The Cable

Pentagon: Russia Still Expanding Military Footprint in Syria

Russian troops, tanks, and artillery are all flowing into Syria.

Russian T-90A tanks take part in a military drill at a training ground outside the southern Russian city of Krasnodar on April 14, 2015. AFP PHOTO / SERGEI VENYAVSKY        (Photo credit should read SERGEI VENYAVSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian T-90A tanks take part in a military drill at a training ground outside the southern Russian city of Krasnodar on April 14, 2015. AFP PHOTO / SERGEI VENYAVSKY (Photo credit should read SERGEI VENYAVSKY/AFP/Getty Images)

There has been a “continued steady flow” of Russian military equipment entering Syria by sea and air in recent days, a Pentagon spokesman said Monday, intensifying concerns in Washington over Moscow’s support of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis added that the United States has also detected work being done by Russian forces at the Latakia air base in Syria, indicating that the Russians plan to use the facility as “a forward air operating base.”

Russian cargo aircraft and ships have been beating a steady path to Syrian airfields and ports in recent weeks, with more than 15 cargo flights landing at Latakia in recent days. Similarly, Russian navy and commercial ships have continued steaming into Syrian ports, including the recent arrival of two tank landing ships.

That increased traffic by air and sea has fueled speculation that Russia is sending large pieces of military equipment to help bolster the Syrian armed forces, which have been involved in a grinding war with a host of rebel groups — including the Islamic State — looking to overthrow the Assad regime.

Some of those shipments may have included up to a half dozen Russian T-90 tanks along with some artillery pieces, according to a Reuters report, which says they have been placed in defensive positions around the Latakia facility.

“It’s classic Putin,” said one U.S. official, comparing Russia’s actions in Syria with those in Ukraine last year. “Moving really quickly before the international community can decide how to respond.”

It is not clear what role, if any, the tanks might play in offensive operations against the Islamic State or other groups fighting government forces, but the shipments have further strained relations between Moscow and Washington. The U.S.-led airstrikes against the Islamic State and al Qaeda-aligned groups in Syria are not meant to topple the Assad regime, but the United States also opposes any international aid that would bolster the government in Damascus.

There is no indication that Russian fighter planes or helicopters are in Syria yet. But Russian troops at the base could provide much-needed maintenance for the Russian-made aircraft flown by the Syrian air force, which has seen near constant combat in more than four years of war.

The presence of massive Russian transport aircraft in the skies over Syria could also complicate the ongoing U.S.-led air war against the Islamic State, since U.S. military officials have insisted that there is no information sharing between the coalition and Russia on military activities or flight plans over Syria.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Moscow last week that Russia and the United States should share more information about their military activities in the Middle East, as it is “important for the avoidance of undesired, unintended incidents.”

While Russian officials claim that the presence of a small number of its troops in Syria are only there to provide maintenance on Russian-supplied equipment, there is evidence that some troops from more elite units — including Russia’s 810th marine brigade — are currently on the ground there, as well.

The rapid, secretive deployment of advanced military equipment to Syria shares similarities with Russia’s initial armed intervention in Ukraine, U.S. officials say. Russian forces were deployed with lightning speed to create facts on the ground, while officials in Moscow downplayed the country’s role or denied any major escalation.

FPs Dan De Luce contributed to this report.

Photo credit: SERGEI VENYAVSKY/AFP/Getty Images

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