Russia is planning on expanding an Assad regime air base in central Syria into a second base of operations for Moscow’s air assets in the war-torn country, various sources report.
The new base will be located southeast of Homs at the current Syrian military base of Shaayrat, AFP reports citing an unnamed military official and a Syrian monitoring group.
Russia is reportedly expanding the regime base into a location from which it can launch air strikes and house military helicopters.
“The preparation phase for the Shaayrat base is nearing its end. It is being prepared to become a Russian military base,” the anonymous military official told AFP.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told AFP that Russia is expanding the base to better allow it to carry out operations in central and eastern Syria.
Moscow is “building new runways at the Shaayrat airport and reinforcing its surroundings in order to use it soon for operations” across Homs province, Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told AFP.
Currently, Russia carries out its air strikes from its base in northwestern Syria, in Latakia province. By having a second airbase in the center of the country, Moscow has a greater ability to carry out strikes in the east and south of Syria in support of Syrian troops.
According to a Now Lebanon translation of a Kuwaiti newspaper report in Al-Rai, the Russian expansion of Shaayrat also represents a significant increase in the number of aircraft and supplies that Moscow is deploying into Syria.
According to the Now Lebanon translation, “[t]he Al-Shayrat airbase houses around 45 aeroplane hangars, each of which is fortified in a way that prevents any damage if it is shelled or targeted.” In addition to the hangars, the airbase features a main and backup runway.
The Kuwaiti report claims that Russia is planning on increasing the number of aircraft it has in Syria to over 100 in the near future to better carry out operations in support of group forces fighting in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
This expansion of Russia’s role in Syria could indicate that Moscow is trying to apply greater pressure to members of the US-led anti-ISIS coalition — or that Russia is actually increasingly serious about fighting ISIS. Either way, it shows that Russia is making an even greater commitment to its role in Syria’s multi-sided civil war.
“The reports of new airbase — if they are true — suggests Russia needs a bigger footprint to meet its goals in Syria,” Paul Stronski, the Senior Associate for the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Business Insider via email. “Its goals very well might be changing too.”
Stronski added that Russia’s operations in Syria might be reaching a scale, and a level of strategic risk, greater than what Moscow might have originally been bargaining for when it entered the Syrian battlefield this past September. “The warnings from earlier this fall about Russian mission creep in Syria — including some people in Russia who warned that Russia risk repeating the American mistake in Vietnam of gradually getting further involved — could be becoming a reality.”
Moscow is already using Shaayrat to conduct operations against ISIS in eastern Syria, Rahman told the AFP. Russian helicopters are aiding Syrian forces in an assault against the ISIS-held town of Palmyra, which is roughly 80 miles east of Shaayrat.
Although Moscow is using the base to help target ISIS, the new airbase is likely to further provoke international tensions over Syria.
Turkey and Russia are in an escalating dispute over Turkey’s shoot-down of a Russian military plane on November 24th. Turkey claims that the plane had violated its airspace, while Russia insists the aircraft was still inside of Syria when it was destroyed.
A new airbase would also allow Russia to more easily carry out operations against US, Turkish, and Gulf-supported non-ISIS anti-Assad militants in the south of the country near Damascus.
As the Institute for the Study of War notes, Russian targeting of ISIS in Syria has generally been reactive, usually following ISIS advances towards regime-held territory. In contrast, Russian targeting of rebel-held territory is more pro-active, with air strikes targeting anti-regime elements in areas where the militants aren’t threatening to gain territory at the regime’s expense.
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