Pentagon officials said the Russian weapons and equipment that had arrived at the air base south of Latakia, Syria, suggested the Kremlin’s plan is to turn the airfield into a major hub.
WASHINGTON — Russia has sent some of its most modern battle tanks to a new air base in Syria in what U.S. officials said Monday was part of an escalating buildup that could give Moscow its most significant military foothold in the Middle East in decades.
Pentagon officials said the Russian weapons and equipment that had arrived suggested the Kremlin’s plan is to turn the airfield south of Latakia in western Syria into a major hub, which could be used to bring in military supplies for the government of President Bashar Assad. It might also serve as a staging area for airstrikes in support of Syrian government forces.
“We have seen movement of people and things that would suggest the air base south of Latakia could be used as a forward air operating base,” Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said Monday.
U.S. military specialists analyzing satellite photographs and other information said Russia had about half a dozen T-90 tanks, 15 howitzers, 35 armored personnel carriers, 200 marines and housing for as many as 1,500 personnel at the airfield near the Assad family’s ancestral home.
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And more is on the way as Russia appears to be attempting to increase its influence in Syria amid the civil strife there, the officials said. “There were military supplies, they are ongoing, and they will continue,” Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies Sunday.
“They are inevitably accompanied by Russian specialists, who help to adjust the equipment, to train Syrian personnel how to use this weaponry.”
The Russians have not sent fighter jets to Syria, and the Kremlin has not said whether they will. But the military buildup by Russia, which has been supporting Assad throughout the 4½-year-old Syrian civil war, adds a new friction point in its relations with the United States.
“I don’t believe Western governments are prepared to do very much to slow down or block the risky course the Russians are going on,” said Andrew Weiss, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is a former Russia expert for the National Security Council, the State Department and the Pentagon.
Indeed, efforts by the United States to stop the flow of supplies have fallen short. At least 15 giant Russian Condor transport planes have, in the past week, used an air corridor over Iraq and Iran to ferry military equipment and personnel to the base, said U.S. military officials who agreed to speak about confidential intelligence assessments on the condition of anonymity.
Bulgaria closed its airspace to the Russian flights last week at the request of the United States. But Iraq did not, even though U.S. diplomats raised concerns about the Russian flights with the Iraqi government on Sept. 5.
Although the Obama administration’s warnings to the Russians have been made public, U.S. officials have refused to openly discuss their appeals to the Iraqis. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi of Iraq assumed his post with the support of the United States but is still trying to establish his authority at home, and U.S. officials are wary of undercutting him.
Compounding the difficulties for al-Abadi is his effort to maintain good relations with the United States, Iran and Russia all at the same time. While about 3,500 U.S. advisers have been sent to help the Iraqis combat the Islamic State group, Iraq also has received military support for that fight from Iran, which like Russia is backing Assad. Iraq also is buying weapons from Moscow, which al-Abadi visited in May.
With few aircraft, Iraq’s ability to defend its airspace is limited. But it could tell the Russians that they do not have the clearance to fly through and ask for U.S. help in detecting and discouraging Russian flights.
“Regardless of what air corridor is being used, we’ve been clear about our concerns about continued material support to the Assad regime,” said John Kirby, the State Department spokesman.
The Russian military buildup in Syria could serve the Kremlin’s interests in several ways. It could help strengthen Assad, whom Russia has long backed but whose military fortunes have declined in recent weeks.
“It looks like the continuing process of building up an expeditionary or significant combat force in Syria,” said Jeffrey White, a former Defense Intelligence Agency officer who now studies Syria at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It could give the regime a decisive edge on the battlefield.”
The buildup also dramatizes Russia’s call to fight the Islamic State group with a new coalition that would include Iran and the Syrian government. It could also put Russia in a better position to influence the formation of a new government if Assad eventually left power.
Russia also appears to be cementing its strategic interests in Syria and greatly enhancing its ability to project power in Syria and neighboring states — with a new airfield to complement the naval base it has long had in the coastal city of Tartus — regardless of how events in the country unfold.
“This is the most important Russian power projection in the region in decades,” said Stephen Blank, an expert on the Russian military at the American Foreign Policy Council. He compared it to Russian deployments to Egypt in the 1970s, adding, “it will enhance Russia’s influence throughout the Levant.”
The next phase of the Russian plan may become clearer when President Vladimir Putin comes to the United Nations later this month and outlines his proposals for coping with Syria.
“The Russians have done a masterful job of changing the subject on the eve of Vladimir Putin’s arrival in New York for the 70th commemoration of the U.N. General Assembly,” said Weiss.
“Instead of accepting a brushoff from the White House about Putin’s desire for a meeting with Obama, the Russians are trying to argue that you have to talk to us about Syria,” Weiss added. “It was the Iranians who ponied up before by deploying the Quds Force by sending in proxies like Hezbollah. It is Moscow’s turn now to play that role, which is largely intended to prop up the regime.”