U.S. intelligence is suggesting that evidence shows a Russian military buildup in Syria, including the construction of a large air base outside of Latakia — a stronghold of President Bashar Assad.
If true, it represents a substantial escalation of Russia’s role in the Syrian civil war, previously confined to the delivery of weapons, cash, and intelligence.
The presence of an air base also suggests that Russia may employ air power against the Islamic State and perhaps even rebels supported by the U.S. This would put President Putin on a collision course with the United States.
Russia is building a military base in Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s heartland, according to American intelligence officials, in the clearest indication yet of deepening Russian support for the embattled regime of Bashar al-Assad.
The anonymous officials say Russia has set up an air traffic control tower and transported prefabricated housing units for up to 1,000 personnel to an airfield serving the Syrian port city of Latakia.
Russia has also requested the rights to fly over neighbouring countries with military cargo aircraft during September, according to the reports.
The claims, which will raise fears that Russia is planning to expand its role in the country’s civil war, will ratchet up tensions between Moscow and Washington over the future of Syria and its brutal ruler.
Mr Obama on Friday met King Salman of Saudi Arabia to repeat their demand that any lasting settlement in Syria would require an end to the Assad regime.
It leaves the US and Russia implacably opposed in their visions for Syria.
ohn Kerry, Secretary of State, telephoned his Russian counterpart to express US concerns on Saturday.
“The secretary made clear that if such reports were accurate, these actions could further escalate the conflict, lead to greater loss of innocent life, increase refugee flows and risk confrontation with the anti-Isil coalition operating in Syria,” the department said.
The new US details came in the week that Vladimir Putin gave his strongest admission yet that Russia was already providing some military and logistical support to Syria.
“We are already giving Syria quite serious help with equipment and training soldiers, with our weapons,” he said during an economic forum in Vladivostok on Friday, according to the state-owned RIA Novosti news agency.
Until now, Russia’s backing has included financial support, intelligence, advisers, weapons and spare parts. Mr Putin insisted it was “premature” to talk of a direct intervention.
However, images emerged last week that appeared to show a Russian fighter jet operating over Syrian soil and videos of combat troops speaking the Russian language.
We’re not likely to go to war if Russia starts bombing the rebels. But it may force the U.S. to declare its intentions regarding President Assad. The coalition air forces have been careful not to bomb positions occupied by the Syrian army precisely because of Russia’s support for the Syrian regime. But if Putin starts going after the “secular” rebels we’re training and supporting, that could very well change.
Why the escalation by Russia? President Assad’s army has been slowly, relentlessly ground down by attacks from Islamic State and the Syrian rebels. In short, he is losing in slow motion and President Putin may be looking to reverse the momentum of the conflict in advance of peace talks with rebel leaders.
As a location, Latakia is about as safe as it gets in Syria. The Alawite-dominated province is thought to be Assad’s last redoubt and it is heavily fortified and protected. Putting an air base there could serve as a signal to President Assad that his Russian allies won’t abandon him no matter what.