territory to insurgents this year. Assad said in July the Syrian army faced a manpower problem.
Russia has been trying to build a wide coalition including Damascus to fight Islamic State, which was reported on Monday to have captured an oil field from government forces near the city of Palmyra.
ENLARGING RUNWAYS IN THE NORTH
The United States and Turkey are planning to open a new front against Islamic State in an area of northern Syria near the border with Turkey. They aim to drive the jihadists from the area with the help of rebels on the ground.
A Lebanese newspaper reported on Monday that Russian military experts who arrived inSyria weeks ago have been inspecting air bases and working to enlarge some runways, particularly in the north, though Moscow had yet to meet a Syrian request for attack helicopters.
As-Safir, citing a Syrian source, said there had been "no fundamental change" in Russian forces on the ground in Syria, saying they were "still operating in the framework of experts, advisers, and trainers".
As-Safir said the Russians had "started moving toward a qualitative initiative in the armament relationship for the first time since the start of the war on Syria, with a team of Russian experts beginning to inspect Syrian military airports weeks ago, and they are working to expand some of their runways, particularly in the north of Syria."
The newspaper, which is well-connected in Damascus, said nothing had been decided about "the nature of the weapons that Damascus might receive, though the Syrians asked to be supplied with more than 20 Russian attack helicopters, of the Mi-28 type".
French President Francois Hollande, who announced on Monday France would begin reconnaissance missions over Syria, said it was important to talk to all countries that support a political transition in Syria, including Russia.
When asked to comment on the reports of Russian military aid to Syria, he said:
"Russia is an ally of the regime, but it doesn't mean that Russia is an unwavering supporter of Bashar al-Assad. We will have discussions. What Russia wants is to also find a solution."
Germany also voiced concern on Monday about reports that Russia was moving toward a military build-up in Syria.
A Syrian military official declined to comment on the details of As-Safir's report, but reiterated previous comments that Syrian-Russian military ties had witnessed a "big shift" in recent weeks.
The official said the Russian shift was prompted by the danger represented by Islamic State and other groups fighting the Syrian state.
"It is obvious that the Russians will be more resolute in dealing with this situation. This forms a danger to the allies of Russia," the official said.