Recent open source reports and unverified images of Russian equipment in Syria indicate that the Kremlin may slowly be ramping up its presence in the war-torn country in support of the beleaguered regime of Syrian President Bashir al-Assad.
On Tuesday a Twitter account associated with the Syrian al-Qaeda spin-off group Jabhat Al-Nusra tweeted four images of what appears to be multiple Russian attack aircraft, including possible a SU-34 fighter jet and a Russian drone. Though the images are unverifiable, the account stated that the aircraft were seen over Idlib province—an area that has seen heavy fighting and steady advances by Syrian opposition fighters.
While the tweeted images have no landmarks on the ground as reference points, the Iranian state-sponsored FARS news agency released a report that Syrian aircraft bombed opposition forces in Idlib, including al-Nusra fighters on Wednesday.
The possible sighting of Russian aircraft in Syrian skies comes just two days after the Jerusalem-based newspaper YNET released a report indicating that Russian pilots and aircraft would be arriving in Syria in “the coming days” with the purported mission of flying airstrikes against the Islamic State and opposition forces that are threatening the Assad regime. While Russian fighter aircraft would be a new development, Russian drones have frequently been seen in Syrian skies in the now four year-old war.
The presence of Russian jets in the skies above Syria, where United States and coalition forces have been waging an air campaign since August of last year, could make managing the airspace an even more daunting task than it is already.
When queried about the possibility of Russian aircraft in Syria, Pentagon spokeswoman Navy Cmdr. Elissa Smith said she had “nothing on this,” but recent reporting by the Daily Beast’s Michael Weiss states that the Pentagon is being “unusually cagey” about a bolstered Russian presence in Syria.
While Russia’s ties with Syria has been long known—Russia operates a naval base out of the coast city of Tartous—there have been additional sightings of newer Russian military equipment in the province of Latakia and Syrian news reports of a new Russian military base under construction in the city of Jablah. In October 2014, Syrian opposition fighters supposedly also overran a joint Syrian-Russian intelligence center that monitored signals intelligence.
Oryx blog, a site that monitors military equipment and activity in the region, has reported extensively on these developments and has managed to provide solid evidence of recent Russia equipment shipments to Syria—from infantry fighting vehicles to machine guns—as well as the presence of Russian personnel operating some of this equipment.
An Oryx post from Aug. 24 highlights the presence of a Russian BTR-82A, an armored personnel carrier, in Latakia province. The BTR is remarkable for two reasons, the report points out. The first being that the BTR-82A is a newer variant than what as been seen in the hands of the Assad regime in the past and the second that the tactical markings on the rear of the vehicle are consistent with how the Russian military marks its vehicles as opposed to the Assad regime.
Oryx’s report follows an Aug. 20 sighting from the Bosphorus Naval News showing the Russian landing ship—the Nikolay Filchenkov—packed to the gunnels with military equipment. What stood out to Naval News was the fact that the Filchenkov had a large amount of cargo on deck, most of which was covered by camouflage netting and tarps. This indicates that ship’s interior cargo hold were already full. According to both Naval News and Oryx, the tarps appeared to be covering a number of BTRs, though what variant is not distinguishable.
The Daily Beast report on Russian buildup quotes an unnamed intelligence official as saying that while no one is “surprised to see reports of new Russian military equipment in the region—which would also suggest Russian forces training on that equipment—the line between training and taking part in combat is fuzzy. But the intelligence community also hasn’t seen anything to indicate that Russians are not taking part in the fight.”
Oryx seems to reaffirm this in a blog post that identifies what distinctly sounds like a Russian speaker in the background of a Syrian National Defense Force news report. The speaker, hard to make out over the sound of cannon fire, can be heard saying they are “moving out” in Russian, according to Oryx.