Washington (CNN)Kremlin officials have dismissed allegations of a major Russian military deployment to Syria, after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry raised the issue with his Russian counterpart.
Kerry: Russia could escalate Syrian conflict
Reports circulating in recent days quoted unnamed Western diplomats saying a Russian expeditionary force is already in Syria to prepare for the arrival of an "aerial contingent" of fighter jets and attack helicopters for "strikes against ISIS targets in Syria."
In a telephone call over the weekend, Kerry warned the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, that -- if the reports are true -- the Russian military presence "could further escalate the conflict, lead to greater loss of innocent lives, increase refugee flows and risk confrontation" with an (anti-ISIS) coalition operating in Syria, according to a statement from the U.S. State Department.
But the Kremlin is categorically denying as "premature" the allegations that it has any military ambitions in Syria, although it admits sending weapons and advisers to assist its Syrian ally, President Bashar al Assad.
The Kremlin - -which has a strategic naval base at Tartus in Syria -- has also made no secret of its deep alarm at the prospect of its key ally in the Middle East being toppled. If Assad falls, it worries, so too may Russian influence in the region.
Concerned about its own simmering Islamist insurgency in its restive North Caucasus region, the Kremlin also has genuine security concerns about ISIS.
Hundreds of Russian citizens have already joined the militant group, which identifies Russia as a key enemy and has vowed attacks to avenge Moscow's longstanding support for the Syrian government.