The Barack Obama administration and the U.S. intelligence community have concluded that Russia is set to start flying combat missions from a new air base inside Syria, but there’s disagreement inside the U.S. government on what to do about it.
Thursday at the White House, top officials were scheduled to meet at the National Security Council Deputies Committee level to discuss how to respond to the growing buildup of Russian military equipment and personnel in Latakia, a city on the Syrian coast controlled by the Bashar al-Assad regime. Obama has called on his national security officials to come up with a plan as early as next week, as intelligence reports pour in about the Russian plans to set up an air base there. The options are to try to confront Russia inside Syria or, as some in the White House are advocating, cooperate with Russia there on the fight against the Islamic State.
The State Department had already begun pushing back against the Russian moves, for example by asking Bulgaria and Greece to deny overflight permissions to Syria-bound Russian transport planes. But the president didn’t know about these moves in advance, two officials said, and when he found out, he was upset with the department for not having a more complete and vetted process to respond to the crisis. A senior administration official said Thursday evening that the White House, the State Department and other departments had coordinated to oppose actions that would add to Assad’s leverage.
In recent days, there’s been a steady stream of reports detailing an escalation of Russian military activity in Syria.
An investigation by Reuters, citing Lebanese sources, suggested that Russian troops had begun participating in operations in support of forces of the Syrian regime, a longtime Moscow ally. U.S. officials indicated that two Russian tank landing ships, aircraft and naval infantry forces had reached Syria this week.
This expanded military presence may signal Moscow’s intent to play a more direct role in the Syrian endgame — or at the very least help the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad preserve what limited control it has over the war-ravaged country.
In Syria, where the U.S. is leading an air campaign against Islamic State targets and Russian military advisors are arriving to help the Assad regime, the two militaries aren’t talking to each other.
“Coalition forces are focused on conducting counter-ISIL operations, and so to my knowledge there is no military-to-military contact at this point,” Air Force Col. Pat Ryder, spokesman for U.S. Central Command, told reporters Friday morning.
“We’re keeping an eye on the Russian situation there, but right now again there’s really no deconfliction to do,” Ryder said, answering a question about how U.S. and anti-ISIS coalition forces and the Russian military are keeping out of each other’s way in Syria. “I think what you’re getting at is: [deconfliction] in the event there’s some type of Russian military or air activity, but again, I’m not going to speculate or talk about hypotheticals. Certainly, we have very professional air forces, and the coalition is going to ensure the safety of those forces where we operate.”
Russia has urged the US to engage in military co-operation amid reports it is sending an advanced anti-aircraft missile system to Syria.
Two Western officials and a Russian source told Reuters that Moscow is sending Pantsir-S missiles to the war-torn country where the US has been engaging in airstrikes on Islamic State.
Russia is also staging naval exercises off Syria’s coast.
The anti-aircraft system would be operated by Russian troops, rather than Syrians, the Western officials said.
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said his country was sending equipment to help Syrian President Bashar al Assad fight Islamic State.
The Russian presence in Syria is growing so is the frequency of Russian warships carrying equipment and supplies to the region has increased too.
On 7 September 2015, the Alligator class landing ship Saratov sister of Nikolay Filchenkov made her southbound passage to the Mediterranean.
Like the much discussed passage of Nikolay Filchenkov, the deck of Saratov was loaded with equipment. Since vehicles were under camouflage nets, it is not easy to tell what the ship was exactly carrying. But the profile of the cargo on her bow resembles very much KamAZ-4350 trucks. There are at least 2 on the starboard side and one at the port side.
The remaining vehicles seem to have a lower profile than the trucks. Some of the have two “horns” like the air intakes you can see on BTR-82A armored personal carriers. Thus I believe that Saratov was carrying at least 5 APC’s of this type yesterday.
Despite doubts and denials, Russia is about to embark on an ambitious expansion of its Syrian presence, likely to change the game in the war-torn country. Russia’s small and dated naval repair facility in Tartous will be enlarged, while Jableh near Latakia (Laodicea of old) will become the Russian Air Force base and a full-blown Russian Navy base in the Eastern Mediterranean, beyond the narrow Bosphorus straits. The jihadi multitudes besetting Damascus are likely to be beaten into obedience and compliance, and the government of President Assad relieved from danger and siege. The war with Da’esh (ISIS) is to provide the cover for this operation. This is the first report of this fateful development, based on confidential and usually reliable Russian sources in Moscow.
The knowledgeable and Damascus-based French investigative journalist and dissident Thierry Meyssan noted the arrival of many Russian advisers. Russians began to share satellite imagery in real time with their Syrian allies, he added. An Israeli news site said “Russia has begun its military intervention in Syria” and predicted that “in the coming weeks thousands of Russian military personnel are set to touch down in Syria”. Russians promptly denied that.
President Bashar al Assad hinted at that a few days ago expressing his full confidence of Russian support for Damascus. First six MiG-31 fighter jets landed in Damascus a couple of weeks ago, as reported in the official RG newspaper. Michael Weiss in the far-right Daily Beast presented a flesh-creeping picture of a Russian penetration of Syria. Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper referred to Jableh as the second-base location.
Now we can confirm that to the best of our knowledge, despite denials (remember Crimea?) Russia has cast its lot and made a very important decision to enter the Syrian war. This decision may yet save Syria from total collapse and incidentally save Europe, too, from being swept by refugee waves. The Russian air force will ostensibly fight Da’esh, but probably (as Michael Weiss guessed) they will also bomb not just Da’esh but the US-allied opposition of al-Nusra (formerly al-Qaeda) and other non-Da’esh Islamic extremists for the simple reason that they can’t be distinguished from Da’esh.