Anybody who thought Turkey’s downing of a Russian Air Force jet on the Syria border would cause Russia to slow down or even rethink their military commitment to the Bashar Assad regime better think again.
Fox News is reporting that Russia has already moved ahead with an expansion of its military operations in Syria, including the construction of a second airbase and other military installations, according to a U.S. official familiar with the latest intelligence reports.
More on Russia and the expansion of operations in Syria
The official noted that the Russian presence in Syria has now reached a total of four forward operating bases, when you include the new bases in Hama and Tiyas. The Pentagon, however, is most worried about a second airbase under construction in Shayrat suitable for fixed-wing aircraft, which will significantly increase Russia’s capability for airstrikes.
“The Russians are operating helicopters out of Shayrat airport, but they are making [preparations] to land fixed-wing aircraft,” a second U.S. official confirmed.
Of interest, Shayrat is around 25 miles north of the Syrian city of Homs, not too far from the Lebanese border.
Russia has based dozens of warplanes and helicopters at Basel al-Assad airbase in coastal city and Assas bastion of Latakia since late September. The Pentagon will not confirm any Russian military jets have landed at Shayrat, but there are reports from Syria that Russia began landing jets on Tuesday.
The two other forward operating bases set up by the Russians are used to land attack helicopters being used to defend the Assad regime against the Syrian rebels and ISIS.
When asked if the Russian expansion to a second airbase was defensive in case Syrian rebels succeed in damaging the Latakia base, the officials said no.
“This is an expansion, not a defensive move at all.” He went on to say that Syrian rebels were not anywhere close to taking the Russian airbase in Latakia.
Turkey shot down Russian fighter jet last week
In a major development last week, a Russian Su-24 military aircraft was shot down over the Syria – Turkey border. Russia had vehemently denied Turkey’s claim the jet was in Turkish airspace, but Monday, the U.S. State Department publicly backed Turkey’s claims that the plane was in Turkish airspace.
The entire affair turned even more dramatic when a Russian transport helicopter sent to rescue the downed pilots was downed and destroyed with a U.S.-made TOW anti-tank missiles by Syrian rebels (the crew escaped). At this point, the Russians are believed to have 31 warplanes and 15 helicopters in Syria.
U.S. President Obama, when discussing Putin’s calculations over Syria in a speech on Tuesday, said that the current situation in Syria is “not the outcome he is looking for.”
That said, critics of the White House note that over the last year or so Russia has greatly expanded its influence across the globe. Foreign policy analysts point out that this is true not only in the Middle East, but in eastern Ukraine where Russia annexed Crimea and dispatched disguised troops into eastern Ukraine to support separatists.
Back in October, Obama said that he does not want a proxy war with Russia in Syria, but the CIA’s arming of rebels in Syria and the ongoing Russian airstrikes makes it pretty clear the U.S. is already engaged in at least the beginnings of a proxy war.
The defense official also noted that Turkey was “really pissed” when Russia continued to bomb Turkmen rebels fighting Assad in Syria, as they are ethnically related to Turks. He also claimed that the Turkish military had warned Russia on a number of occasions to not enter its airspace before finally taking down the Russian Su-24 strike fighter last week.
Russia deploying ground troops in Syria?
As reported by ValueWalk on November 30th, an article from from Kuwait-based Alrai Mediagroup claims that Russia has sent ground troops to Syria to support its operations in the country.
According to the Alrai report, members of the Russian army have been acting as protection for the T-90 tanks on the ground protecting the airbase at Latakia and elsewhere. These reports cannot be confirmed, and if true, directly contradict earlier statements from Russian President Vladimir Putin that no Russian ground combat forces will be sent to Syria.