In a serious escalation of its military presence, Russia deployed 28 combat aircraft to its base in Syria. A senior United States official said on Monday that 12 Su-25 Frogfoot ground-attack planes and 12 Su-24 Fencers had arrived at the Russian base in Latakia, adding the ability to strike at ground-based targets. Previously, there were four Flanker air-to-air fighters at the base.
Other military assets at the base reported by the American official include 15 Russian Hip transport and Hind attack helicopters. Ground forces include nine T-90 tanks and more than 500 marines. This is at least twice the number from last week. The base is protected by several SA-22 surface-to-air, antiaircraft systems.
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“The equipment and personnel just keep flowing in,” said the American official, who spoke to the NY Times on condition of anonymity. “They were very busy over the weekend.”
Russia has yet to begin military operations however their presence raises concerns over possible inadvertent contact with the US led anti-Islamic State (ISIS) coalition in Syria, which might lead to undesirable escalation. The US led forces are carrying out almost daily airstrikes against Jihadists in the same airspace. Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter has been in close contact with Russia’s defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, to ensure this does not happen.
Analyst Jeffrey White of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy spoke to AFP saying, “They are not going to sit around and defend the airfield or maybe even the province of Latakia. This kind of aircraft suggests that the Russians intend to exert their combat power outside of Latakia in an offensive role.”
The recent reinforcement of the Russian military presence in Syria emphasizes how they may indeed be at odds with American interests in the region. Secretary of State John Kerry welcomed the Russian involvement, as long as it is focused against ISIS.
John Kirby, a State Department spokesman, said on Monday that this was a conditional welcome.
“If what they’re doing is, in fact, propping up the Assad regime then that’s an entirely different issue altogether, because it is the Assad regime that has been a magnet for extremists inside Syria.”
Unfortunately, a confrontation seems unavoidable since Syria, led by President Bashar al-Assad, was Russia’s strongest ally in the region. The Kremlin has stated that Assad’s fall would bring radical Islamists to power, leading to further destabilization, harming Russia’s economic and political interests. Russia claims American involvement in the past led to violent changes in Libya and Iraq, leaving the countries without a stable government.
Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is also concerned by the Russian reinforcements. He travelled to Moscow to discuss his concerns with President Vladmir Putin. He spoke to reporters on the phone from Moscow about the results.
“There was readiness to make sure that whatever Russia’s intentions for Syria, Russia will not be a partner in extreme actions by Iran against us,” the prime minister said. “Our conversation was dedicated to the complex security situation on the northern border,” the prime minister said. “I explained our policies in different ways to try to thwart the deadly weapons transfers from the Syrian army to Hezbollah — action actually undertaken under the supervision of Iran. There was readiness to make sure that whatever Russia’s intentions for Syria, Russia will not be a partner in extreme actions by Iran against us.”
Putin also said that the many immigrants in Israel from the former Soviet Union, “has a special effect on our bilateral relations.”