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 CornynNadler gets under GOP's skin Restlessness, light rule-breaking and milk spotted on Senate floor as impeachment trial rolls on Democrats worry a speedy impeachment trial will shut out public MORE (R-Texas), Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinTensions between McConnell and Schumer run high as trial gains momentum Nadler gets under GOP's skin Restlessness, light rule-breaking and milk spotted on Senate floor as impeachment trial rolls on 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 GillibrandSanders defends vote against USMCA: 'Not a single damn mention' of climate change The Hill's Morning Report — President Trump on trial Overnight Energy: Schumer votes against USMCA, citing climate impact | Republicans offer details on their environmental proposals | Microsoft aims to be carbon negative by 2030 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 McCainMartha McSally fundraises off 'liberal hack' remark to CNN reporter Meghan McCain blasts NY Times: 'Everyone already knows how much you despise' conservative women GOP senator calls CNN reporter a 'liberal hack' when asked about Parnas materials 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.