Russian President Vladimir Putin has strongly reiterated his commitment to helping President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, along with a claim that without this the headlong flight of Syrian refugees would be worse.
Putin makes no secret of Russia’s recent deployment of men and materiel, in the face of growing alarm in Washington.
On a visit to Tadjikistan, he said: “We have supported the Syrian government as it confronts terrorist aggression. We have provided and will provide all the necessary military and technical support, and we call on other countries to join us.”
Officially, Russia’s presence in Syria is restricted to its Soviet-era Material-Technical Support Point in the seaport of Tartus, an Assad stronghold. Russia’s only base on the Mediterranean dates from the Cold War — 1971, when Assad’s father held power.
According to several sources, however, among them the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Russian engineers are extending runways at the airports of Hamimim and Hamidiya, so bigger planes can land. Also: Russian supplies and military personnel have flown into Hamimim over the past few weeks.
Reuters news agency cites Western and Russian sources as saying that Moscow is sending Pantsir S1 anti-aircraft missile batteries to Syria, to have Russian, not Syrian, operators. The rationale is to support Assad, and yet the main foe identified, the radical Islamic State movement (ISIL), does not have any planes in the sky.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov confirmed at the weekend: “Certainly, military supply will continue. The supplies are inevitably accompanied by Russian specialists, who help to adjust the equipment, to train Syrian personnel how to use this weaponry. There is no mystery or secret about it.”
A Belarus website (independent, it says) backs up its claims that Russian troops are in Syria with photos; Lebanese sources tell Reuters that they have already been in combat alongside Assad’s.
Before, Iran and Hezbollah backed Assad’s struggle to hold on in Syria. Putin piling in now puts US policy on a whole different footing.