When Western media outlets first started to report that the Russian military had arrived in Syria, the Russian government was quick to clarify the situation. Putin admitted that his nation’s military was providing equipment and training for Assad’s military, and left it at that. “To say we’re ready to do this today — so far it’s premature to talk about this. But we are already giving Syria quite serious help with equipment and training soldiers, with our weapons.”
Within the same day, anonymous intelligence agents with the US government revealed that the Russians were actually preparing to help Assad in a more direct way. They claimed that a new military base was being built in the port city of Lakatia, that would include an air traffic control tower and several prefab structures that could house over 1000 military personnel.
Nearly two weeks after we heard about these events, a defense official told Fox News that the Pentagon had tracked over a dozen Russian cargo flights, which were dumping a steady stream of military supplies into Syria. At least two of these flights included a shipment of tanks. The defense official added that “This is the largest deployment of Russian forces outside the former Soviet Union since the collapse of the USSR.”
Of course, no one can say for sure what is really going on. While none of this would be all that surprising considering Russia’s blanket support for the Assad regime, as well the Russian military’s appreciation for clandestine warfare, it’s hard to say whether or not these anonymous government sources are telling the truth, misinterpreting their intel, or are just blowing smoke.
However, the first real proof that Russia is up to something in Lakatia has finally arrived. Foreignpolicy.com recently purchased a satellite photo of the area, which seems to show what those anonymous officials have been talking about.
You can check out their website to see a larger photo, and a comparison with an older, Google maps image. Something is definitely being built there.
The satellite image shows far more than prefabricated housing and an air traffic control station. It shows extensive construction of what appears to be a military canton at Bassel al-Assad International Airport (named for Bashar’s elder brother, who died in a car accident in 1994). This canton appears designed to support Russian combat air operations from the base and may serve as a logistical hub for Russian combat forces.
In recent days, using aircraft tracking sites, a number of analysts have begun to document the near-daily arrival of Russian transport planes to the base. The Russians are also sending ships to Syria, though the ships often declare for a nearby non-Syrian port, like Port Said in Egypt, and then take a wrong turn at Albuquerque, so to speak.
If there’s one thing we can learn from Russia’s growing presence in Syria, it’s that they’re no longer content to simply fight our proxy forces with theirs. As time goes on, they seem to be stepping up their game, as they take a more direct interest in the conflict. And with that, the potential for a real war between Russia and the US, grows a little more.
Russia's assistance to Syria could well help Moscow play a more prominent role across the Middle East as Washington's allies in the region feel increasingly disappointed with the US.
Western politicians, experts and media almost exclusively refer to Russian aid to Syria as "military buildup" if not "military intervention" which it is not. In reality Moscow is helping Damascus in its fight against Islamic militants, including the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda's offshoot in the country.
To that end, President Vladimir Putin has urged to form a new coalition, involving Syria, Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, to prevent Islamic extremists from overrunning the country since the US has been struggling to deliver on its promise to degrade and ultimately destroy the IS.
One of the implications of Russia's assistance to Syria conducted in accordance with international law is likely to be the country's growing clout in the Middle East at a time when US allies in the region are growing increasingly disillusioned with Washington's commitment to addressing their needs and concerns.
Russia appears to be "greatly enhancing its ability to project power in Syria and neighboring states," Eric Schmitt and Michael R. Gordon noted in an article titled "Russian Moves in Syria Widen Role in Mideast."
"This is the most important Russian power projection in the region in decades," the two journalists quoted Stephen J. Blank of the American Foreign Policy Council as saying. "It will enhance Russia's influence throughout the Levant," the expert on the Russian military noted.
Meanwhile, Moscow is continuing its support to its key ally in the Middle East. Earlier this week, Putin said Russia will continue to provide the necessary military, technical and humanitarian assistance to Syria to fight Islamic State militants and urged other countries to join the efforts.