What on earth is Russia doing in Syria? This question has no doubt crossed many minds in recent days, as Russia began to move substantial arms and troops into Syria. There are two possible scenarios: 1) with diplomatic ties at an all time low, and heavy sanctions already in place, Russia has decided it has nothing to lose in defying the West and backing the Assad regime militarily to the bitter end; or 2) Russia is maneuvering to give itself diplomatic leverage in any Syrian settlement by raising the stakes now. Though the latter is more likely, it’s difficult to know which scenario is accurate, further complicating already tortuous US policy towards Syria.
Over the last week, various news sources have reported an increase in Russian arms and troops flowing into Syria. On Monday, the Department of Defense confirmed that the Russians are setting up a Forward Operating Base at Latakia, including prefabricated housing and SA-22 anti-aircraft missiles. Open source researchers have found photos of Russian trucks and T-90 tanks near Latakia, increased shipments to Russia’s Syrian base at Tartus, social media posts showing that Russian troops are headed to Syria, and even satellite photos showing massive expansion of the runways, hangers and housing at Latakia.
In short, it seems that Russia is preparing to substantially increase its military presence in Syria, ostensibly to aid the refugee crisis and fight ISIS, but practically in support of the Assad regime. This doesn’t necessarily indicate an intention to commit ground troops, but certainly raises the possibility of Russian air support for Assad. There is no way to prevent this buildup: though NATO members like Bulgaria have closed their airspace to Russian flights, Iranian and Iraqi airspace remains open.