Russia is expanding its military footprint in Syria, US officials have alleged, on and off the record, over the past two weeks. Russia denies the claim, and President Vladamir Putin says it's "no secret" that his country is providing "equipment and personnel training, and armaments" to ally Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But satellite images appear to show new construction at an airbase near the strategic Mediterranean port city of Latakia, a sign of what US officials say is Russian construction of a new forward airbase that's part of a new effort to bolster Assad's forces.
Other sources also seem to indicate new Russian activity in Syria. Information aggregated by The Aviationist shows possible evidence of an array of Russian fighter jets and a Russian-made drone flying over western Idlib earlier this month, and also a number of military cargo flights going to and from Syria.
The Kremlin has supported the Assad regime against the array of militants and rebels who have fought for its overthrow for four and a half years, which is just the latest chapter in a 50-year relationship between the two nations. Although small, Russia's only permanent naval installation overseas is located on the Mediterranean, in another Syrian port city, Tartus.
As it stands, though, Russia's alleged build-up remains at a level appropriate to low-level support today, or a bigger role further down the road.
Despite growing Western worries about Russian maneuvering, they still don't have the number of forces in place that would be needed "to make any kind of appreciable impact on the battlefield," Mark Galeotti, a professor at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University, told VICE News.
This recent expansion of Russia's physical presence inside Syria does, however, raise questions about Moscow's new intentions and purposes in relation to the ongoing war.
Russia remains unsurprisingly opaque about its actions and motives. While the Foreign Ministry has confirmed that Russian military experts are on the ground in Syria, they maintain that their presence is for the purpose of assisting with the delivery of arms shipments.
"There were military supplies, they are ongoing, and they will continue," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said over the weekend. "They are inevitably accompanied by Russian specialists, who help to adjust the equipment, to train Syrian personnel how to use this weaponry."
The timing of Russia's actions stems partly from concerns about the months of success in the northern Idlib province by the "Army of the Conquest," a coalition of anti-Assad Islamist groups that includes al Qaeda affiliate, Nusra Front. The coalition controls most of the province now, having recently taken over the Abu al-Duhur air base from Syrian forces. Government forces are, by Assad's own admission, facing a manpower shortage. The government holds no ground in Idlib province; the remaining holdouts against the rebel coalition are two Shia villages held by Hezbollah and pro-government militias.
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Russia's support buildup is reliant on tricky supply route politics. Russia began channeling its Condor transport planes, full of equipment destined for Latakia, over Iran and Iraq last week, after Bulgaria closed its airspace. Iraq, though challenged by the US over its allowance, has yet to interfere with Russian overflights.
Western displeasure at the news of this military buildup is clear, but that may be the wider point. Russia says its helping Assad to fight terrorism in Syria, and to keep Syria from turning into another Libya. It's making its moves inside Syria ahead of President Vladimir Putin's attendance of the UN General Assembly's 70th anniversary session in New York City this month, where he plans to give an address. Galeotti told VICE News that "the Russians are playing out the risks, because they're using this as a means of saying to the Americans: this is why you really need to be talking to us_._"
The US has been conducting airstrikes against the Islamic State inside Syria for nearly a year. Now, an increased Russian military presence means the two powers could be sharing active battlespace. It speaks to the multi-dimensional horrors of the Syrian conflict that Russia and the US could occupy the same airspace, direct fire at the same armed group, and still not be on the same "side" in combat.
Though the Syrian regime and Russia have a longstanding relationship, Moscow may be envisioning a future where it maintains its strategic Mediterranean interests without the Assad regime in power.
"On some level, they're already thinking contingencies," Galeotti said. "Russians are already thinking about post-Assad Damascus. The Russians have a tradition of offering sanctuary to dictators who flee their country. So, I'm sure there's some cozy dacha outside of Moscow, if [Assad] does need to flee."
Looking to the future, particularly a future without Assad at the helm, Russia is concerned not only with maintaining its strategic relationship across a power transition, but also with strengthening itself in relation to Iran. If Assad does fall, Moscow would need to jockey for control alongside Tehran, also a major supporter of the Syrian regime.
"The Iranians have built themselves a power base inside Syria independent of Damascus," Galeotti said. "If the Assad regime fell, the Iranians would still have a substantial military force in Syria. One of the reasons why the Russians are there is not to just prop up the regime, but also to not just hand Syria to Iran."
Russia's timing is not only linked to the gains made by the Islamist rebel coalition in Idlib, uncomfortably close to Latakia, but to the broader diplomatic picture, and to upcoming opportunities to leverage the West for an agreement on the future of Syria. Moscow's moves are inflammatory to Washington by design. They also suggest strongly that Russia is looking to the long-term when it comes to its interests in Syria.
Follow Torie Rose DeGhett on Twitter: @trdeghett
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