Such explanations fail to quiet the suspicions of U.S. officials who say the handful of documented weapons deliveries do not account for the flood of Russian and Eastern European gear that has entered Syria in recent months. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House intelligence committee, has publicly accused Russia of “pouring weapons into Syria like there’s no tomorrow.”
“Russia has been a sophisticated purveyor of weapons around the world for decades, and the Assad regime is clearly getting resupplied,” Rogers, a vocal critic of Russia’s backing for the Syrian regime, said in an interview. “If a ship that’s a known supplier of weapons leaves a port and turns off its transponder — in the FBI, we’d call that a clue.”
Turning point in conflict
The tide of arms moving into Syria has also been confirmed by other Western and Middle Eastern governments and directly linked to a shift in momentum in Assad’s favor earlier this year. After months of losing ground to rebels, the Syrian regime recaptured several key towns in early spring with help from Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon and what intelligence officials describe as an influx of high-quality arms and equipment.
The materiel that arrived in the winter and spring included refurbished helicopters and battle tanks, replacing those destroyed or disabled during two years of fighting, according to U.S. and Middle Eastern officials with detailed knowledge of the resupply effort.
Around the same time, Syria received large stocks of artillery rocket launchers and heavy 240mm mortars, two systems frequently used by government troops to bombard opposition-held neighborhoods. It also acquired high-tech gear, such as advanced night-vision equipment and field radars that enable Syrian fighters to track and counter incoming mortar fire, the officials said.
“The new Russian equipment has been a huge factor, and very much behind the shift in Assad’s favor,” said a senior official for a Middle Eastern country that borders Syria. The official agreed to discuss sensitive intelligence on the condition that his name and nationality not be revealed. “It’s not just the amount, it’s the quality. It’s all the things they really need.”
U.S. and Middle Eastern officials think that the most sophisticated equipment, including aircraft and tanks, arrived in Russian military ships, including Ropucha-class landing craft, known as LSTs, that have been observed entering the Russian naval facility at Tartus, Syria, a key refueling station and Russia’s only naval base outside the former Soviet Union. On at least two occasions, commercial ships are known to have been dispatched to Syria with military-related cargo, including helicopters.