Russia raises stakes on Syria ahead of U.N. meeting in New York

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Russia Sends Huge Military Transport Planes to Syria

By refusing to clarify the scale of its military presence in Syria, Russia keeps the West fearing a considerable build-up to win a stronger bargaining position when world powers sit down to talks on the conflict, Western diplomats in Moscow said.

Those discussions could take place as soon as this month, when Russian President Vladimir Putin comes to the United States for the first time in some eight years, to speak at the annual United Nations General Assembly.

Russia's central demand now is that its long-time ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, should be included in international efforts to contain the militants who have called themselves Islamic State and control large tracts of Syria.


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Russia raises stakes on Syria ahead of U.N. meeting in New York
A Syrian refugee carries a baby over the broken border fence into Turkey after breaking the border fence and crossing from Syria in Akcakale, Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey, Sunday, June 14, 2015. The mass displacement of Syrians across the border into Turkey comes as Kurdish fighters and Islamic extremists clashed in nearby city of Tal Abyad. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
IDLIB, SYRIA - SEPTEMBER 06: Syrian search and rescue team search for the victims after Syrian regime attack in Ariha neighborhood in Idlib, Syria on September 6, 2015. A separate attack carried out by Syrian army helicopters in the town of Ariha south of Idlib killed at least six others, another local civil defense source said. (Photo by Mohammad Amen Qurabi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
DAMASCUS, SYRIA - AUGUST 20 : Syrian firefighters try to extinguish a fire at a building after Asad regime forces' airstrikes on a residential area in the opposition controlled Damascus suburb of Douma, Syria on August 20, 2015. (Photo by Motaseem Rashed/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
DARAA, SYRIA - AUGUST 19 : A view of the destruction after the Assad regime forces shelling on the opposition-controlled areas in Daraa, Syria on August 19, 2015. Many buildings including houses, workplaces and infrastructure were damaged in the attacks. (Photo by Ammar el Ali/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ALEPPO, SYRIA - JUNE 09: An injured Syrian man is carried on a stretcher by emergency staff after a barrel bomb attack dropped by Syrian regime forces on a bakery in Ansari neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria on June 09, 2015. (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Syrian refugees wait between Syria and Turkish border as Turkish soldiers block them to pass Turkish side, on June 9, 2015, at Akcakale, in Sanliurfa province. Some 4,000 Syrians have sought refuge in Turkey this week, fleeing fresh clashes pitting Kurdish fighters against the Islamic State (IS) group, a Turkish official said Friday. Kurdish forces are trying to drive the militants out of Tel Abyad, in Syria's Hassakah province, close to the Turkish border town of Akcakale. AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrian rescue workers and citizens evacuate people from a building following a reported barrel bomb attack by Syrian government forces on the central al-Fardous rebel held neighbourhood of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, on June 9, 2015. AFP PHOTO / KARAM AL-MASRI (Photo credit should read KARAM AL-MASRI/AFP/Getty Images)
A Syrian man carries a body after it was removed from the rubble of buildings following a reported barrel bomb attack by government forces on the Qadi Askar district of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on May 20, 2015. AFP PHOTO / AMC / ZEIN AL-RIFAI (Photo credit should read ZEIN AL-RIFAI/AFP/Getty Images)
Smoke billows following the detonation of explosives placed by Syrian government forces inside a tunnel that was reportedly used by rebels in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on May 19, 2015. AFP PHOTO / GEORGE OURFALIAN (Photo credit should read GEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP/Getty Images)
A fighter from a local popular committee, which supports the Syrian government forces, guards a look out point in the Hamidiyeh neighbourhood of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo as they try to defend the traditionally Christian district on the third day of intense battles with Islamic State group jihadists on April 9, 2015. AFP PHOTO / GEORGE OUFALIAN (Photo credit should read GEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP/Getty Images)
In this photo released on May 4, 2015, by a militant website, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, Islamic State militants pass by a convoy in Tel Abyad town, northeast Syria. In contrast to the failures of the Iraqi army, in Syria Kurdish fighters are on the march against the Islamic State group, capturing towns and villages in an oil-rich swath of the country's northeast in recent days, under the cover of U.S.-led airstrikes. (Militant website via AP)
A man walks past the rubble of a building following reported shelling by Syrian government forces in the Bab al-Hadid neighbourhood of the northern city of Aleppo on April 18, 2015. Aleppo has been devastated by fighting since rebel fighters seized its eastern half in 2012, setting up a front line that carves through its historic heart. AFP PHOTO / ZEIN AL-RIFAI (Photo credit should read ZEIN AL-RIFAI/AFP/Getty Images)
FILE - In this Tuesday June 2, 2015 file photo, a migrant from Syria waits at the port of Kos island, Greece, after she and others were rescued by the Greek Coast Guard while they were trying to cross from Turkey to Greece on a dinghy. Greece and Italy are the main points of entry into the European Union for refugees and economic migrants from the Middle East and Africa hoping to reach other European Union countries. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris, File)
A Kurdish fighter poses with a rabbit on the outskirts of the Syrian town of Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab, on March 30, 2015. Islamic State (IS) fighters were driven out of Kobane on January 26, by Kurdish and allied forces. AFP PHOTO/YASIN AKGUL (Photo credit should read YASIN AKGUL/AFP/Getty Images)
Young boys play on a destroyed building near a sign reading 'Kobane' in the Syrian town of Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab, on March 28, 2015. Islamic State (IS) fighters were driven out of Kobane on January 26 by Kurdish and allied forces. AFP PHOTO / YASIN AKGUL (Photo credit should read YASIN AKGUL/AFP/Getty Images)
