Russia apparently deployed two advanced new stealth fighters to Syria in what analysts called a move by Moscow to signal its support for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad despite mounting international pressure to halt his brutal onslaught against the rebel enclave of eastern Ghouta.
The reputed appearance of two new stealth Su-57 fighter jets comes at crucial time for Russian forces, following reports of 300 Russian mercenary casualties at the hands of U.S. forces in Syria earlier this month.
“I think they’d do this as a warning to the United States, and a reassurance to Assad,” said Patrick Cronin, Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. “They’ve just suffered a serious setback, by all accounts.”
On Thursday, videos that appeared on social media, which were then picked up by Russia’s state-owned RT network, seemed to show two Su-57 aircraft landing at Russia’s Khmeimim Airbase in Syria.
If legitimate, the clips document the first combat drill for the advanced new planes that Russia’s defense ministry recently announced would start being tested for combat use, and which could one day prove to be a lucrative asset in Russia’s global arms sales.
Turning the advanced SU-57 fighters loose over Syria may also be, effectively, using the bloody carnage of the country’s devastating civil war as backdrop to advertise Russian military hardware to future buyers, analysts said.
The Su-57 is Russia’s attempt at a so-called fifth generation fighter, a class combining stealth with hyper-sonic speed and advanced onboard electronics. U.S. examples include the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
Some analysts have suggested the Su-57’s appearance in Syria is a flashy attempt by the Kremlin to drum up arms sales, but Cronin said that in Syria, the geopolitical message likely came first.
“Russians are really, really serious about arms sales, but they have higher priorities in Syria,” said Cronin.
Russia admitted this week that “several dozen” of its citizens were killed in the Feb. 7 clash, but strenuously denied they were actual soldiers. Press reports have indicated the fighters were employed by a shadowy private Russian military contractor called PMC Wagner, which is linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, the oligarch known as “Putin’s cook.”
The unconfirmed nature of the reports, promulgated by Russian media, may suggest the real significance is the message — and that the planes might not even really be there at all, analysts said.
“It could just be smoke and mirrors,” Stohl said. “That’s also possible.”
Nevertheless, the Su-57’s cameo in Russian media signals Moscow's continued support for Assad in a conflict that is spiraling into a multi-dimensional nightmare of death and destruction, analysts said.
“It ups the ante, and demonstrates a very strong commitment to the government of Syria,” said Rachel Stohl, director of the Conventional Defense Program at the Stimson Center in Washington DC.
Cover image: Sukhoi Su-57 jet multirole fighter aircraft in flight during an air display event as part of the 2017 Forsazh [Forsage] aviation festival marking the 105th anniversary of the establishment of the Russian Air Force in Patriot Park. Sergei Bobylev/TASS (Photo by Sergei Bobylev\TASS via Getty Images) MOSCOW REGION, RUSSIA - AUGUST 12, 2017