Russia deploys tanks to Syrian airfield amid tension with US

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said its specialists will train Syrians to use the weaponry the country has supplied to Syria.
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said its specialists will train Syrians to use the weaponry the country has supplied to Syria.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON • Russia has sent some of its most modern battle tanks to a new air base in Syria in what United States' officials say is part of an escalating build-up that could give Moscow its most significant military foothold in the Middle East in decades.

Pentagon officials said that the weapons and equipment that had arrived suggested that the Kremlin's plan is to turn the airfield in western Syria into a major hub that could be used to bring in military supplies for the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

"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," Captain Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said on Monday.

US military specialists analysing satellite photographs and other information said Russia had about half a dozen T-90 tanks, 15 howitzers, 35 armoured personnel carriers, 200 marines and housing for as many as 1,500 personnel at the airfield near the Assad family's ancestral home.

And more is on the way as Russia appears to be trying 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," Mr Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies on Sunday. "They are inevitably accompanied by Russian specialists, who help to adjust the equipment, to train Syrian personnel how to use this weaponry."

The military build-up by Russia adds a new friction point in its relations with the US.

Mr Andrew Weiss, vice-president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said: "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."

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 US military officials who spoke on condition of anonymity. Bulgaria closed its airspace to the Russian flights last week at the request of the US. But Iraq did not, even though US diplomats raised concerns with Baghdad on Sept 5.

SIGNIFICANT FOOTHOLD

It looks like the continuing process of building up an expeditionary or significant combat force in Syria.It could give the regime a decisive edge on the battlefield.

MR JEFFREY WHITE, from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy

"It looks like the continuing process of building up an expeditionary or significant combat force in Syria," said Mr 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 next phase of the Russian plan may become clearer when President Vladimir Putin goes to the United Nations later this month and outlines his proposals for coping with Syria.

- NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 16, 2015, with the headline 'Russia deploys tanks to Syrian airfield amid tension with US'. Print Edition | Subscribe