Russia’s military buildup in Syria continues at a rapid clip, with dozens of attack planes and helicopters already in position, along with two new bases appearing on the Mediterranean coast. On Tuesday, it was reported that Russian drone aircraft have taken to the skies over Syria.
Two U.S. officials spoke to Reuters about the drones, but could not confirm the number of missions they have flown, or whether they were armed.
“The beginning of Russian drone flights underscored the risks of U.S.-led coalition planes and Russian aircraft operating within Syria’s limited airspace, without agreeing on coordination or objectives in Syria’s civil war,” Reuters reported.
The Pentagon refused to answer questions about the drone flights at a press conference, while the White House comically declared “Moscow’s intentions were unclear,” and said it found the Russian military buildup “troubling.”
“We’ve made clear both in public and in private that doubling down on supporting Assad is a losing bet,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.
“We are keenly aware of what is happening there. We continue to believe that anything that’s done in support of the Assad regime, particularly militarily, is counter-productive and risks worsening an already bad situation,” said Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis on Monday.
Meanwhile, Russia’s inventory at its main Syrian airbase grew to “over 25 fighter and attack aircraft, 15 helicopters, nine tanks, three surface-to-air missile systems and at least 500 personnel on the ground in Syria,” according to CNN.
A Fox News report says the planes include Sukhoi Su-27 “Flanker,” Su-25 “Frogfoot,” and Su-24 “Fencer” jets. The Frogfoot is used for close air support, while the Fencer is an advanced all-weather front-line bomber. They probably won’t be delivering strongly worded letters to whoever Russia has been scoping out with those drones.
The Wall Street Journal reports on Russian expansion beyond the airbase in Latakia where all those fighters, choppers, tanks, and presumably drones are based. Satellite images from mid-September “show development of a weapons depot and military facility north of Latakia, suggesting that Russia is preparing to place troops in both places.” The sites have sprouted a bumper crop of the tents favored by Russian troops, as well as building construction and development of the grounds.
On the other side of Latakia, 60 miles south down the coast, lies the port of Tartus, which hosts Russia’s only Mediterranean naval base.
The Russians would appear to have the pretext they need for military action against Syria, following what they described as a mortar attack by Syrian rebels on the Russian embassy in Damascus. “We expect a clear position in regard of this terrorist act from all members of the international community, including regional parties. This requires not only words, but also concrete actions,” thundered the Russian Foreign Ministry.
The WSJ notes that Russia “has shown little indication it is prepared to work with the U.S. in battling the Islamic State in Syria.” Why should they? Obama has botched the war against ISIS as thoroughly as possible, and left the entire Middle East in ruins. His idea of an anti-ISIS strategy is to blow $500 million on training a few dozen proxy fighters, and throwing them into a meat grinder.
There will be some official Administration harrumphing about Russia intervening in Syria, but they will not mention President Obama’s blustery threats to remove Assad from office, and as long as Vladimir Putin can stabilize the situation while perpetrating fewer war crimes than Assad does, many in Washington will be privately grateful for Russia taking charge of the situation. No one in Barack Obama’s orbit understands, or cares, how devastating this will be for American influence in the region going forward.