Observers have spotted four Russian attack helicopters at an airbase in Syria as Moscow reinforces its presence in the war-torn state.
According to Pentagon officials, the Syrian airport is being converted into a forward operating base for Russian forces. Alongside the helicopter gunships, Russia has also sent battle tanks and other weapons, writes Lucas Tomlinson for Fox News.
Russian military buildup in Syria provokes U.S. opposition
Russia continues to send military equipment to Syria despite complaints from the U.S., which is worried about escalating the conflict between government forces and rebel groups hoping to topple the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
A U.S. official told Fox News that the latest intelligence reports revealed the presence of two Russian Mi-24 “Hind” and two Mi-17 “Hip” helicopter gunships were spotted in satellite images of Bassel al-Assad International Airport, located in the Latakia province along Syria’s Mediterranean coast.
That same official told Fox News that U.S. intelligence does not believe that the attack helicopters have made flights over Syria at this point, but analysts predict that they will start undertaking missions after they are checked by maintenance crews.
U.S. intelligence reveals that Russian equipment continues to arrive at the airbase in Latakia in huge An-124 Condor planes. An average of two flights per day take the total number to almost 20, constituting a significant amount of equipment.
Although helicopter gunships and battle tanks have been spotted, there has been no evidence of Russian fighter jets arriving at the facility.
High-level talks between U.S. and Russian figures
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is the Obama administration’s lead negotiator in dealings with Russia, and he has been in touch with his Russian counterpart 3 times in 10 days. On Tuesday Russian President Vladimir Putin told the press that Moscow’s military support to Syria would continue, claiming that the current refugee crisis in Europe would be “even bigger” without Russia’s actions in supporting the Assad regime.
Despite those claims, White House and Pentagon officials have decried Russia’s military buildup in Latakia as “counterproductive.” Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook told the press Tuesday there would be no “red lines” set that would trigger a military response from the U.S., but Russian actions have been met with disapproval.
Cook went on to detail that U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter has so far not made contact with his Russian counterpart. “Mil-to-mil” relations were suspended in the wake of Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula last year.
Although relations remain officially suspended, Carter retains the liberty of contacting the Russians of his own accord. “There is nothing to prevent it,” Cook said.
Nature of weaponry sparks concerns over Moscow’s intentions
Alongside the helicopters, 6 high-tech T-90 battle tanks were seen arriving at Bassel al-Assad International Airport, significantly strengthening the Russian presence in Syria. The airport commemorates President Bashar al-Assad’s brother, who died in a car accident in 1994.
Offensive Russian military systems continue to arrive on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. The airport has been expanded to include temporary housing for up to 1,500 troops, 15 artillery pieces have been unloaded from Russian cargo ships and 35 armored personnel carriers have also arrived in the port of Tartus over the past few days.
The Tartus navy base has played host to Russian Navy units for decades, one sign of the close relationship between the Assad regime and Moscow. Tartus is located just 40 miles south of the air base, allowing easy supply lines to Russia’s forward operations base in Syria.
The Assad regime has enjoyed historically close ties with Moscow, with both sides acknowledging that high-level military-technological cooperation has been ongoing. It seems that the decades-long friendship has induced Russian actions to support Assad as his government continues to suffer the effects pf a brutal civil war which has unleashed the largest wave of refugees to Europe since World War II.
Why is Russia getting involved in Syria?
While Moscow claims to be shoring up Syria against the influence of Islamic extremists who are trying to depose Assad, there are also vested interests in play. Should Assad be deposed, a new Syrian government may move to end Russia’s stay at Tartus, which would mean that Moscow loses its last foothold on the Mediterranean.
As Putin and Russia become increasingly isolated, it makes sense that the Kremlin wants to maintain long-standing friendships and the benefits that they bring. By supporting the Assad regime, Russia may unfortunately find itself going against prevailing opinion and further damaging its international reputation.
There is also the possibility that Putin is attempting to distract Russia from mounting problems at home, which were themselves partly induced by Western sanctions imposed after the annexation of Crimea. Either way, Russian involvement in Syria does not bode well for stability in the Middle East.