Putin In Syria: Unconfirmed Reports of More Drone Flights And ‘Cargo 200’

September 25, 2015
Assad and Putin/AP/RIA Novosti, Mikhail Klimentyev, Presidential Press service

Today there are unconfirmed reports that Russian soldiers killed in Syria have been brought to the Russian military port in Sevastopol, Crimea.

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

Syrian Regime Hammers Idlib Province, Elsewhere, With Airstrikes

Pictures, videos, and activist reports indicate heavy shelling in Douma, northeast Damascus today.

The violence is a daily occurrence, but it helps to verify, from time to time, reports such as these to ensure that information coming from various sources in Syria is still reliable:

For the moment, news from Latakia and nearby Idlib province are more germane to the specific issue of the role of Russian aircraft in assisting Assad.

According to the Local Coordination Committees of Syria (LCCS), perhaps the more reliable source of news on the ground in the war-torn country, at least 6 people have been killed by Assad airstrikes in the town of Tall Manis, east of Ma’arat al Nouman, in Idlib province (map). Other reports suggest the death toll may rise.

Tall Manis is on the road between Ma’arrat al Nouman, the largest town in the immediate vicinity, and the Abu ad-Duhur military airbase to the east. That air base had been besieged for quite some time, but reportedly fell to Jabhat al Nusra earlier this month. The importance of this air base and several other army installations in the area cannot be overstated, as they were the primary threat to territory controlled by anti-Assad rebels in Idlib province. With Ma’arrat al Nouman and surrounding bases firmly in rebel hands, the rebels are free to focus on other targets — including Aleppo in Syria’s north, Latakia (site of Russia’s bases) in the northwest, and the cities of Hama and Homs to the south.

One theory, then, is that the sudden Russian deployment to Latakia has far more to do with events in Idlib province than combating the terrorist group ISIS which is not present in this area. Russian drones have been scouting rebel positions in Idlib province, according to the Pentagon. Activists report that today was the first day in more than a year that Tall Manis was hit by airstrikes.

Video reportedly taken today in Tall Manis:

Other towns across Idlib province have been hit by airstrikes and “barrel bombs” today. Yesterday the LCC reported that 13 people were killed and 20 wounded in Kafar Rouma, just west of Ma’arat al Nouman. Extremely graphic video reportedly showed some of the casualties. By the end of the day yesterday 34 people had been killed, according to the LCC — 15 of whom were killed in Idlib.

Clearly Assad’s strikes against civilians are wide-ranging and non-discriminating. But it also appears as though Idlib province, particularly the towns around Ma’arat al Nouman, are a key area of focus. 

James Miller

Chinese Navy Will Reportedly Join Russian Mission In Syria

The pro-Assad media is not the only source reporting that Chinese naval ships may be headed toward Syria (see previous update below). Earlier today the pro-Kremlin outlet Pravda, citing a Russian official, also reported that Chinese ships are headed toward Syria:

According to the Russian Senator Igor Morozov, Beijing has taken decision to take part in combating IS and sent its vessels to the Syrian coast.

Igor Morozov, member of the Russian Federation Committee on International Affairs claimed about the beginning of the military operation by China against the IS terrorists. “It is known, that China has joined our military operation in Syria, the Chinese cruiser has already entered the Mediterranean, aircraft carrier follows it,” Morozov said.

According to him, Iran may soon join the operation carried out by Russia against the IS terrorists, via Hezbollah. Thus, the Russian coalition in the region gains ground, and most reasonable step of the US would be to join it.

We’d like to see another source on these reports, but the intended signal being sent by the Kremlin and the Assad regime is clear even if the news is unconfirmed — Russia and Assad are clearly trying to position their mission in Syria as legitimate, multi-lateral, and anti-terrorist in nature.

However, as we’ve pointed out, ISIS, the terrorist group in question, has no presence in either Latakia or nearby Idlib province, meaning that a Russian military buildup in northwest Syria likely has little to do with combating terrorism and has more to do with striking more moderate rebel groups who pose a threat to the Assad regime.

James Miller

More Russian Ships Spotted Moving Toward Syria, Reports That China May Join Them
The Russian state-run outlet RIA Novosti reports that the flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, the Moskva or “Moscow,” has passed through the Bosphorus Straight and is on its way toward Syria:
This news is confirmed by other sources who watch the straight:
It’s not the only ship moving southward through the Bosphorus in recent days , according to Bosphorus Naval News. Several ships have recently left the Crimean port of Sevastopol, headed southbound:

Recently a series of NOTAMs (Notice to Airmen) alerts have been issued for the area between the Russian naval base in Tartus, Syria, and the island of Cyprus, warning of Russian naval exercises and rocket tests. We have mapped the coordinates given in the notices here (map):

2015-09-25 16:10:26

It may not just be Russian naval activity picking up in the area, however. Grainy images reportedly showing Russian drones above Syria are increasingly common:
These follow reports of increased Russian drone and military aircraft flights above northwestern Syria:
Now there are also rumors, coming from pro-Assad media, that China may be sending its own forces to Syria to assist the Russian mission in Syria:

Al Masdar News reports:

On Tuesday morning, a Chinese naval vessel reportedly traveled through Egypt’s Suez Canal to enter the Mediterranean Sea; its destination was not confirmed.

However, according to a senior officer in the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) that is stationed inside the Syrian coastal city of Latakia, Chinese military personnel and aerial assets are scheduled to arrive in the coming weeks (6 weeks) to the port-city of Tartous – he could not provide anymore detail.

Russia has made it abundantly clear that they are taking an active role in this conflict, but the news of the Chinese military to Syria provides more insight into their contingency.

It appears that Russia is not going to combat ISIS alone: the plan is similar to the U.S.’ idea of a “coalition” of air forces, but far more involved on the ground; this is something the U.S. and their allies have avoided since the inception of their war against ISIS.

James Miller

Unverified Reports Of 10 Dead Russian Marines Brought From Syria To Crimea

Mustafa Dzhemilev, Ukrainian MP and former chairman of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis, has told Ukraine’s 112 television channel that the bodies of 10 Russian soldiers have been flown into Sevastopol, occupied Crimea, from Syria.

The Interpreter translates:

“The Russian side has already sent their troops straight in. So far, around ten bodies have arrived in Sevastopol, they’re sending them to the war in Syria. 10 coffins have arrived in Sevastopol, and this is just in Sevastopol,” said Dzhemilev.

Speaking last night, Dzhemilev did not mention the source for his claims. However Roman Burko, a Ukrainian investigative blogger, tweeted about 10 minutes later:

Translation: A reliable source in the Russian Black Sea Fleet: “ten dead members of the 810th Independent Naval Infantry Brigade have arrived in Sevastopol. Suckers for selfies.”

So far, we cannot see anything to corroborate this story from other sources and it should be regarded with caution. Such claims often originate from urban legends or even disinformation. Such a large number of casualties will likely, if true, eventually be corroborated by battle reports from with Syria or evidence of funerals in Russia. 

— Pierre Vaux