Nato to double force after Russian activity in Syria

Defence ministers say organisation is ‘ready to defend allies’ after meeting in Brussels

Nato will double the size of its emergency response force and may send ground troops to Turkey, its secretary general said yesterday.

Speaking after a meeting of Nato defence ministers in Brussels, Jens Stoltenberg said Nato's high-readiness force would be doubled to 40,000 as a result of the "escalation of Russian military activities" in Syria.

“All of this sends a clear message to all Nato citizens. Nato will defend you, Nato is on the ground, Nato is ready,” he said.

Earlier the Nato chief said the alliance was “ready and able to defend all allies, including Turkey” against any threats.

“We will assess the latest developments and their implications for the security of the alliance. This is particularly relevant in view of the recent violations of Nato’s airspace by Russian aircraft,” Mr Stoltenberg said.

Yesterday's meeting took place as Russia took part in a second day of co-ordinated air and ground assaults in Syria with troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, potentially signifying a new phase in the Russian involvement in the Syrian war.

On Wednesday, Moscow undertook its first naval bombardment, launching 26 missiles from four warships into Syria from the Caspian Sea.

The attack was coordinated with a ground offensive by Assad loyalists in the central province of Hama, with attacks taking place in an area known as Ghab Plain.

The offensive could signal an important development in the 4-and-a-half-year civil war as Assad tries to wrest back control of areas from rebel groups.

Unprofessional behaviour

After yesterday’s Nato meeting US defence secretary

Ash Carter

said Russia had fired the cruise missiles at Syrian targets from the Caspian Sea this week without giving advance notice.

“We’ve seen increasingly unprofessional behaviour from Russian forces. They violated Turkish airspace . . . They shot cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea without warning,” Mr Carter said, indicating increasing tensions over Moscow’s activities in Syria.

Russia began aerial bombardments in Syria just over a week ago, alarming the US and other Nato members.

While Moscow said it was tackling Islamic State targets, the US state department said more than 90 per cent of the areas targeted by Russian air strikes so far were not held by Islamic State or al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan also said yesterday that Russia’s military action was endangering trade ties, as he threatened to source energy supplies from countries other than Russia and cancel the construction of a new nuclear plant by Russia.

Mr Erdogan, who faces a general election in just over three weeks, reacted with fury to incursions by Russian jets into Turkish airspace, summoning the Russian ambassador for the third time this week yesterday.

A Russian military jet entered airspace over Turkey’s southern province of Hatay on Saturday, prompting Ankara to scramble two fighter jets. Nato has rejected claims by Russia that its incursion on Saturday was accidental.

Aerial strikes

Defence ministers attending yesterday’s meeting in Brussels strongly criticised Russia’s actions. “Russia is not constructive, not reliable and not cooperative,” Dutch minister of defence Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert said.

The Netherlands is one of the EU countries involved in the US-led aerial strikes against Islamic State, which began in September 2014.

British defence minister Michael Fallon also confirmed the deployment of 100 extra troops to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as part of Nato's move to bolster troop presence in the Baltic countries amid concern over Russian involvement in Ukraine.

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch, a former Irish Times journalist, was Washington correspondent and, before that, Europe correspondent