There is a growing body of evidence that the Russian military presence in Syria is expanding. Now US officials have predicted that Russian combat operations will begin soon.
The previous post in our Putin in Syria blog can be found here.
Al-Akhbar, a pro-Hezbollah daily newspaper based in Beirut, Lebanon, claims that Russia has entered into an alliance with the Syrian military and Hezbollah fighters who are backing the Assad regime. Now Lebanon reports:
Al-Akhbar’s editor-in-chief Ibrahim al-Amin wrote that secret talks between Russia, Iran, Syria and Iraq had resulted in the birth of the new alliance, which he described as “the most important in the region and the world for many years.”
“The agreement to form the alliance includes administrative mechanisms for cooperation on [the issues of] politics and intelligence and [for] military [cooperation] on the battlefield in several parts of the Middle East, primarily in Syria and Iraq,” the commentator said, citing well-informed sources.
“The parties to the alliance are the states of Russia, Iran, Syria and Iraq, with Lebanon’s Hezbollah as the fifth party,” he also said, adding that the joint-force would be called the “4+1 alliance” – a play on words referring to the P5+1 world powers that negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran.
Hezbollah fighters have played a key role in supporting the Assad regime in Syria, as have command & control missions by the Iranina Revolutionary Guard Corps and a near-endless supply of parts, weapons and ammunition coming from both Iran and Russia. Now, with Russian military bases growing, Russian drones and aircraft operating over Syria, and Russian troops already defending positions in Latakia and, according to The Daily Beast, Damascus, it’s perhaps not surprising that the Russian military would be cooperating with other pro-Assad forces on the ground.
However, this flies in the face of statements made by US Secretary of State John Kerry today that Russian forces in Syria are there to protect their own assets. “For the moment it is the judgment of our military and experts that the level and type represents basically force protection,” Kerry told reporters today, according to The Moscow Times.
“If [Russia is] there to shore up Assad and to certainly provide Assad with the continued sense he doesn’t have to negotiate, then I think it’s a problem for Syria, and it’s a problem for everybody who wants to bring an end to this conflict, which has gone on for too long,” he added.
But “shore up Assad” is precisely what Russia is doing, according to Hezbollah, and evidence suggests that Russia is coordinating with Iran as well. Just today, another Russian military aircraft was tracked from Iranian airspace to the Russian air base in Latakia.
Wall Street Journal reports:
The images from mid-September show development of a weapons depot and military facility north of Latakia, suggesting that Russia is preparing to place troops in both places, according to Robert Munks, editor of IHS Jane’s Intelligence Review.
The images, which Jane’s acquired from a commercial satellite division of Airbus Group, show construction of new buildings, the presence of new tents typically used by Russian military units and significant development of the grounds, Mr. Munks said.
Before the conflict in Syria started in 2011, Russia had two bases in Syria, a relatively small navy outpost in Tartus and an air base in Latakia. While previous evidence has suggested that those bases are being expanded and their capabilities deepened, the creation of new bases in northwest Syria suggests that Russia either is concerned that these bases could fall, or is planning on launching larger operations than either of their existing facilities can support.
— James Miller
Last week we published an excerpted translation of Gazeta.ru’s account of four Russian contract soldiers who refused to be deployed to Syria.
They protested to a local military prosecutor about an assignment to an unnamed “warm country” where no duration, plan or objective was indicated, but for their troubles, found themselves under investigation.
Radio Svoboda, the Russian-language Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, interviewed Ivan Pavlov, the lawyer who has taken up the case of the contract soldiers. He said he could not give either the names or the number of his clients out of concern for their security. He said that the men had been recruited “in the dark” to be deployed to a “hot spot” of conflict. When they appealed to the prosecutor to defend their rights, the prosecutor opened an investigation and the FSB also became involved.
After the media coverage of their plight, the soldiers’ situation improved, and they were en route to their base of permanent deployment as of September 20. Nevertheless, they are facing a criminal case and may even be charged with treason, said Pavlov.
He said that under Russian law, as well as the contracts the soldier signs, they cannot be sent on a mission where they are not told where the destination is or what the terms of deployment are.
He also said that when soldiers are sent on ill-defined missions in this fashion, their families are not always able to get compensation if they are killed.
Since the Soviet era, a number of groups such as the Soldiers’ Mothers have sought reform of the army to better protect servicemen’s rights. Some changes have been made in law and practice, but are not enforced; Pavlov said they were not in evidence (translation by The Interpreter):
“People were treated like cannon fodder in the times of the USSR and the Soviet Army, like slaves without rights, and they continue to be treated this way. Despite the fact that all people with common sense realized that a modern and effective army can only be made out of free people through a normal contract system when each of the sides, and not only the serviceman ranking at the bottom, knows his duties. The “father commanders” must understand that they have certain obligations to their subordinates.”
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
The Daily Beast writes that according to three unnamed US officials, Russian combat operations in Syria are expected to start “soon.”
That concession by U.S. officials of growing Russian influence marks a shift from previous statements by officials who said they weren’t sure whether Russia intended to use force in Syria and enter into the country’s long and brutal civil war. There already are early signs that Russia plans to target moderate forces that threaten the Assad regime, not the self-proclaimed Islamic State, which has been the focus of a year-long U.S.-led air campaign.
And yet, the recent Russian moves, which threaten to undermine U.S.-led efforts over the last year, were met with hardly a shrug in some circles in Washington.
“There are not discussions happening here about what this means for U.S. influence on the war against ISIS,” one defense official told The Daily Beast.
That’s despite the fact that some unverified online videos indicate that the opening phases of such operations may have already begun.
Russia to Start Bombing in Syria ASAP
Russian combat operations on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are likely to begin "soon," three U.S. officials told The Daily Beast. And Russian drone flights to spot targets for potential airstrikes are already underway. That concession by U.S.
There are also signs that Russian drones are already flying in Syrian airspace. CNN reports:
Russia has started to fly unmanned aircraft over Syria in what
appears to be surveillance operations over the country, two U.S.
officials told CNN.
The officials were not able to confirm
whether the drones were armed, or how many missions have been flown to
date. The development was first reported by Reuters.
To date, Russia has over 25 fighter and attack aircraft, 15
helicopters, nine tanks, three surface-to-air missile systems and at
least 500 personnel on the ground in Syria, a U.S. official told CNN.
The officials were not able to confirm whether the drones were armed, or how many missions have been flown to date. The development was first reported by Reuters. The introduction of drones follows a buildup of Russian military equipment and personnel into Syria.