Russia steps up military aid for Assad
As the Syrian regime girds for what may be a new and possibly decisive stand against the jumble of rebel groups seeking to bring it down, President Bashar Assad’s stalwart ally Russia appears to be stepping up its supply of arms and ammunition for government forces by sea and air.
US and other sources report that Moscow has boosted military intelligence, including satellite imagery, that it provides Damascus, which should give Assad’s regime a significant advantage in countering rebel build-ups.
“The increase in Russian aid is a clear reminder that the Russians are not abandoning the Syrian government,” the US global security consultancy Stratfor observed on August 29th.
“Rather, even as Moscow attempts to mediate a negotiated solution to the Syrian crisis that will safeguard its interests in the region, it will continue to exert considerable effort to make sure the Syrian government can hold its own on the battlefield.”
There has been an increase in military supply flights from Russia. Stratfor said these have been largely into Latakia and Tartus, where the Russian Navy maintains a small base. This region of north-west Syria is the heartland of Assad’s minority Alawite sect and vital to the regime, but it is currently under pressure from rebel forces.
On August 20th, the Russian Navy’s Alligator-class amphibious warship Nikolay Filchenkov was seen transiting the Bosporus towards the Mediterranean carrying armoured personnel carriers (APCs) and a large number of military vehicles. Western intelligence reports have pointed to a recent build-up of Russian BTR-82A APCs, which have been spotted in rebel videos, in the Latakia region. Other Russian equipment recently seen in Syria include GAZ Tigr all-terrain vehicles and UR-77 mine-clearing vehicles not previously seen on Syrian battlefields.
But, more intriguingly, there have been several reports in recent days that Russia is deploying an expeditionary force of bombers and attack helicopters flown by Russians at a Syrian Air Force base outside Damascus.
The pro-regime Syrian newspaper Al Watan reported on August 26th that Russia also seeks to build a military base in the Latakia region. On September 1st, the Russian news website RT quoted a “military source” in Moscow as denying reports Russian forces had been deployed in Syria.
Stratfor maintained that Russia is “steadily increasing its support for Damascus” but stressed it “has yet to see concrete evidence of expanded Russian participation in the Syrian conflict…
“When it comes to providing decisive support to Syria, Russia is torn. Moscow is trying to position itself as a credible power that can negotiate a political solution to the Syrian conflict, yet the Kremlin is also keen to bolster the forces of … Assad. If it hopes to reach a favourable settlement, Russia must ensure that loyalist forces do not suffer devastating losses.”
Moscow has shipped arms worth an estimated $1 billion to Syria since the war erupted in March 2011.