Russian Military Buildup in Syria
As of September 10, 2015 Russia has acknowledged a military presence in Tartus. Russian forces have built up their military presence at and around its naval base in Tartus. Specifics on the actual disposition of forces have varied pending the sources nationality and political affiliation. The Russian and Syrian governments have both maintained that Russia is sending military and humanitarian aid while also sending a limited advisory force to train SARG forces; however, western sources have expressed concern as there are fears that the Russian military buildup may be a prelude to a larger military action.
On Wednesday the 9th of September, Russian foreign ministry sources confirmed that Russia has sent military and humanitarian supplies, as well as military advisories to train SARG forces. Russian spokesperson Maria Zakharova said, “Russia has never made a secret of its military-technical cooperation with Syria.” Recent Russian-Syrian military cooperation has been founded on the pretext of fighting terrorism and also fulfilling military sales contracts between Russia and its client Syria.
The exact number of Russian troops in Syria are unclear, but estimates range from hundreds to the low thousands. A Syrian airfield that is currently undergoing reconstruction and is manned with a portable Russian air traffic control tower, is estimated to be capable of housing at least a thousand personnel. Russia was also reported as adding additional aircraft to the Tartus region, while asking neighboring nations for overflight permission. So far, Greece and Bulgaria have denied Russia permission, while Iran stated that it has granted overflight permission through Iran en route to Syria. Finally, there are currently two tank-transport ships off the coast of Tartus. The addition of armor while strengthening Tartus defenses could also support Russian advisers rumored to be in combat with SARG forces.
The recent massing of Russian forces has had mixed reviews by those outside of the Russo-Syrian alliance. There are members of the western coalition and members of the Syrian opposition that fear that the recent buildup may be a prelude to Russian “boots on the ground.” In response, members of the Free Syrian Army stated, “We will turn Syria into a graveyard for the Russians.” Western sources however were more tempered and cautious in their calculations of the situation. US Secretary of State John Kerry said that a possible Russian build up could lead to further instability and violence in Syria. A US State Department spokesperson went on the clarify the Secretary’s words by noting that Russian involvement could, “escalate the conflict, lead to greater loss of innocent life, increase refugee flows and risk confrontation with the anti-ISIL coalition operating in Syria.” Finally, Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg says the current Russian military buildup in Tartus “would not help to solve the conflict.”
There is no doubt that Russian military presence has increased. Whether this is a prelude to Russian air support and reconnaissance flights for SARG units, a lead up to an increase in Russian ground units in Syria, or recent actions have merely been done to increase the capability and security for their support mission, remains to be seen. These developments are timely as the Syrian Air Force has suffered from a lack of supplies and has also been crippled as both Syrian opposition, and ISIS elements have seized airfields across the country.
Citation with the FSA quote translated from Arabic to English from the al Arabiya article: “الجيش الحر يهدد موسكو: سنحول سوريا “مقبرة للروس