Russia arms build-up deepens crisis in Syria
BEIRUT - Russia’s military intervention in Syria, swelling by the day via an air bridge of giant An-124 Condor transport jets, indicates that Moscow is digging in for a long deployment to ensure the survival of President Bashar Assad’s brutal regime, even if that means the Syrian dictator’s rule is reduced to a rump Alawite statelet.
That possibility appeared to draw nearer amid reports that the rebel Army of Islam has cut the strategic M5 highway that is the primary link between Damascus and the stronghold of the Assad’s minority Awalite sect in north-western Syria, which Russia, aided by Iran, seems determined to hold.
This significant setback, on top of a recent string of battlefield defeats for the regime will heighten the strategic importance of the unprecedented Russian intervention, which shows no sign of abating.
US officials say round-the-clock satellite imagery of the area around the Mediterranean port of Latakia, linchpin of the Russian deployment, shows two An-124 jets, which can carry 150 tons of cargo at a time, landing daily at the city’s Bassel al-Assad International Airport.
Russian naval landing craft have unloaded a squadron of at least seven T-90 battle tanks to protect operations extending the airport’s runways, along with the construction of a military control tower and prefabricated housing for 1,500 personnel.
Along with the tanks, 35-plus BTR-82A fighting vehicles and heavy artillery, the Russian base is guarded by troops from the crack 810th Marine Brigade and the 336th Guards Marine Brigade.
There are reports Moscow plans to deploy SA-22 air-defence missile systems as well to protect the expanding airport base and the small Russian naval base at Tartus, south of Latakia.
Since the Syrian rebels do not have aircraft, Russia probably has its eye on possible US or Israeli intervention. The tension will intensify with live-fire naval exercises by a flotilla of the Russian Navy’s Black Sea Fleet that Moscow says will be held off Syria in the coming days.
As US and NATO concerns mount over the build-up in Syria, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on September 12th urged the United States to do nothing that could lead to “undesired, unintended incidents”.
That gave weight to concerns the Syrian intervention could be the harbinger of the deployment of Russian combat troops to support Assad’s dwindling forces, as part of Putin’s drive to restore Moscow’s faded Cold War glory in the Middle East at US expense.
“That is unlikely,” observed the US-based global security consultancy Stratfor. “It is more probable the Russians are limiting their direct involvement.
“By establishing an airbase they are in a position to deliver substantially greater supplies to Damascus’ forces, provide close air support as required and deploy more advisers and intelligence officers to embed with loyalist forces.”
Ultimately, Western leaders fear, the Russian involvement will bolster Assad and make a negotiated settlement harder to achieve and intensify the flood of refugees that threatens to swamp Europe.