Russian troops are building their presence in Syria, and reports suggest their involvement is only escalating.
Welcome to our column, Russia Update, where we will be closely following day-to-day developments in Russia, including the Russian government’s foreign and domestic policies.
The previous issue is here.
– âI Was on Active Dutyâ: Interview with Captured GRU Officer Aleksandrov
– Meet The Russian Fighters Building A Base Between Mariupol And Donetsk
– ‘There Was No Buk in Our Field’
– With Cash and Conspiracy Theories, Russian Orthodox Philanthropist Malofeyev is Useful to the Kremlin
Yet The Interpreter has found that the stories appear to be either garbled or deliberate disinformation and cannot be verified.
“Russia’s army is letting itself be known due to its losses not only in the Donbass but in the Middle East where the conflict with ISIS continues,” says Pressa.today. At least 10 Russian Federation Armed Forces infantry were killed in battle, says Pressa.today, citing Russian social media (translation by The Interpreter):
A Russian blogger, Yelena Weber, claimed on Facebook that the bodies of as many as 103 Russian military personnel who died in a missile strike in the Syrian province of Raqqa were discussed at the military airport in Ain Issa.
The story is accompanied by pictures from social media of Russian paratroopers in their typical blue-and-white telnashka or t-shirt standing next to a poster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and President Vladimir Putin.
Joinfo.ua doesn’t supply a link to that Facebook, but then posts a screenshot of a Tweet from a Russian blogger @Shymanovski:
He made the tweet on September 4 and has it pinned it to the top of his feed now:
Translation: New Russian Series, “Moscow Doesn’t Believe in Coffins.” Season 2. Syria.
reference is to a famous movie of the perestroika era, “Moscow Doesn’t
Believe in Tears” and in this context refers to the unwillingness of
Russians to believe their country’s soldiers are deployed — and killed
Joininfo.ua showed Shymanovski’s tweet juxtaposed to Weber’s Facebook post, but it turns out it’s not @Shymanovski who has tweeted the link to her, but vice versa:
Weber’s Facebook page shows she is a Russian-language blogger based in Neuhardenberg, Germany. It’s not her original report, but a copy of a post in a group in the Russian social media network VKontakte called “Tipichny Dombas,” which is a
pejorative version of the term “Donbass,” i.e. which translates to”Typical Dumbass,” with the comment,
“Well, it’s started!” She didn’t link to the group, but we found their
She — like other bloggers and groups — copied verbatim the text posted September 5 (translation by The Interpreter).
Turkish authorities reported that 45 Pskov paratroopers became victims
of a rocket strike during an operation on the territory of Syria. As a
result of the shelling of a training camp in the Syrian province of Raqqa,
five servicemen from the GRU spetsnaz were killed. According to
information from Associated Press, as a result of the shelling, 10 marines
from Vladivostok were killed.
As Press TV reports, citing a local
television network, the bodies of the remaining soldiers remain
unidentified although it is known that soldiers have come from the eastern and
northern military districts of Russia. Another 70
servicemen, the majority of whom are paratroopers, were wounded, some of
them are in serious condition.
According to the TV channel, more
than 40 units of armor and military trucks were destroyed durint the
shelling, including 12 T-72 tanks, and three Ka-52 military helicopters and
two IL-76 transport planes were burnt.
Even members of “Tipichny Dombas”
commented that they thought the story was fake, but others said it must
be true because Russia always denied its presence in foreign wars and
then it was later confirmed.
But we didn’t find any such report on the AP of any Russian military deaths.
The New York Times quoted AP on September 4 in a story about the Russian presence, without any such references to
Russians killed in action:
Russia has sent a military advance
team to Syria and is taking other steps the United States fears may
signal that President Vladimir V. Putin is planning to vastly expand his
military support for President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, administration
officials said Friday.
The Russian moves, including the recent
transport of prefabricated housing units for hundreds of people to a
Syrian airfield and the delivery of a portable air traffic control
station there, are another complicating factor in Secretary of State
John Kerry’s repeated efforts to enlist Mr. Putin’s support for a
diplomatic solution to the bloody conflict in Syria.
The Russians have also filed military overflight requests with neighboring countries through September.
The story mentions Putin speaking in Vladivostok at the recent Eastern Economic Forums, but nothing about any soldiers from that city who were killed.
for the “Turkish authorities,” we couldn’t find any credible news
report of this statement, either. Independent Russian media has reported
the Russian presence in Syria, but not any “Cargo 200”. Novaya Gazeta did make
the point, however, that the news reminded them of the early days of the
war in Ukraine:
Peskov, press secretary of the president of Russia, denies the
participation of the Russian Armed Forces in the conflict in Syria, and
official NATO representatives are keeping silent for the time being. The
situation around the Russian military presence is technically
reminiscent of the onset of the hybrid war on the territory of Ukraine.
Incidentally, parallel to the first rumors of the appearance of the
Russian corps in Syria, observers recorded a sharp de-escalation of the
conflict in the Donbass. It’s as if the specialists in conducting
“hybrid war” have been drawn away to a new project.