Kurdish men sit near bonfire near a destroyed building, in the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab, on March 22, 2015. AFP PHOTO/YASIN AKGUL (Photo credit should read YASIN AKGUL/AFP/Getty Images)
A female Syrian soldier from the Republican Guard commando battalion fires a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) during clashes with rebels in the restive Jobar area, in eastern Damascus, on March 25, 2015. The female battalion, which was created nearly a year ago, consists of 800 female soldiers who are positioned in the suburbs of the Syrian capital where they monitor and secure the frontlines with snipers, rockets and machine guns. AFP PHOTO / JOSEPH EID (Photo credit should read JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)
A Syrian Kurdish boy sits on a destroyed tank in the Syrian town of Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab, on March 27, 2015. Islamic State (IS) fighters were driven out of Kobane on January 26 by Kurdish and allied forces. AFP PHOTO/YASIN AKGUL (Photo credit should read YASIN AKGUL/AFP/Getty Images)
A man walks through the rubble following reported air strikes by government forces on the eastern Shaar neighbourhood of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on March 27, 2015. AFP PHOTO / AMC / ZEIN AL-RIFAI (Photo credit should read ZEIN AL-RIFAI/AFP/Getty Images)
A female Syrian soldier from the Republican Guard commando battalion drives a tank during clashes with rebels in the restive Jobar area, in eastern Damascus, on March 25, 2015. The female battalion, which was created nearly a year ago, consists of 800 female soldiers who are positioned in the suburbs of the Syrian capital where they monitor and secure the frontlines with snipers, rockets and machine guns. AFP PHOTO / JOSEPH EID (Photo credit should read JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)
A Kurdish Syrian woman weeps away the debris from what is left of a destroyed building in town of Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab, on March 24, 2015. Islamic State (IS) fighters were driven out of Kobane on January 26, by Kurdish and allied forces. AFP PHOTO/YASIN AKGUL (Photo credit should read YASIN AKGUL/AFP/Getty Images)
A Syrian schoolgirl stands next a damaged wall outside her school in the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab, on March 25, 2015. Islamic State (IS) fighters were driven out of Kobane on January 26 by Kurdish and allied forces. AFP PHOTO/YASIN AKGUL (Photo credit should read YASIN AKGUL/AFP/Getty Images)
GRAPHIC CONTENTWounded Syrian children react as they wait for treatment at a clinic in the rebel-held area of Douma, east of the capital Damascus, following reported air strikes by regime forces on March 13, 2015. More than 210,000 people have been killed in Syria since the uprising began in March 2011. AFP PHOTO / ABD DOUMANY (Photo credit should read ABD DOUMANY/AFP/Getty Images)
A photo taken on January 30, 2015 shows the eastern part of the destroyed city of Halimce, east of the Syrian town of Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab. Kurdish forces recaptured the town on the Turkish frontier on January 26, in a symbolic blow to the jihadists who have seized large swathes of territory in their onslaught across Syria and Iraq. AFP PHOTO/BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrian children reenact scenes, they said to have seen in Islamic State jihadist group videos, in the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Douma, on March 5, 2015. Syria's conflict began as a popular uprising but evolved into a multi-front civil war that has divided the country into a patchwork of fiefdoms controlled by different factions, including the extremist Islamic State group. AFP PHOTO / ABD DOUMANY (Photo credit should read ABD DOUMANY/AFP/Getty Images)
In this Monday, March 16, 2015 photo, pregnant Syrian refugee Wadhah Hamada, 22, poses for a portrait inside her tent at an informal settlement near the Syrian border, on the outskirts of Mafraq, Jordan. Hamada, who fled al-Hasaka, Syria, says she has no clue how her four-month pregnancy is progressing. “I can’t afford to pay 50 Jordanian dinars ($70) for my ultrasound and other medical checks,” she says. “Our future is dark, my life is in a tent and my first child’s life won't be different.” (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)
A picture taken on March 2, 2015 shows pupils attending the first day of school in the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab, as they returned to class after Kurdish and rebel forces expelled Islamic State (IS) group jihadists from the town following more than four months of fighting. AFP PHOTO / MICHALIS KARAGIANNIS (Photo credit should read Michalis Karagiannis/AFP/Getty Images)
A Kurd stands in a building as pigeons fly over in the center of the Syrian border town of Kobane, known as Ain al-Arab, on January 28, 2015. Kurdish forces recaptured the strategic town on the Turkish frontier on January 26 in a symbolic blow for the jihadists who have seized swathes of territory in a brutal onslaught across Syria and Iraq. AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
A rebel fighter holds a position in al-Mayasat, a rebel-controlled area near the industrial zone of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on February 4, 2015. Nearly four million people have been forced by war to flee Syria altogether, and millions more are living in misery in areas that have fallen out of government control. AFP PHOTO / AMC / ZEIN AL-RIFAI (Photo credit should read ZEIN AL-RIFAI/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrian Kurdish refugee boy Arif, 10, poses on February 1, 2015 at the Rojava refugee camp in Sanliurfa. AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
A Kurdish fighter walks with his child in the center of the Syrian border town of Kobane, known as Ain al-Arab, on January 28, 2015. Kurdish forces recaptured the strategic town on the Turkish frontier on January 26 in a symbolic blow for the jihadists who have seized swathes of territory in a brutal onslaught across Syria and Iraq. AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
Smoke rises from the Syrian city of Kobani, following an airstrike by the US led coalition, seen from a hilltop outside Suruc, on the Turkey-Syria border Monday, Nov. 17, 2014. Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab, and its surrounding areas, has been under assault by extremists of the Islamic State group since mid-September and is being defended by Kurdish fighters. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
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U.S. officials said on Wednesday Russia had sent two tank landing ships and additional aircraft to Syria and deployed a small number of forces there.

