Moscow has deployed tanks at an airfield near the Syrian coastal city of Latakia, US officials told Reuters Monday, at what the Pentagon described as a Russian “forward air operating base.”
The move is part of a recent Russian build-up in the Assad government-controlled corridor of its Middle Eastern ally. According to US officials who spoke to The New York Times, Russia has flown cargo jets through an air corridor over Iraq and Iran, transporting essential equipment and personnel to President Bashar Assad in flagrant opposition to the United States.
According to officials who spoke to Reuters, at least two military cargo planes have flown to the airfield each day for the past week.
Earlier this week, the head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdurrahman, said witnesses, including officials inside the airport, reported Russia’s development of the tarmac at the airbase so larger planes could land there. Reuters had also reported that Moscow deployed 200 marines to the airfield near Latakia as well.
Meanwhile, Damascus vehemently denied the reports of Russian troops on the ground in Syria, calling the claims “a lie,” the Telegraph cited the Syria’s envoy in Moscow telling the ITAR-TASS news agency.
“We have been cooperating with Russia for 30-40 years in various areas, including the military sphere. Yes, we receive arms, military equipment, all this is done in line with agreements sealed between our countries,” Ambassador Riad Haddad told the news outlet.
A longtime backer of Syria’s government, Moscow has recently increased its military activity in Syria, sending military advisers, technicians and security guards with the main goal of setting up an air base near the coastal town of Latakia, a stronghold of the Syrian president. There are reports that the Russians had flown in troops and modular housing units. And Israel’s defense minister, Moshe Ya’alon, says he expects Russians to be fighting alongside Assad’s troops.
Russia claims it is mainly motivated by fighting the Islamic State. But US President Barack Obama cast the buildup as an effort to prop up Assad.
Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the United Nations, warned that “doubling down” on the Assad regime “is not a winning strategy.” In an interview with CNN, she said that “Assad cannot be part of a solution … because he gasses his people, uses barrel bombs against them and is responsible for one of the worst torture campaigns in modern memory.” Even if “all you cared about IS (Islamic State) this is not going to bring peace or succeed in defeating terrorism,” she said.
The Russian moves follow the successful conclusion of the Iran nuclear deal, in which Moscow also played a key role. Both countries have a huge investment in the Syrian regime, which along with being a client state provides Russia with its only remaining Mediterranean and Middle Eastern base in the port of Tartous.
A series of major defeats for the Syrian military may have hastened Russia’s decision to intensify its activity in Syria. Extremists are estimated to be in control of half the ravaged country, while rebels backed by the US, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have made striking gains in the country’s north and south, putting pressure on Assad’s coastal heartland.
The extent of Moscow’s involvement in Syria will likely remain sketchy until Putin speaks at the U.N. general assembly later this month.
A Pentagon spokesman, Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, said Monday the US is closely monitoring the buildup.
“We have seen indications in recent days that Russia has moved people and things into the area around Latakia and the air base there that suggests that it intends to establish some sort of a forward air operating base,” Davis said.
He said the US has concerns about ensuring that any Russian military air operations not come into conflict with U.S. and coalition airstrikes that are being conducted in other parts of Syria against Islamic State targets and that “things that continue to support the Assad regime … are unhelpful and risk adding greater instability to an already unstable situation.”