The UK Daily Mail reports that two Russian warships filled with military equipment—including BTR-80 tanks, high-speed patrol boats, and a Pelena-1 bomb radar system—have been sighted en route to Syria following Friday’s airstrikes on Syrian targets by the United States and its allies.
The Daily Mail provided photographs of the Russian ships as they passed through the Bosphorus, including close-up shots of the military gear stowed on deck:
The ships are believed to be headed for the Russian naval facility in Tartus, Syria, which is not far from the targets struck by the United States.
Russia’s Sputnik News conceded the photographs from Turkish naval observers were genuine but insisted the cargoes only “allegedly” included military hardware, even though such equipment can clearly be seen on deck.
The Sputnik report suggested Russia has “stepped up military and humanitarian supplies to the war-torn Arab country.”
Russia claims the air defenses it has installed across Syria were able to intercept 71 of the 103 cruise missiles launched on Friday night, including S-125, S-200, Buk, and Kvadrat systems.
The Pentagon reports that all objectives were accomplished in the attack, all designated targets were hit, and none of the aircraft or missiles involved in the strike were successfully engaged by Syrian or Russian air defenses. President Donald Trump described the operation as a “perfectly executed strike.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin denounced the strike on Syria as an “act of aggression,” while Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called them “unacceptable and lawless.”
Speculation abounds as to how Russia might respond. The Daily Mail mentions fears of a retaliatory cyber-warfare attack on the United Kingdom, potentially targeting “water supplies, gas networks, banks, hospitals, and air traffic control.”
On the other hand, CNBC quotes analysts who expect “Moscow’s reaction will be limited despite rapidly escalating tensions,” partly because the Russians do not wish to escalate the conflict, and partly because they fear the embarrassing outcome of direct conflict with vastly superior U.S. and coalition forces in the region.
CNBC’s analysts believe Russia is more likely to focus on retaliating for U.S. economic sanctions, which are expected to be increased even further this week to punish Moscow for supporting the Assad regime in Syria.
From this perspective, shipments of military equipment to Syria could be seen as a symbolic gesture of Russian defiance; they certainly did not make any effort to conceal what those ships were carrying as they cruised through Turkish waters. Also, there are signs the Russians and Iranians will use the U.S.-led attack as an excuse to declare that political avenues for resolving the Syrian civil war have been foreclosed, to justify a more intense military campaign against remaining rebel forces – the sort of campaign that could make use of the equipment Russia is sending to the Tartus naval base for further distribution.