Amid Russian ‘withdrawal’, Putin sends in missiles, gunships
BEIRUT - Amid the partial military withdrawal from Syria that Russia announced March 14th, there is mounting evidence the Kremlin has deployed new weapons systems in the war-torn country that reinforce the Syrian regime’s offensive against the Islamic State (ISIS) and threaten neighbouring powers if they seek to oppose Russia’s strategy to save Syrian leader Bashar Assad.
The London-based IHS-Jane’s security consultancy and other sources that track Russian weapons systems in the Middle East say that recent deployments in Syria include Moscow’s new attack helicopters, the Mil Mi-28N Night Hunter and the Kamov Ka-52 as well as the Iskander-K surface-to-surface missile.
It is not clear whether the single truck-mounted system sighted, with the helicopter gunships, at Russia’s Hmeimim airbase near the Mediterranean port city of Latakia, is the ballistic or cruise missile variant. It was spotted by Jane’s weapons specialists in video footage broadcast March 27th by Russia’s Zvezda TV channel.
The Iskander-K joins the formidable S-400 air-defence missile system, which has been deployed for several months near Hmeimim, and is capable of shooting down missiles and aircraft at a range of 500km.
That means it can hit targets deep inside Israel, Turkey and Jordan, including US combat jets deployed in Jordan and southern Turkey.
The Russians also have a task force of 12-15 warships in the eastern Mediterranean, including a cruiser and corvettes armed with terrain-hugging Kalibr cruise missiles, which have been used against anti-Assad rebels in Syria since Russia’s armed intervention in the Syrian war on September 30th, 2015.
This naval force has been augmented with two amphibious landing ships — the Caesar Kunikov and the Saratov — along with the Yauza, an auxiliary cargo vessel, monitors say.
A Reuters analysis of Russian shipping movements shows that Putin has “shipped more equipment and supplies to Syria than it has brought back” under the partial withdrawal after Russian air power had rescued Assad’s regime from collapse.
“It is not known what the ships were carrying or how much equipment has been flown out in giant cargo planes accompanying returning warplanes,” including about 20% of the 36 warplanes based at Hmeimim since September, Reuters reported.
“But the (ship) movements — while only a partial snapshot — suggest Russia is working intensively to maintain its military infrastructure in Syria” in the heart of a region that is undergoing profound political change amid a cluster of inter-locking conflicts that have provided Putin with a rare opportunity to swiftly restore Moscow’s power and influence in the Middle East.
The purpose of deploying the Iskander system and the helicopter gunships is not altogether clear beyond underlining the Kremlin’s commitment to keeping the widely reviled Assad, Moscow’s closest Middle Eastern ally, in power — in the short term at least.
Despite the partial drawdown, Russia still has Su-30 strike jets and Su-35 fighters at Hmeimim. However, the armoured gunships, not seen in Syria before late March, are armed with a formidable array of rockets and anti-tank missiles, as well as 30mm cannon.
This kind of firepower is deadly against the kind of targets, such as troop concentrations and forward bases, that Assad’s advancing forces are running into after seizing the ISIS-held city of Palmyra on March 27th in a game-changing turnaround brought about by Moscow.
These forces, backed by Russian air strikes, have swung north-east against the city of Raqqa, the ISIS caliphate’s de facto capital, and the oil and gas fields of Deir ez-Zor.
This offensive, bolstered by the new weaponry Putin has sent in along with arms for Assad’s badly mauled army, was launched even as Russia, along with the United States, oversaw a cessation of hostilities that began February 27th.
This does not embrace ISIS, prompting speculation that Putin is exploiting the truce, which does not have the legal force of a mutually agreed ceasefire, to strengthen Assad’s position in the Geneva III talks by recapturing more territory for the regime Moscow does not want to see entirely dismantled.
The Iskander deployment at Hmeimim is seen as a display of Putin’s desire not to tolerate interference in his campaign to transform Syria into a Russian satellite in the Middle East — and possibly more importantly — establish a military presence in the eastern Mediterranean where Moscow says it will maintain a permanent naval presence to face off the US Navy 6th Fleet and NATO.
Putin is expanding the naval depot Russia has long had at the Syrian port of Tartus into a full-blown logistics base, Russia’s only military footprint outside the former Soviet Union, and the Black Sea bases taken over in Russia’s recent controversial seizures of Ukraine and Crimea.