Russia has moved a steady stream of troops and equipment into Syria in moves that could presage the creation of an air base, the Pentagon said Monday, adding that Moscow’s intentions for its continued military buildup in the country remain unclear.
“We’re obviously watching it very closely," Navy Capt. Jeff Davis told reporters at the Pentagon. "We have seen indications in recent days that Russia has moved people and things into the area around Latakia and the airbase there that suggests that it intends to establish some sort of a forward air operating base."
The coastal province of Latakia is a stronghold of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose forces have encountered a series of military setbacks in 2015 and have professed military "fatigue."
Russia has backed Assad since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, not only through military support but also through diplomatic cover at the United Nations Security Council, where Moscow wields a veto as a permanent member.
But Moscow’s on-the-ground role in Syria has increased significantly in the past weeks, with reports last Wednesday suggesting that, for the first time, Russian combat forces had joined the fight alongside Assad’s forces.
Moscow has tried to play down Western concerns about its recent moves in Syria, saying its forces there were merely advisers, but Russian officials have acknowledged that it continues to deliver military equipment to the country. U.S. and NATO officials have expressed concern about the escalation of the Russian presence, saying it could exacerbate violence in Syria.
Navy Capt. Davis reiterated this on Monday, saying that Russia intentions are still shrouded in some mystery, and that the buildup is a concern. “We have said before that we would welcome Russian contributions to the overall global efforts against ISIL [the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant], but things that continue to support the Assad regime, particularly military things, are unhelpful and risk adding greater instability to an already unstable situation.”
ISIL’s rise in Syria and Iraq over the last year has worried both Russia and the United States, but Washington’s international coalition to strike ISIL has come in spite of Assad, whose removal remains a U.S. foreign policy objective and a point of contention with Moscow.
The Pentagon would not confirm the specifics of how may troops, or what kind of weapons and equipment, Russia is believed bringing in by ship and cargo planes, except to say that as of now it does not include fighter aircraft.
Published reports say Russian tanks have been spotted around the air base at Latakia and that Russian SA-22 anti-aircraft missiles have also been deployed.
Davis said that he could not disclose what U.S. intelligence reports know about the buildup, but added, “We’ve seen a continuous flow of things in, and that’s been progressing on a daily basis.”