In Lebanon, sources said Russian forces are taking part in combat in Syria, where Assad has come under increasing pressure.

"It's all about the General Assembly," said one of the diplomats, who like other sources spoke on condition of anonymity.

"If there is a real new start in dialogue between Russia and the United States - we have a whole new situation, new quality."

Moscow has signaled several times in recent weeks it is interested in a meeting between Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama in New York. The White House says it is not aware of any meeting planned at the moment.

Moscow would play up any such meeting for its domestic audiences to cast Putin as a peacemaker and an indispensable partner for Washington in tackling international crises, even at a time of high tensions over Ukraine.

"Russia is piling pressure, playing a blackmail game," said defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer, noting how a Moscow proposal for an anti-IS coalition involving Assad has lost impetus.

"They want to push others to consider it more seriously," said the expert, who is often critical of the Kremlin. "Or else fear that Moscow could use its forces there for other purposes."

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BUILD-UP IN SYRIA

Washington expressed concern over the Russian military build-up in Syria and put pressure on countries nearby to deny their air space to Russian flights to the country.

Russia has decried the U.S. pressure over the flights as "international boorishness" and dismissed reports of a build-up in Syria in general terms.

But Russian officials have repeatedly dodged questions over whether there has been a recent increase in military assistance to Assad and Moscow has not unequivocally denied any build-up of its forces in Syria.

"First we were accused of providing arms to the so-called 'bloody regime that was persecuting democratic activists'," said Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry.

"Now it's a new edition - we are supposedly harming the fight against terrorism. That is complete rubbish."

The Russian Emergencies Ministry has been sending flights to Syria several times a month throughout the conflict, saying they deliver humanitarian aid and help evacuate people.

The West fears Russia is using the flights to bring arms to Syria.

The fine line distinguishing "military experts" from trainers or troops capable of taking direct part in combat has added to Western worries.

The Russian navy has also been going back and forth to Syria recently. Russian bloggers have collated what they say are social media accounts of Russian soldiers, including marines, going to the Russian naval facility at Tartous on Syria's Mediterranean coast.

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Ivan Konovalov, a defense expert in Moscow, said problems with securing air routes for the Russian flights to Syria may be driving the increased navy activity.

Moscow has said in the past, including when the Syria conflict was already in full swing, that Tartous has long been manned by a minimal number of troops. Any build-up there would mark a major change in Russia's strategy on the conflict.

It could both help Assad hold his power-base region and allow Russia to safeguard its interests if he were toppled.

Putin said last week it was "premature" to say Russia was ready to take part in combat operations in Syria and there was little feeling among sources in Moscow the Kremlin would go as far as sending meaningful ground forces there.

But the growing concerns have zeroed in on the Russian air force getting involved in Syria, where a U.S.-led coalition is already conducting air strikes against Islamic State.

Back in Moscow, some diplomats speculated that should Russia be able to improve its bargaining position with its moves on Syria, it could try to cut a geo-political deal in exchange for Western concessions on another conflict - Ukraine.

Others ruled out any such possibility. But the idea did not escape Russians, who shared a joke on Twitter about a Russian soldier's worried mother who asked her son how he was doing on the front lines of Ukraine.

He replied: "Don't worry mum, I am already in Damascus."

(This version of the story was refiled to correct to United States in paragraph 2)

(Additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton and Roberta Rampton in Washington; Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Christian Lowe and Giles Elgood)

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