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 CornynMJ Hegar announces Texas Senate bid Embattled senators fill coffers ahead of 2020 Trump struggles to reshape Fed MORE (R-Texas), Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinDurbin calls Mueller report findings on Trump team 'troubling' Congress opens door to fraught immigration talks McConnell: 'Past time' for immigration-border security deal MORE (D-Ill.), Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteNew Hampshire senator to ask 2020 Dems to back repeal of state residency law Schultz recruiting GOP insiders ahead of possible 2020 bid Bottom Line MORE (R-N.H.) and Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandGillibrand pledges not to use 'stolen hacked' materials in 2020 campaign 2020 Dems rebuke Trump on Iran, say they'd put US back in nuclear deal Where 2020 Democratic candidates stand on impeachment 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 McCainIf you don't think illegal immigrants are voting for president, think again 10 factors making Russia election interference the most enduring scandal of the Obama era Earth Day founder's daughter: Most Republican leaders believe in climate change in private 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.