Country Risk

Russia to defend core Syrian government areas

22 September 2015
Imagery analysis of the Istamo weapons storage complex (top), and of the Al-Sanobar site (bottom). (©CNES 2015, Distribution Airbus DS/©2015 IHS)

US officials first alluded publicly to the deployment of additional Russian forces into Syria on 4 September, claiming that new housing under construction at Latakia airport, also known as Bassel al-Assad International Airport, could billet up to 1,000 military personnel. By 16 September, Washington was briefing media outlets that up to two Russian military cargo flights a day were arriving at Latakia, and that a total of 200 naval infantry soldiers had been deployed into the airport (rising to 500 by 18 September, according to briefings by US officials). By 21 September, four Sukhoi Su-30SM 'Flanker' multirole combat aircraft, 12 Su-25 'Frogfoot' strike aircraft, 12 Su-24M 'Fencer' attack fighters, and numerous helicopters including possible Kamov Ka-52 'Alligator' attack helicopter airframes had arrived at Latakia.

The rapid build-up of a Russian expeditionary force was troubling for the United States, given continued airstrikes by a US-led coalition against insurgent Islamic State targets in the country and Russia's support for the embattled government of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Concerned about deconflicting military operations to avoid accidental clashes, US secretary of defense Ashton Carter and Russian minister of defence Sergei Shoigu held their first direct talks by telephone in more than a year on 18 September, with Shoigu maintaining that Russian operations were "defensive in nature". Their talks hinted at how the Russian deployment had political as well as military drivers, with Russia interested in supporting the Assad administration but also keen to recalibrate parts of its relationship with the West.

Historically, Russia has been committed to providing support for Syrian military planning and intelligence operations, although such support has been explicitly limited and distanced from the battlefield. The closest that Russia came to a combat role was its sanction for the short-lived use of mercenaries from the so-called Slavonic Corps in 2013, which only fought in a single engagement before withdrawing from Syria.

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