UPDATE: 1:52 p.m. EST -- Lebanon rejected a Russian request to shut down its airspace in some areas so Moscow can conduct naval exercise in the Mediterranean Sea, the Lebanese transport minister said Friday, Reuters reported.
Russia has informed Lebanese aviation authorities its air force would like to conduct a three-day naval exercise in the Mediterranean Sea that could interfere with civilian flights, the country’s state news agency said Friday. Lebanon's transportation minister said his country was discussing possible alternative routes with Cypriot authorities, but has not yet accepted the Russian request to shut down its airspace, the Daily Star reported.
The request has stirred debate in Lebanon as Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt took to Twitter to criticize the Russian “order.”
"The Russians ordered Lebanon that for three days our airspace is to be closed. It looks [like] they consider Lebanon as a district of Moscow, infringing and insulting our sovereignty," he wrote.
Russia planned to begin drills at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, local time, that would last three days, the Lebanese National News Agency reported.
Moscow intensified military operations against the Islamic State group after Russian officials announced they believed an explosive device was responsible for the bringing down a Russian airliner in Egypt last month. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack, and boasted about it in a video as fighters threatened further terror. The attack left at least 224 people dead. ISIS’s official magazine published a photograph earlier this week of what was described as the bomb that destroyed the jet.
When Russia first entered Syria, its campaign largely focused on bolstering embattled Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, a close ally to Moscow. Russian jets have targeted anti-Assad rebels, including opposition fighters with the Free Syrian Army, an umbrella of rebel groups backed by the West. In recent days it appears the Russian campaign has shifted its focus toward ISIS.
U.S. officials have expressed a willingness to work with Moscow to end the Syrian civil war. Some 250,000 Syrians have been killed, and millions of people have been displaced.