Russia is continuing to expand its military presence in Syria according to new satellite images released Tuesday.
The images, distributed by IHS Janes, a defense analysis organization, show that Russia is placing equipment at two facilities north of a newly-established Russian airbase in Latakia.
One new facility, located outside the small town of Al-Sanobar, shows Russian activity in the form of newly-arrived vehicles, tents while the other, at the Istamo weapons storage complex, shows signs of freshly paved surfaces.
“The build-up so far is clearly a growing expeditionary force that will significantly boost Russia’s ground-attack capabilities, allowing it to boost the defense of the Latakia region,” said Robert Monks, the editor of IHS Janes’ Defense Review.
Monks added that he believes Russia’s next steps will include sending small communications detachments into the surrounding areas so that Russian forces will be able to better coordinate.
Already, some open source reporting has identified various Russian communication vehicles moving in Latakia Province.
The images, posted on the conflict monitoring site Oryx Blog, show what appears to be a Russian R-166-0.5 crewed by Russian soldiers. The vehicle, according to the site, provides “jam-resistant voice and data communications over a long range.”
While Russia has longstanding ties with President Bashir al-Assad’s government and has maintained a small military presence in the country for some time, a growing number of Russian forces began appearing in Syria towards the end of August.
Russia now has 28 jets — a mixture of multi-role and ground attack aircraft — as well as 14 helicopter gunships and transports stationed at the Bassel Al-Assad International Airport in Latakia, according to U.S. officials. In addition to the aircraft, satellite images have shown artillery positions, while officials have confirmed the presence of T-90 main battle tanks and surface to air missile systems.
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On Tuesday Secretary of State John F. Kerry told reporters that the aircraft at the airfield “basically represents force protection,” as the majority of the jets stationed there are meant for ground attack.
Monks agreed, saying the aircraft are consistent with “enhanced” force protection. However, a U.S. pilot experienced in close air support, pushed back against the idea of using jets as the primary means to defend the airfield.
“If all hell broke loose, yeah, use jets for base defense, but for planning purposes, no,” he said, adding that if helicopter gunships were available, they would be the first option. Gunships, he said, have an ability to get much closer to a target than a jet.
The pilot declined to be named because of his active duty status.
It’s unclear what Russia’s priorities are, and officials in Moscow have spoken of both helping fight the Islamic State and bolstering the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
The latter, Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said Tuesday, would only “fan the flames” of the conflict.