NEW DELHI: This week, several media reports indicated that the Russians are increasing their presence in war torn Syria. An investigation by Reuters concluded that Russian forces have begun participating in military operations in Syria in support of government troops. The New York Times wrote that Russia has sent a military advance team to Syria and transported prefabricated housing units for hundreds of military personnel to an airfield near Latakia. Russia also sent a portable air-traffic station and filed requests to make military flights over neighboring countries, NYT stated. A few days ago, two Russian cargo planes carrying 80 tonnes of humanitarian aid landed in Syria, prompting the media to question the intent of this aid. The above has led the US and NATO to express concern that Russia was increasing its presence in Syria.

Russia, on its part, has been characteristically vague about its intentions. "Russia has never made a secret of its military-technological cooperation with Syria. Russian military specialists help Syrians master Russian hardware," Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said last week. The Russians maintain that there is no shift in policy -- that they have always helped Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, who the US roundly opposes.

Concerned over the extent of Moscow’s aid to the Syrian regime, the US has urged Greece and Bulgaria to reject overflight requests for Russian aircraft. Iran, meanwhile, has agreed to offer its airspace to Russian planes carrying “humanitarian cargo” bound for Syria.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry called Washington’s intervention “international boorishness” in a statement released last week, adding that Russia’s intent was to help defeat Islamist fighters, including the Islamic State -- who the US is leading a coalition in targeting.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov echoed the above in a statement on Friday, saying: "You cannot defeat Islamic State with airstrikes only… It’s necessary to cooperate with ground troops and the Syrian army is the most efficient and powerful ground force to fight the IS."

A day earlier on Thursday, Lavrov told a press conference that "We have always been frank regarding the presence of our military experts in Syria who help the Syrian army in training and learning how to use the equipment. And if further steps are needed we will stand ready to fully undertake those steps."

The US, however, seems worried that this assistance to the Syrian regime extends to military support in the forms of supply of weapons, and possibly even boots on the ground. Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry telephoned Lavrov for the second time in five days, warning the Russian foreign minister that an escalation of the conflict in Syria could prove disastrous.

Russia’s role in Syria, however, should not come as a major surprise. Syria is Russia’s closest ally in West Asia, ever since the Suez War accelerated a multiplication of ties between Syria and the Soviet Union—ties closely associated with the increase in power and influence of the Ba'ath Party.

Syrian-Soviet ties tightened with the rise of current President Bashar al Assad’s father in 1971. Hafez al-Assad’s Ba’athist regime was built loosely on the model of a Soviet single party state. Thousands of Syrian military officers and educated professionals studied in Russia during the senior Assad's four-decade rule.

In April 1977, President Hafez al-Assad visited Moscow, and met with Soviet leaders Leonid Brezhnev and Alexei Kosygin among others, as a sign of improved Syrian relations with the USSR. Three years later, in October 1980, Syria signed a twenty-year Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union gained a repair and resupply center in the port of Tartous -- a facility which is now Moscow's last outpost on the Mediterranean.

This historical relationship continued even after the fall of the Soviet Union, with Russia in the past decades accounting for a bulk of Syrian weapons purchases. On the eve of the Syrian uprising in 2011, Russia had $4 billion worth of outstanding weapons contracts with Damascus. Russian companies invested about $20 billion in Syria between 2009 and 2013.

Therefore, Russian efforts to provide further assistance to Assad fall in line with the relationship that the two countries have shared, and Moscow’s interests in West Asia, including guarding Tartous. The Syrian government forces have faced recent setbacks, and both the government and the moderate opposition seem to be losing ground to the Islamic State.

The irony of US and NATO opposition to the Russians assisting Assad with the view to defeat the Islamic State is reflective of the mess in West Asia, where the enemy of your enemy is also your enemy.