Russia’s increasing presence and reported deployment of hardware in Syria have sparked concerns in the West that the Kremlin is officially entering the Syrian Civil War.
Russia has sent about a half dozen tanks to an airfield amid reports of increased military buildup in Syria, according to two U.S. officials speaking on condition of anonymity on Monday.
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The officials added that the Kremlin’s intentions to send heavy military hardware were unclear. However, it is widely believed that Russia is planning to strengthen the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has been experiencing difficulties lately.
Russia has sent artillery units as well as seven tanks to the Syrian airbase near Latakia, which is on the Mediterranean coast, amid ongoing Russia’s military buildup, a U.S. official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
The official also added that Russia’s latest cutting-edge tank development – T-90 – arrived in Latakia over the past few days but hasn’t been spotted outside the airbase yet. The source added that the hardware was likely sent to strengthen airfield defense to protect Russian personnel stationed in the region.
As many as “hundreds” of Russian soldiers have already been deployed to Latakia, while the Kremlin has installed mobile housing units to take in over 1,500 troops, according to the source.
Russia plans forward air operating base in Syria
The Pentagon refused to immediately comment on the reports of the anonymous sources, explaining that it could not discuss U.S. intelligence. However, one thing is pretty clear to Washington: Russia plans to build a forward air operating base in Syria, according to a Pentagon spokesman.
“We have seen movement of people and things that would indicate that they plan to use that base there, south of Latakia, as a forward air operating base,” U.S. Defense Department spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said during a news briefing.
He also added that the reported “steady flow” of Russian personnel and military hardware to Syria’s Latakia in recent days suggests that the Kremlin plans to operate military aircraft straight from the base. However, the U.S. hasn’t witnessed a single fighter jet nor an attack helicopter coming from Russia to Syria.
In recent days, Russia has been criticized by numerous countries to explain its actions in Syria that suggest Moscow is eager to provide al-Assad’s regime with military equipment.
Reuters has previously reported that the Kremlin had sent nearly 200 of its naval infantry troops to the airfield along with temporary housing units, equipment for air defense systems and a portable air traffic control.
Putin: We will continue sending military support to Syria
Russian President Vladimir Putin has vowed Tuesday to continue providing military support to the al-Assad’s regime in Syria despite growing indications that the Kremlin has entered the Syrian Civil War.
Putin also urged other countries to join Russia in sending “military-technical assistance” to Syria.
He pointed out that the number of refugees fleeing to Europe would have been even ‘bigger’ without Russian support for the Syrian government.
“We support the government of Syria… in countering the terrorist aggression,” Putin said. “We provide and will continue to provide it with the necessary military technical assistance. And we urge other countries to join us.”
Russia masks military equipment to Syria as ‘humanitarian aid’?
Last week, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated that Russia keeps on deploying military hardware and advisers to the Syrian government, which Moscow has been supporting for 4 and a half years.
Lavrov added that Russia continues to deploy its equipment and troops to Syria only within the limits of bilateral weapons deals and not as an expeditionary force.
However, state television Channel One showed on Saturday two Russian military cargo planes carrying alleged 50 tons of ‘humanitarian aid’ to Syria.
It must be pointed out that Russia delivers similar packages of humanitarian aid to separatists in eastern Ukraine, while the West suspects that it’s not humanitarian aid inside those truck convoys but weapons and ammunition.
U.S. officials also believe that Russia might be strengthening the Syrian government because it has endured significant territorial losses to U.S.-led coalition-trained rebels.
Russia is working to improve the airfield, an anonymous diplomat said in an interview with Reuters.
“There have been trucks going in and out. It appears the runway is not suited to some types of aircraft yet and they have been doing some improvements,” the diplomat said.
Russia has repeatedly claimed that the fact that it provides Syria with military ammunition does not violate international law.
Washington and its allies are using Syrian airspace to carry out a campaign of air strikes against ISIS, which has control over territory occupied by ten million people in Syria and Iran.
Russia’s recent military buildup in Syria raises concerns that Russia and American troops stationed in Syria may confront one another during military actions.
Russia vs. West: Syrian scenario of all-out war
Powerful capabilities of Russian aircraft raises concerns in the West, which can’t create a no-fly zone in Syria as it risks to find itself in an open confrontation with the second nuclear power.
The danger lies in the fact that by not being targeted by Western air strikes, which target ISIS, al-Assad’s troops might provoke a massacre in the region. And Russia would provide assistance, which could eventually involve Western countries in a military confrontation against Moscow.
Amid concerns of possible penetration of the terrorist network into Russia’s volatile Muslim regions, the Kremlin is also interested in eliminating the ISIS threat.
If Putin manages to calm the Syrian war, he will be a hero in the eyes of many European countries, since he would be able to suppress the migrant crisis in Europe.
If Russia strengthens its positions in Latakia, it will be the Kremlin’s yet another strategic victory, as it will get its hands on the aero-naval base near the routes of Russian and Asian export goods through Bosphorus strait.