It is mainly
alternative Ukrainian press that have reported this “Cargo 200 from Syria” story and some Russian
bloggers and commenters, such as one reader named “SALO SPEC” who posted the same exact text as Yelena Weber regarding the bodies of
“103 Russian military” and the “Turkish authorities” on the “45 Pskov
paratroopers” in the comments section below the Novaya Gazeta story.
The Pskov paratroopers have been confirmed as
involved — and suffering losses — in the invasion of Crimea and the
Russian-backed offensive in the Donbass, but have not been confirmed in
Syria. Russian officials denied their presence last year, but ultimately
when some Pskov paratroopers were killed in action and their bodies
returned home, it was impossible for the Kremlin to maintain the
That may be why they have now become part of social media lore with Syria.
An identical post about the “103rd” and the “45th” were found
in the VKontakte group “ANTIBOTY Inform” — now citing Weber as the source
although she had begun citing another VKontakte group:
Russian photo site was referenced, which also ran with the headline “Bodies of 103
Russian Military Killed in Rocket Shelling in Syria Province of Raqqa”
— also citing Weber as a source.
Readers pronounced this as a fake, showing where the report of “103” had actually originated.
the Iranian state news site (not to be confused with Press TV from
Ukraine also referenced in this post), said “Bodies of 103 Foreign
Troops Recovered from Yemen’s Safer Airport.”
top Yemeni tribal source says the bodies of 103 foreign troopers have
been recovered from a military airport in the central Yemeni province of
Ma’rib, where they came under a rocket attack by Yemeni army forces and
allied Popular Committees.
The source, speaking on condition of
anonymity, said authorities have identified 45 Emirati nationals as well
as five Bahraini citizens among the soldiers slain in al-Safer airport,
adding that the remaining corpses belong to individuals that hailed
from other Arab nations, Arabic-language al-Masirah satellite television
So these foreign fighters were not Russians,
and it does not appear that there is any credible report anywhere of
Russians killed in Syria. But now that Russian troops have been
confirmed in Syria as we reported earlier today, this may be a
matter of time.
The Russian blogger Ruslan Leviev, who has
reported on GRU spetsnaz killed in Ukraine and debunked the claim that
“2,000” Russians have been killed in the war in Ukraine, is cautious
about making definitive claims about the Russians fighting in Syria. His
original Russian post has been translated into English here.
believes that while Russia has sent troops to bolster its naval depot
in Tartus (which he says is “not a naval base”) after significant losses
for the Syrian government, he does not find evidence that these soldiers
are in combat. The presence went from four to “hundreds” with heavy
“vehicles,” he was translated as saying. We would translate this term as “armor” especially when the
author used the term “voyennaya tekhnika” which is “military vehicle,”
i.e. armor in a discussion about BTRs, not merely KAMaz trucks.
an exhaustive study of the photos and video from social networks and concludes
that Russians are in Syria from the items in the photographs. He finds
the photographs of destroyers not to be clear enough to be definitive
and make a judgement.
In order to flush out some more specific
comments from wives of soldiers who had expressed concerns about their
husbands being deployed to Syria (who were given little information),
Leviev posed as “Marina from Simferopol” pretending to be the wife of a
Russian serviceman) who said that while the soldiers were forbidden to
disclose the mission, they were being sent to guard an airfield and that
it was considered a combat situation.
Meanwhile, Defense One has been more definitive in its reporting:
Photo of Russian troops in Syria. Photo taken near the Russian military base in Tartus in Syria.
Earlier it was reported Russia supplied BTR-82A Armoured Personnel and all-terrain infantry mobility vehicle «Tiger» in Syria, Russian fighter was seen flying over Western Syria.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
The Interpreter‘s editor-in-chief Michael Weiss has been following the Russian military deployment to Syria, and has written two articles assessing the evidence for The Daily Beast. On September 1, the size of Russia’s growing military presence in Syria was small but alarming:
On August 22, the Bosphorus Naval News website showed the Alligator-class Russian ship Nikolai Filchenkov, part of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, two days earlier passing through Istanbul’s famed waterway en route to an unknown location in the Mediterranean (hint, hint).
But what was remarkable about the Filchenkov was that military equipment was visible on deck—namely, Kamaz trucks and, judging by the tarpaulin outlines, at least four BTR infantry fighting vehicles. (This doesn’t include any matériel that might have been stored in the ship’s below-deck cargo hold.)
On August 24, the Oryx Blog, which tracks military dynamics in the Middle East and North Africa, discovered that at least one BTR-82A had turned up in the coastal province of Latakia, where Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s family hails from and which has lately been contested, impressively, by Jaysh al-Fatah, or the Army of Conquest, a collection of Islamist rebels groups including Jabhat al Nusra, the official al Qaeda franchise in Syria.
So important to Assad is fortifying Latakia against rebel assault that his regime has mounted a significant counteroffensive made up of the Syrian Arab Army, the praetorian Republican Guard, and the National Defense Force, a consortium of sectarian militias constructed, trained, and financed by Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards Corps-Quds Force.
