According to Lebanese sources, Russian forces have started participating in military operations in Syria in support of the government troops of Assad. Additionally, two United States officials recently stated that Russia has sent two tank landing ships plus an additional aircraft to Syria, while also deploying a small number of naval infantry forces.
It remains unclear as to what exactly is the intent of Russia’s military involvement in Syria. However, initial indications suggest that Russia is focused on preparing an airfield near Latakia. The port city of Latakia is an Assad stronghold.
The forces of Assad’s government have experienced significant setbacks during a four year old civil war that has taken about 250,000 lives and forced roughly half of Syria’s population of 23 million people out of their homes.
Russia has confirmed that has “experts” in Syria, but the country has refused to comment on the specific scale and scope of its involvement. According to one Syrian official, the presence of such Russian “experts” has increased in the past year. United States officials have also stated that they have reason to believe that Russia is aiding Assad's forces.
Officials in the United States, which is fighting an air war against the Islamist militant group Islamic State in Syria and also opposes Assad's government, have said in recent days that they suspect Russia is reinforcing to aid Assad.
Russia’s only naval base within the Mediterranean is at Tartous on the Syrian coast. Such territory is held by Assad. Maintaining its security is extremely important for the country. Two Lebanese sources went on to say that Russia is attempting to establish two additional bases in Syria. One of which is near the coast, while the other is further inland to be used as an operations base. However, another Lebanese source claims that Russia’s combat role in Syria is still very small and that Russia has yet to fully join the “war on terrorism”.
Citing concern by western countries, Germany’s foreign minister issued a warning to Russia against increased military involvement in Syria. The German foreign minister stated that the Iran nuclear deal and new United Nations initiatives provided a starting point for conflict solution. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg agrees that Russia’s military activity in Syria is concerning.
Rebel fighters, ranging from Sunni Islamists like al Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, to more secular nationalists, have been making gains in the northwest and southwest of Syria. These rebel fighters often go into combat against both the Syrian government and Islamic State fighters who control much of east Syria and northern Iraq.
Russia says that the Syrian government must be involved in a global fight against Islamic State. The United States and Assad's regional foes view Russia as part of the problem. Russia's Foreign Ministry said that they would consider further military measures to combat terrorism in Syria if deemed necessary.
However, United States officials are worried that Russia might quickly become heavily involved in the Syrian situation. Certain preparatory steps have been observed, including the transport of prefabricated housing units for hundreds of people to a Syrian airfield. This suggests that Russia is preparing for deployment of heavy military equipment to Syria.
Russia has recently begun making the case for supporting Assad, comparing the western approach in Syria to failures in Iraq and Libya. One issue of the diplomatic debate concerns the use of airspace for flights. Russia claims it is offering humanitarian air, but United States officials suspect Russia is bringing military supplies. For instance, Russia has avoided flying over Turkey, which is one of Assad’s primary enemies. Instead, Russia has been flying over Balkan states. This suggests that Russia is trying to hide something.
Bulgaria denied a Russian request on Tuesday to utilize its airspace for flights. The Bulgarian government had doubts about the cargo on board the planes. On Wednesday, Bulgaria stated that it would only allow Russian supply flights to Syria to utilize its airspace if they could perform cargo checks at a Bulgarian airport.
On Tuesday Bulgaria refused a Russian request to use its airspace for flights due to doubts about the cargo on board. It said on Wednesday it would allow Russian supply flights to Syria to use its airspace only if Moscow agreed to checks of their cargo at a Bulgarian airport.
Meanwhile, Turkey has not officially banned Russia from utilizing its airspace for flights to Syria. However, the country considers any requests to use its airspace for flights to Syria on a case by case basis.