Report: Russia sends special forces, counterterrorism units to Syria

The Russian base in Tartus is the country's only naval installation outside the borders of the former Soviet Union. A Russian naval squadron conducted a port visit in January, just as violence between rebel forces and government troops loyal to Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad was coming to a head. 

The port call was interpreted by many regional observers as a show of support by Moscow for the Assad regime. 

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Russian military advisers are currently stationed in the country to help train Syrian troops. It is unclear exactly how many Russian troops are now on Syrian soil due to the new deployment.

Last Friday, Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov dismissed claims that Moscow would send special-operations units to Syria to support Assad's crackdown on rebel forces. “There are no [Russian] special forces with rifles and grenade launchers running around,” he told The Associated Press. 

News of the troops' arrival comes a week after a group of lawmakers pressed the Pentagon to cut ties with a Russian weapons maker accused of providing arms to the Syrian government. 

Led by Sens. John CornynJohn CornynHillicon Valley: FTC rules Cambridge Analytica engaged in 'deceptive practices' | NATO researchers warn social media failing to remove fake accounts | Sanders calls for breaking up Comcast, Verizon Bipartisan senators call on FERC to protect against Huawei threats Giffords, Demand Justice to pressure GOP senators to reject Trump judicial pick MORE (R-Texas), Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinSupreme Court poised to hear first major gun case in a decade Protecting the future of student data privacy: The time to act is now Overnight Health Care: Crunch time for Congress on surprise medical bills | CDC confirms 47 vaping-related deaths | Massachusetts passes flavored tobacco, vaping products ban MORE (D-Ill.), Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteGOP fears Trump backlash in suburbs Trump makes rare trip to Clinton state, hoping to win back New Hampshire Key endorsements: A who's who in early states MORE (R-N.H.) and Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandWhite House, Congress near deal to give 12 weeks paid parental leave to all federal workers Bloomberg on 2020 rivals blasting him for using his own money: 'They had a chance to go out and make a lot of money' Harris posts video asking baby if she'll run for president one day MORE (D-N.Y.), the bipartisan group of 17 senators urged DOD to end all business with the Russian-based defense firm Rosoboronexport.

The company is currently under contract with the Pentagon to supply 21 Mi-17 helicopters to the Afghan National Security Forces, at a cost of $375 million. 

“U.S. taxpayers should not be put in a position where they are indirectly subsidizing the mass murder of Syrian civilians,” the senators wrote in a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta last Monday. 

"We urge you to use all available leverage to press Russia and Russian entities to end their support of the Assad regime ... which is within your authority as Secretary of Defense," they added. 

Some on Capitol Hill have called for direct action by the United States to support the Syrian rebels. Sens. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainLessons of the Kamala Harris campaign Overnight Defense: Trump clashes with Macron at NATO summit | House impeachment report says Trump abused power | Top Dem scolds military leaders on Trump intervention in war crimes cases Top Armed Services Democrat scolds military leaders on Trump's intervention in war crimes cases MORE (R-Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) have led the charge to supply anti-government forces with American arms and provide air cover with U.S. warplanes. 

However, many rank-and-file Republicans have been hesitant to back McCain's call for support. Senate lawmakers are reluctant to get involved militarily in Syria, fearing the United States could be drawn into another protracted conflict in the Middle East.