Russia has placed advanced surface-to-surface ballistic missiles in Syria, according to an Israelli satellite imaging company, which published satellite photos of the missile-launchers on Friday.
ImageSat International said its EROS B satellite captured photos of two vehicle-mounted SS-26 “Iskander” missile launchers in northern Syria. The launchers are located in the Syrian army’s Latakia airbase. Two other launchers had also been spotted at the base, it said.
The Iskander is a mid-range missile capable of carrying nuclear warheads, with a range of 400-500 kilometers.
According to the Ynet news website, Russia has previously considered providing Iskander missiles to the Syrian President Bashar Assad, but has refrained from doing so due to Israeli concerns. The weaponry seen in the newly released photos is apparently controlled by Russian forces operating in Syria, and has not been handed over to Assad’s forces.
“This revelation approves [sic] several unconfirmed reports of the Iskander presence in Syria and uncovers the system’s deployment site,” ImageSat said.
It added that according to its assessments, the launchers were “routinely deployed under camouflage nets at a nearby unpaved compound. Most probably, heavy rain and floods forced the redeployment of those two elements to the location in which they were revealed by iSi analysts.”
The Ynet report said Israel is worried that the weaponry could fall into the hands of Lebanese Shiite terrorist group Hezbollah, which is fighting alongside Russian and Syrian regime forces, and is committed to destroying Israel.
On Friday Russia’s military said it has begun scaling down its deployment to Syria, with Moscow’s sole aircraft carrier set to be the first to quit the conflict zone.
“In accordance with the decision of the supreme commander of the Russian armed forces Vladimir Putin, the Russian Defense Ministry is beginning the reduction of the armed deployment to Syria,” Russian news agencies quoted military chief Valery Gerasimov as saying.
Gerasimov said that a naval group headed by aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov would be the first to leave the area.
Russia’s main commander in Syria Andrei Kartapolov said that Russia still had sufficient air defense capabilities in Syria thanks to its S-300 and S-400 systems deployed in the war-torn country.
Since September 2015, Russia had boosted its firepower on land in Syria and off the coast in the Mediterranean in support of regime forces targeting the second city of Aleppo.
Troops loyal to Russia’s ally Bashar Assad finally ousted rebels from the city last month in their biggest victory in more than five years of fighting, paving the way for the Kremlin to launch a fresh push for a political solution to the conflict.
Russian President Putin ordered a reduction in his forces in Syria on December 29, as he announced a ceasefire between government and rebel forces that has since dampened down the fighting.
Russia, along with Turkey and Iran, are currently pushing for peace talks to be held later this month in the capital of Kazakhstan, Astana.
Moscow launched its bombing campaign in Syria in September 2015, helping to turn the tide in favor of Assad’s ailing forces.
AFP contributed to this report.