Putin in Syria: Putin Makes Absurd Claim That Russia Is Helping Free Syrian Army

December 11, 2015
Russian air strike on Kafr Zita, Hama province, today. Screenshot from ShaamNetwork video

Today there are rumors that Russia has deployed T-90 tanks south of Aleppo, while ISIS appears to be making advances southeast of Homs.

The previous post in our Putin in Syria column can be found here.

Is Russia Increasing Or Decreasing Its Presence In Syria?

Last week there were reports that Russia was building up a second base in Syria. AFP reports:

Russia is reinforcing a military airport in central Syria as a new base for its warplanes as government forces edge closer to Palmyra, a military source and monitoring group said Thursday.
“The preparation phase for the Shaayrat base is nearing its end. It is being prepared to become a Russian military base,” the military source told AFP, declining to be named.

“A number of Russian advisors arrived in Shaayrat weeks ago,” the source said. The base “will begin being used by Russian forces before the end of this month”.

Shaayrat lies in Syria’s central Homs province, north of several towns where government forces and allied militia backed by Russian air strikes have been fighting the Islamic State jihadist group.

Late last month, regime forces recaptured the town of Maheen after IS had overrun it on November 1.

As we reported yesterday, Russia has recently used helicopters to deploy Iraqi militias to this area to fight ISIS. Also, ISIS is currently engaged in heavy battle for Maheen, there was heavy fighting there yesterday, there are reports that ISIS retook the town and despite new support from the Russian military and Iraqi militias, the outcome of the battle there is by no means certain.

Today there are unverified reports, such as this one, reportedly showing ISIS fighters capturing spoils of war in Maheen — ammunition, guns, rockets, even a tank. A reverse image search of each picture below did not net any results — these pictures could be authentic:

If Russia were building a second base in Syria, then, this would be a good place to build it. Russia, however, is denying that a second base is being built. The Russian state propaganda outlet RT reports:

“You don’t need to be a serious military expert to understand
that it takes only a 30-40 minute flight to the furthest Syrian location
from the [existing] Khmeimim military airfield hosting the Russian Air
Force,” Major General Igor Konashenkov, a Defense Ministry spokesman,
told a media briefing on Wednesday.

“There is no operational need to deploy a new Russian airbase on Syrian territory,” Konashenkov added.

The Russian language here suggests that Russia’s engagement in Syria is not growing.

But as we analyzed yesterday, there are reports that the Iranian
military is drawing down its forces in Syria. While we cannot confirm
nor deny that claim, we pointed out that since this new wave of outside support, Assad is not gaining ground in any significant way which could suggest that they do not require
more outside help. In fact, the opposite appears to be true — Assad
does not appear to be winning this war at all:

Today, there are new signs that Russia may in fact be increasing, not decreasing, its material support for Assad’s war efforts. A Facebook page that may be affiliated with the Syrian Arab Army has posted a picture of soldiers riding on a T-90 tank, reportedly in Aleppo. The T-90 was never exported to Syria by the Russian military — if it is there, it is new.

Yury Barmin, an author for several Kremlin-funded outlets and someone whose Tweets are often just ahead of the official Kremlin line, tweeted this claim:

The T-90 would have no purpose for use in training, unless Russia is planning on gifting these weapons to the Syrian army.

On December 4, The Telegraph reported on rumors that Russia was deploying T-90 tanks in the fight south of Aleppo — the same fight that was costing the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps so many lives:

A report by the Iranian Fars news agency, supported by photographs circulating on social media this week, suggest that newly delivered T-90 tanks have been sent to support the Syrian regime’s advance south of Aleppo.

The T-90 tanks are swaddled in explosive armour, causing most weapons used against them to detonate on impact. Pro-regime media have said that they will be manned by hastily trained Syrian operators, though experts have questioned that claim due to the high value nature of the tanks.

Although the vehicles have been used during conflicts in Chechnya and Ukraine, this is their first confirmed deployment to a war zone, according to Tim Ripley, an analyst who writes for Jane’s Defence Weekly.

Russia, then, appears to be increasing its mission in Syria. This creates further questions concerning the reported Iranian draw-down we discussed yesterday. Would Iran draw down as Russia is building up?

James Miller

Reports Of Intense Russian Air Strikes In Idlib And Hama Provinces

There are reports today of multiple Russian air strikes, especially in Idlib and the north of the Hama province.

According to several sources, Russian jets have struck Kafr Zita, Maarat al-Numan, al-Qasabiyah, Najeya, al-Lataminah and Zakat.

Video from Kafr Zita:

According to the Syrian Local Coordination Committees (LCC), five people were killed and several wounded when Russian jets bombed a bread distribution point in the village of al-Qasabiyah.

The Shaam News Network has released graphic and distressing footage of child casualties from the attack.

The LCC reports that Maarat al-Numan was struck with thermobaric weapons – devastating munitions that can cause heavy casualties in built-up areas. 

In Aleppo, where British journalist Rami Jarrah is currently conducting a live Q and A stream, the LCC reports air strikes on the northern suburb of Qabir Inglizi and, to the north of the city, Tal Rifaat.

Meanwhile regime helicopters dropped several barrel bombs in the Damascus suburb of Darayya, killing at least two and seriously wounding several others.

— Pierre Vaux
Putin Makes Absurd Claim That Russia Is Helping Free Syrian Army

President Vladimir Putin made a rather surprising about turn today when he claimed that the Russian Air Force was assisting the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and that rebel fighters affiliated with the grouping were fighting alongside the Assad regime.

At a meeting at the Ministry of Defence, Putin said (translated by The Interpreter):

“I want to highlight the fact that the work of our air group is facilitating the joint efforts of both the government forces and the Free Syrian Army. Several of their units, numbering more than five thousand men, as well as regular troops, are now conducting offensive operations against terrorists in the Homs, Hama, Aleppo and Raqqa provinces. Furthermore, we are supporting them from the air as well as the Syrian Army, assisting them with weapons, ammunition and materiel.”

FSA units have been fighting off regime ground forces, backed by Russian air strikes, throughout the Russian military campaign which began on September 30. Most notably, FSA fighters fighting in the Hama and Latakia provinces, armed with US-made TOW missiles, have been subjected to near-daily bombardment by the Russian Air Force.

Furthermore, the likelihood of the FSA, which was founded by deserting Syrian Army officers, joining forces with the regime, seems minimal to say the least.

The Kremlin and the Syrian regime usually refer to all opposition to Assad as terrorists. So why is Putin now pretending to support the FSA?

Could Putin be referring instead to Jaish al-Thuwar, a group that broke from the FSA and now fights alongside Kurdish YPG units? Jaish al-Thuwar clashed with other rebel units north of Aleppo in recent weeks, and there were suggestions of Russian support. Certainly the attacks coincided with heavy air strikes on routes between Aleppo and the Turkish border.

YPG fighters in Aleppo have since signed a truce with the FSA but Jaish al-Thuwar were not party to the agreement.

However we have not seen any evidence of Jaish al-Thuwar operations in Hama or Homs. 

Putin’s claims seem therefore to be nothing but fluff to give them impression that the Kremlin is open to political dialogue or a transition of the sort proposed at the Vienna conference last month. However Russia’s relentless and devastating air strikes on rebel-held areas, as well Bashar al-Assad’s expressed disinterest in the Vienna plan, make it clear that Putin has no interest in working with the opposition.

— Pierre Vaux