Russia has said it will send ground troops to Syria to help the government defend itself against a new wave of rebel fighters, the first significant deployment since President Vladimir Putin signed a new law that allowed Russia to arm and train opposition fighters in Syria last month.
The move was part of an escalation in the conflict in which the Russian-backed government has lost territory to rival groups and armed opposition groups.
Russian military experts have said that the new law will allow the Russian air force to carry out airstrikes, which they say will be a first step towards a full-scale offensive against the rebels.
The new law also authorises Russia to “use military force in the field of defence of national defence”, a provision that has been used to attack civilian targets in the past.
The military experts say Russia has the means to conduct large-scale attacks on rebel positions, which could amount to an act of war, but the Kremlin has insisted it will only use force to defend its national interests.
The law allows the Russian military to be deployed to the border with Syria to protect Russian-made arms, including the S-300 anti-aircraft missile system.
But it does not give the Kremlin the authority to conduct ground operations against rebel positions.
It also allows Russia to launch airstrikes against Syrian government forces and civilians.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Tuesday that the Russian government had authorised the deployment of ground troops and equipment to Syria.
“I will not say when or where the first Russian forces will take part in the operation, but it is planned that they will be deployed as soon as the conditions are right,” Shoigue said.
Russia is the main backer of the Syrian government, but rebels say it is losing ground to the forces of President Bashar al-Assad.