Flights from Russia to Syria are about to get a whole lot more irritating.
"The Bulgarian foreign ministry has refused flights over Bulgaria of Russian military transport planes en route to Syria," Betina Zhoteva, the spokesperson for Bulgaria's foreign ministry, told news agencies on Tuesday. "We have enough information that makes us have serious doubts about the cargo of the planes, which is the reason for the refusal."
Zhoteva said that Bulgaria, a NATO member state, made the decision to block Russian military resupply flights to Syria independently, without pressure from other NATO nations, because Bulgaria believes the Russians are flying military supplies rather than the humanitarian aid they claim. Previously, NATO members had been alerted to the fact that the Russians had plans to deliver more military equipment to Syria, according Andrew Weiss, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The alert went out as the US and others began to suspect that Russia was building up areas in Syria in preparation for the arrival of Russian troops.
"All NATO countries were told to be mindful of unusual military aircraft requests coming from the Russian authorities," Weiss said.
Russia has been sending flights to Syria throughout the conflict to supply humanitarian aid for victims and to evacuate Russian nationals, but increased activity has raised suspicions. In recent weeks, there has been mounting evidence of Russian military intervention in Syria, though none has been independently confirmed. Late last month, Oryx Blog, which tracks military movements in the Middle East and North Africa, posted a video put out by the National Defense Force in Syria in which commands can be heard being uttered in Russian. The particular use of the Russian language suggests that military aid has shifted to military personnel operating equipment in direct combat.
The blog the Aviationist reported last week that there was evidence of Russian fighter jets and drones flying over Syria.
Watch VICE News' Trapped In Bulgaria: Europe Or Die (Episode 3)
"We are aware of reports that Russia may have deployed military personnel and aircraft to Syria, and we are monitoring those reports quite closely," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. "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 destabilizing and counterproductive."
Recently, the United States asked Greece to deny Russia access to its airspace for supply flights to Syria, Reuters reported. The request came as US Secretary of State John Kerry told his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, that the US has serious concerns about Russia's activities in Syria.
When VICE News reached out to the Greek embassy, an official responded, "I think the story is over." The official presumably believed that because now that Bulgaria has refused access to the Russians, Greece is geographically freed of responsibility.
Since both Turkey and Bulgaria have refused passage, the Russians will be forced to go much further east to get supplies to Syria — but that won't necessarily stop the supplies. Weiss explained that, most likely, the Russians would now fly a longer route that travels over the Caspian Sea, through Iran and Iraq, and into Syria.
"The Russians have clearly been supplying military assistance to Syria throughout the crisis," Weiss said. "I don't expect this one issue to break their supply chain. This is much more in the category of harassment and making their lives more complicated, so that they can't just go the most direct route from Russia to deliver new types of military equipment to the Syrian regime."
With a multitude of enemies and alliances in Syria and Iraq, former foes are finding common enemies and new partnerships. Both the US and Bashar al-Assad are combating the Islamic State (IS), with the US supporting moderate Syrian rebels who are trying to bring down both IS and the Assad regime. Meanwhile, Russia is supporting the Assad regime as well as the fight against IS, while regularly rattling sabers at countries involved in the fight against IS — to wit, most of NATO. All the while, Iran is negotiating with the West, combating IS, and buddying up to Russia.
This is the new reality in the region.
Follow Ezra Kaplan on Twitter: @KaplanEzra
Photo via Wikimedia Commons