Evidence is emerging that Russia may be ramping up its military involvement in Syria in a bid to help the ailing regime of President Bashar Assad stave off ISIS and other rebel groups.
American intelligence officials told The Telegraph that Russia is building a military base in Assad's Alawite stronghold of Latakia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said that Russia is "already giving Syria quite serious help with equipment and training soldiers, with our weapons."
"We really want to create some kind of an international coalition to fight terrorism and extremism," Putin added.
Over the course of the 55-month Syrian conflict, Russia has provided the Assad regime with supplies — including guns, grenades, tank parts, fighter jets, advanced antiship cruise missiles, long-range air-defense missiles, military officers as advisers, diplomatic cover, and lots of cash.
The fight against ISIS provides him even more pretext for further involvement.
“Russia wants Assad to stay alive, and, by putting the focus on ISIS, it gives him another lifeline,” Chris Harmer, a former US Navy officer now at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, told The Daily Beast.
Russia has reportedly set up an air-traffic-control tower and brought housing units for up to 1,000 personnel to Latakia in the country's west.
Flightradar24.com has also reportedly tracked several Russian Air Force Il-76 airlifters flying to and from Damascus, according to The Aviationist.
Unconfirmed sightings of Russian infantry vehicles and military advisers in Syria has prompted rumors that Putin has already put boots on the ground and may be preparing a large-scale counterterrorism operation alongside Iranian proxy militias.
Michael Weiss of The Daily Beast notes that what makes these reports particularly interesting is "the much-altered geopolitical context" in which they are emerging — namely, the implementation of the Iran deal.
While the US has been selling the Iran deal to Congress, Iranian military mastermind Qassem Suleimani violated a UN travel ban by visiting Moscow to speak with officials.
Russia appears to be taking advantage of the fact that, while US officials condemn Assad's barrel bombs, chlorine bombs, and strategy of acting as an air force for the Islamic State (aka ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh), the Obama administration does not seem to be concerning itself with the Syrian regime.
In this way Russia, along with Iran, can shape the Syrian civil war and its aftermath.
In any case, New York University professor Mark Galeotti, an expert in global affairs and Russian and Slavic studies, doesn't think Russia is prepared to devote the kind of extensive resources needed to keep Assad in power since thousands of Russians soldiers are fighting in Ukraine.
"It is willing to see a settlement in which Assad goes into honorable exile, likely in Russia itself," Galeotti told Business Insider. "Obviously Russia would not want the regime to fall, but what can they really do?
"The Russians could surge in Damascus, say approximately 5,000 troops. But they're actually probably deploying and cycling as many troops as they can in Donbas [eastern Ukraine] without overstretch."
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