LATAKIA, Syria (AFP) — In a hotel lobby in the Syrian coastal city of Latakia, five muscular Russian men sit around two small tables, scowling and fiddling with their mobile phones.
“We are visitors, that’s all,” one of them says, his back covered in tattoos including a large cross.
Asked to be more forthcoming, another member of the group signals they do not want to be disturbed. A manager at the hotel, where Syrian families were gathered to celebrate the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, is equally terse.
“I’m not allowed to tell you that there are Russians here, but you can tell they’re not tourists. They say they are freight pilots. The only tourists we have here are Syrians,” he says.
Moscow, a decades-long backer of the Damascus regime, has remained a steadfast ally of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s nearly five-year war that has left more than 240,000 people dead.
It upped the ante in recent weeks with deliveries of fighter jets, aerial defense systems, drones and other modern military equipment — some of which has been handed over to the Syrian military.
In Latakia, Assad’s seaside bastion province, the growing Russian military involvement has received a warm welcome.
“Every morning, between 6 and 7, I see several Russian planes flying, and I really feel better,” says Ahmad, who lives near Bassel al-Assad International Airport in Hmeimim, 25 kilometers (15 miles) south of Latakia city.
The airport, along with Russia’s naval facility in nearby Tartus, have seen a major build-up in recent weeks.
“They were our friends, and now they have become our brothers — much more than many Arabs,” says Rima, a 25-year-old student.
“All of the ultra-sophisticated equipment is operated by the Russians, like flying the drones. They’re the ones who train the Syrian pilots, and they’re in command,” says a Syrian military expert on condition of anonymity.
When rockets crashed into the airport this week, Russian forces detected the firing location and jets flew off towards rebel-held territory to “neutralize the threat”, the expert adds.
The show of force has reassured residents worried about any rebel advance, including by Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Al-Nusra Front.
“I’m secular and I belong to a religious minority. For me, it’s the best thing that can happen because the Russians will keep the extremists from advancing,” says 40-year-old engineer Fadi at a cafe in the Sheikh Daher commercial district.
Latakia is the heartland of Syria’s Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam from which the Assad clan hails.
Alawites make up about half of Latakia city’s 400,000 residents and two-thirds of the provincial population.
Rebels regularly fire rockets into Latakia city and a powerful alliance including Al-Nusra has battled to push into the province from its stronghold in adjacent Idlib.
“There is nothing more marvelous in the morning than drinking my coffee and smoking my narghileh (water pipe) on the balcony while listening to the melody of Russian planes,” says Nafaa, a 46-year old businessman in Sharashir, three kilometers (two miles) from the airport.
Adnan, an engineer aged 53, tells AFP: “Most Syrians prefer the Russians to the Iranians, because so many of them have family ties to Russia — especially Syrian diplomats who studied in Russia and married Russians.”
The flurry of Russian activity, both military and diplomatic, appears to have already prompted a significant shift in global efforts to end Syria’s conflict.
In the space of just 24 hours, both Ankara and Berlin announced this week that Assad could be a part of the solution to the civil war.
And US President Barack Obama, who first said back in August 2011 that Assad “must step down,” is to meet his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin for talks on Monday.
A senior official in Syria described Russia’s military involvement as a “turning point” for the war.
“Russia intends to show that there is no solution without Assad and his army must be part of the fight against Daesh,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State jihadist group.
“Moscow wants to remind the United States that its relationship with Damascus dates back more than 50 years,” he said. “It’s also a message to regional countries that Russia intends to become a central player again.”