By September 5, however, evidence suggested that Russian troops were positioned at their naval base in Tartus and in their new deployment in Latakia, but also in Damascus. Russian airforce was also reportedly patrolling the skies of Syria’s northern Idlib province:
The opposition-linked website All4Syria seems to corroborate such eyewitness accounts. Many residents of Damascus, it claimed, have “observed in the first three days of September a noticeable deployment of Iranian and Russian elements in the neighborhoods of Baramkeh, al-Bahsa, and Tanzim Kfarsouseh.” The Venezia Hotel in al-Bahsa “has been turned into a military barracks for the Iranians.”
Such news comes amid a flurry of reports that Russia has made plans for a direct military intervention in Syria’s four-year civil war and may actually have started one already. The New York Times reported Saturday that Russia has sent prefabricated housing units, capable of sheltering as many as 1,000 military personnel, and a portable air traffic control station to another Syrian airbase in Latakia. That coastal province, the Assad family’s ancestral home, has already seen Russian troops caught on video operating BTR-82 infantry fighting vehicles against anti-Assad rebels, atop rumors that Moscow may be deploying an “expeditionary force,” including Russian pilots who would fly combat missions.
They may already be doing so. A social media account affiliated with the al-Qaeda franchise Jabhat al-Nusra posted images of what appeared to be Russian Air Force jets and drones flying in the skies of Syria’s northwest Idlib province. They were, specifically, the Mig-29 Fulcrum, the Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker, the Su-34 Fullback, and the Pchela-1T drone. These images were analyzed as credible by the specialist website The Aviationist, which also noted that “during the past days, Flightradar24.com has exposed several flights of a Russian Air Force… Il-76 airlifter (caught by means of its Mode-S transponder) flying to and from Damascus using radio call sign ‘Manny 6,’ most probably supporting the deployment of a Russian expeditionary force.”
As Weiss noted, the terrorist group ISIS is not in Idlib province — preliminary evidence suggests, then, that the Russian intention is not to kill terrorists but to combat all forces opposed to Syrian President Bashar al Assad, including moderate units which are nominally supported by the West:
There are many reasons why the international community should be concerned. For starters, today’s notification that the U.S. is trying to block Russian air traffic to Syria suggests that they are not cooperating with the Russian military in this manner — but the US is leading a coalition of nations in conducting air strikes against ISIS. This has some worried that the Russian and American militaries are both operating in the same theater of operations, but not necessarily on the same side.
In fact, just today the UK announced that they have also conducted airstrikes in Syria.
There is another worry, however. The Russian military is positioning itself in Syria at the same time as Europe is finally awakening to the fact that the refugee crisis created by the fighting in Syria will inevitably spread to their own countries. It is Assad, not ISIS, that is driving the vast majority of the violence and destruction in Syria. Anshel Pfeffer, of Haaretz, has been interviewing Hungary’s famous refugees. They are unanimous:
Thus many believe that only the removal of the Assad regime will restore order to Syria. And it becomes much harder to do this if Russian troops are defending key positions important to the survival of the Assad regime. Russian troops will bolster a foundering regime which is hemorrhaging territory, but they will free up Assad’s elite forces to launch counterattacks. Furthermore, while Assad is at a disadvantage when it comes to manpower (due to lack of popular support), Russian armor and jet fighters could exaggerate Assad’s already-potent advantage — a monopoly on air power, and superior land-based firepower. While international air strikes could easily neutralize Assad’s technological prowess, allowing the numerically-superior rebel forces to win, that proposal could be nullified by the presence of troops on the ground which belong to the world’s largest nuclear power.
But if refugees are the real problem, any increase in strength on behalf of the Assad regime will result in more civilian deaths and destruction. The Assad regime has a nasty habit of bombing civilians when their military is on a losing streak, and any escalation in violence will simply fuel the humanitarian crisis — and by extension the flood of Syrian refugees seeking refuge, and often dying to find it, in the process.
— James Miller
Reuters, citing Greek officials, reports that the United States has asked Greece to block Russian military air traffic from flying over the country to Syria.
The Greek foreign ministry said the request was being examined. Russian newswire RIA Novosti earlier said Greece had refused the U.S. request, quoting a diplomatic source as saying that Russia was seeking permission to run the flights up to Sept. 24.
Russia, which has a naval base in the Syrian port of Tartous, has sent regular flights to Latakia, which it has also used to bring home Russian nationals who want to leave.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on Saturday that if reports of the build-up were accurate, that could further escalate the war and risk confrontation with the U.S.-led alliance that is bombing Islamic State in Syria.
Lavrov told Kerry it was premature to talk about Russia’s participation in military operations in Syria, a Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman told RIA Novosti on Monday.
RT, the Russian state-run propaganda outlet, reports that the U.S. was trying to block Russian “humanitarian aid” being shipped to Syria:
On Saturday, the US embassy asked the interim Greek government to prohibit flights of Russian aircraft in the Athens FIR, the country’s airspace. The Greeks refused, so as not to worsen relations with Russia, the source said.
The RIA source added that Russia had requested to use Greek airspace for humanitarian flights to Syria, September 1-24. Athens reportedly agreed.
— James Miller