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More Bases, MIGs, and an IDP Camp: What Is Russia Up to in Syria?

Diplomatic machinations on Syria have been quietly at work for months. And when Vladimir Putin speaks at the UN General Assembly in New York on Monday, we may begin to see the results.

by Sara Elizabeth Williams
Sep 25 2015, 2:30pm

Photo by Alexei Nikolsky/EPA

Days from Russian President Vladimir Putin's speech at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, speculation is rife over just what, exactly, Russia is trying to do in Syria.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's army and allied militias have been locked in grinding battle across the country with Islamic State (IS) fighters and assorted opposition groups for four and a half years. The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) has become increasingly reliant on its two closest allies, Iran and Russia, for support, and over the past few months, Russia has come through — and then some.

Widely shared satellite images show that Moscow has been busy beefing of the capacity of an old air base in Latakia. New taxiways, runways, and outbuildings have been added, and Russian media has reported the construction of a warehouse north of Latakia. Russia is now understood to have around 2,000 personnel distributed around three key sites.

In early September, the US requested both Greece and Bulgaria bar Syria-bound Russian flights from their airspace. Greece turned the Americans down, but Bulgaria complied. The primary air corridor for the Russian delivery of arms to Syria via Iran is now Iraq.

Russia has also been busy sending equipment to Syria by sea. Two warships allegedly loaded with BTR82A, Kamaz, and Ural trucks, grenade launchers and other low-range combat arms passed via Turkey in the first 10 days of September, and more has followed. 

Russian seamen are also reportedly upgrading the port in Tartus to allow bigger warships to dock. Currently cargo is transferred to smaller landing ships in order to reach land. A port expansion would cut a significant step out of the naval supply chain — meaning Russian arms could hit Syrian shores much faster.

According to Yury Barmin, a Russia analyst based in Moscow, Russia's desire for a Mediterranean base is a significant driver in this expansion. "The timing is odd, though, as there is no guarantee that Tartus and Latakia will stay under SAA control. What if rebels capture Latakia and surround the base? All of that investment would be lost," Barmin said.

Related: Russian Weapons Keep Rolling Towards Syria as Russia and the US Open Talks

A massive influx of military hardware is another cornerstone of Russia's bolstering of its old ally. Barmin confirmed to VICE News that 12 Sukhoi-25s have recently been delivered to Syria. The Sukhoi-25 is a twin-engine aircraft that offers close air support for ground troops — it's also a jet the Syrian Air Force already knows how to fly.

The big question is whether the MIG-31 "Foxhound" supersonic interceptor aircraft will appear over Syrian skies. In August, military journal IHS Jane's Defence Weekly reported that six had been delivered, but so far Russia has denied it and none have been spotted. "It would need to be Russians flying these, not the Syrian Air Force," Barmin explained.

Reuters recently reported that Syrian fighter pilots were flying newly arrived Russian warplanes, which could raise questions about how — and where, and for how long — those pilots were trained.

Another element of Russia's Syrian expansion comes along humanitarian lines: the establishment of what appears to be a camp for internally displaced people (IDPs) in a suburb near the central city of Hama. The camp has capacity for 500, going by the number of tents and cots delivered. Hama Governor Hassan Omar Halaf reportedly thanked Russia for its contribution during the camp's opening ceremony.

Russian media has also reported that Russian Ministry of Defense AN-124 heavy cargo planes have delivered 80 metric tons of humanitarian aid supplies, from tents to cooking utensils, in order to set up an additional camp with capacity for 2,000. This camp could be used to house military personnel, but with the type of equipment transferred, experts say it is more likely that it would be used for civilian purposes.

Setting up any kind of humanitarian space inside Syria would allow Russia to counter its hard power with a valuable dose of soft power. Russia's unique diplomatic balance between Syria, the US, and Israel means it can also offer a something of a de-facto no-fly zone for those IDPs who do find shelter in any camp it offers.

There is also the possibility that with these camps and any others that follow, Putin is activating a "humanitarian shield" to hide the large-scale deployment of arms and personnel — something Ukraine-watchers say is more likely than not.

But more than just a military push, Putin seems intent on accomplishing some remarkable diplomatic gymnastics. A week ago the Pentagon announced that the US and Russia were ending an 18-month freeze in military relations and beginning discussions aimed at "deconfliction" in Syria.

Days later, Putin met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Moscow, offering reassurances that no Russia-supplied arms would fall into Hezbollah's clutches. The Financial Times reported that Netanyahu emerged from talks saying that Israel and Russia had agreed on a co-ordination mechanism to "prevent misunderstandings" over Syria — such as clashes or dogfights.

With Assad and Iran on one side, the US and Israel on the other, and a rapidly-growing military stake in Syria between them, Putin has everyone's ear and is perfectly positioned as kingmaker in any talks of a political solution. Russia's policy has long been ambivalent on the necessity of Assad himself, and there is little reason to expect this to change.

"Russia doesn't really care about Assad personally. As long as the president is an Alawite, Russia is happy," said Barmin. He believes Moscow is more interested in engineering a political solution and raising its power profile in the Middle East than beginning significant military engagement.

"I doubt very much that Russia will carry out unilateral air strikes. This contradicts their policy of the last four years," said Barmin. "I want to think Putin is smart enough not to get involved, to the extent of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Such a move would be hugely unpopular in Russia."

Related: Russia Just Parked Several Tanks at a Syrian Airfield, Pentagon Says

"I think Putin will try to set up a wider coalition with the West, where Russia deals with Assad and the US doesn't have to. If no coalition emerges at the UN, Russia could partner with Iran to carry out strikes," he added.

There is precedent for this course of action: when Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, Yemen's president in exile, asked the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) for help, GCC countries carried out strikes at his request. Despite some media speculation that Russian air strikes will be announced during Putin's address at the UN in New York next week, most experts think he is playing a more pragmatic game ­— and one that could yield greater power in the long term.

Getting the necessary parties to the bargaining table is looking as difficult as ever. German Chancellor Angela Merkel's recent admission that Assad might need a seat at the bargaining table for change to occur has already proven polarising in the West. 

But even if Russia isn't ultimately able to bring all players into the same room, Putin is the only one with access to the full range of international backers. Diplomatic machinations have been quietly at work for months between Russian, Jordanian, American, and Saudi envoys. 

On Monday, when Putin speaks at the UN General Assembly in New York, and when the scrum of ring-side diplomacy kicks off in earnest, we may begin to see the results.

Follow Sara Williams on Twitter: @saraewilliams

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