IN THE past few days, Russia has sharply beefed up its military presence in Syria. Reports from American officials (denied by the Russian authorities) state that it now has at least 28 warplanes deployed at an airbase outside Latakia on the Syrian coast. The planes, which according to sources quoted by the New York Times include Su-24 and Su-25 ground-attack planes, reinforce what was thought to be only four Russian planes previously in the country, all of them fighters designed for air combat, not ground combat. The presence of fighters armed with air-to-air missiles is particularly odd, since none of the Syrian enemies facing Syria’s embattled president Bashar al-Assad have an air force; their only potential use would seem to be against planes belonging to the American-led coalition that is currently attacking Islamic State (IS). The planes are said to be protected by anti-aircraft systems, and there are also reported to be surveillance drones in place. Tanks, armoured personnel carriers and howitzers have also been spotted at the base.
At the same time, Russia has been increasing the number of soldiers posted to the base; satellite intelligence gathered by the Americans shows the unloading of prefabricated housing that could accommodate some 1,000-2,000 soldiers. There have been reports on social media of (understandable) reluctance among the ranks at the prospect of potentially having to face IS. Memories in Russia of the losses sustained in Afghanistan are still raw, and IS’s fearsome reputation will be adding to troops reluctance to get involved in another war far from home.
Why is Russia doing this just now?