Rumours are circulating about the extent of Russian military involvement in war-torn Syria.
Moscow admits providing military assistance to Bashar al-Assad’s government. It says it’s helping in the fight against extremists, so why is the situation so controversial?
What is Russia rumoured to be doing?
Russian forces are reported to have begun participating in military operations in Syria. Media reports citing anonymous official sources suggest a number of Russian military officers are currently based in the capital Damascus, in the south west, where they are said to hold regular meetings with Iranian and Syrian counterparts.
According to the New York Times, Moscow seems to be making preparations to station military personnel at an airfield south of Latakia, on the coast in north-west Syria. Groundwork reportedly included sending prefabricated housing for up to 1,000 staff, as well as a portable air traffic control centre to the airstrip.
The newspaper also reports more supplies and equipment were sent to Syria over the weekend (September 5-6, 2015) on two Russian Condor transport planes. Their route purportedly took them from southern Russia, across Iraq and Iran, to Latakia. During the same weekend, Russian military personnel are believed to have been transported to the airbase on a different aircraft.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, an American official told the paper: “They’re clearly establishing some sort of forward operating base.”
Similarly, Lebanese sources familiar with the military and political situation in Syria told Reuters forces sent by Moscow have taken part in military operations in the country in support of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. They claim two tank-landing ships, additional cargo aircraft and a small number of naval infantry forces have been deployed by Russia in recent days.
Commenting on the alleged establishment of two Russian bases in Syria, the Lebanese experts said:
“The Russians are no longer just advisers. The Russians have decided to join the war against terrorism.”
If social media is to be believed, Russian soldiers appear to have confirmed their involvement in the more than four-year civil war. Russian journalist Ruslan Leviev has compiled a report based on images he says have been posted by his country’s armed forces.
One soldier in particular, named as Maxim Mazhnikov of Russia’s 810th marine brigade, appears to have detailed his regiment’s journey to Syria through selfies on a popular social media site. Leviev says over the past two months Moscow has sent increasing numbers of troops to a Russian naval maintenance facility in Tartus, western Syria.
Other photographs have circulated, purporting to show Russian soldiers in the city of Zabadani, some 45 kilometres north of the capital. The city is considered necessary to Iran’s “strategic corridor” in Syria, according to online publication, The Daily Beast.
However, New York University’s Mark Galeotti refuted the reports of Russian military operations in Syria. The specialist in global affairs and Russian and Slavic studies told Business insider:
“These unconfirmed reports are nothing but rumors couched in the barest of facts.” According to Galeotti, “Russia sees Assad as a spent force.”
Russia is a long time ally of Syria. Officials in Moscow confirm they have “experts” on the ground in the Middle Eastern country.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently reinforced Russia’s loyalty to Assad’s administration, saying Moscow “has never concealed that it delivers military equipment to official Syrian authorities with the aim of combatting terrorism.”
However, Russia has not yet commented on the scale and scope of its military presence in the country.
The US has begun encouraging nearby countries not to allow Russian planes to fly over their airspace. Washington says the planes may be being used to carry military supplies to Syria. Moscow criticised the call as “international boorishness,” claiming its planes are transporting humanitarian aid to the country.
Damascus denies Russian troops are involved in combat. However, a Syrian official told Reuters the presence of experts has increased over the past 12 months.
International boorishness or not, Bulgaria has heeded Washington’s call to deny Russian planes the use of its air space.
On Tuesday (September 8) it cited doubts about the cargo on board a Russian plane as an excuse to refuse the aircraft entry. The following day, Sofia said it would be asking Russia to land and undergo cargo checks at one of Bulgaria’s airports if it wanted to continue flying over the country to Syria.
Greece has, to date, not publically responded to Washington’s request.
The White House says it is closely monitoring the situation. US Secretary of State John Kerry has spoken to Sergei Lavrov on a number of occasions to warn military involvement in Syria could fan more violence in the country.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest told the press that: “We are aware of reports that Russia may have deployed military personnel and aircraft to Syria, and we are monitoring those reports quite closely. Any military support to the Assad regime for any purpose, whether it’s in the form of military personnel, aircraft supplies, weapons, or funding, is both destabilising and counterproductive.”
Reuters says US officials have not dismissed the possibility Russia may plan to launch air combat missions from Syria.
Responses flooded in from a number of countries and institutions, in response to the reported increase in Russian activity in the country.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called the reports of increasing Russian activity in the country a cause for concern, while France conceded it would make a political solution to the crisis in the region more complicated.
Germany went one step further. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier warned Moscow against increased military intervention, stating that a political solution to the conflict could still be reached.