Abandoning its long-distance involvement in the nearly five-year Syrian war, Russia has plunged full tilt into direct military intervention. Just this week, Zubr-class air-cushioned landing craft dropped several hundred Russian marines on the Latakia coast of Syria, DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources report. Designed to sealift amphibious assault units, this vessel, NATO-named “Pomornik” class, is the world’s largest military hovercraft and has a standard full load displacement of 555 tons.
This was the first known major Russian troop landing in Syria (see attached map).
On Aug. 22, Western intelligence picked up images of a much larger large Russian landing craft, the Nikolay Filchenkov as it passed through the Bosphorus in a southerly direction, with 810th Separate Marine Brigade troops and quantities of military gear aboard. Spotted were a large number of BTR-82A armored personnel carriers with 2A72 30-mm cannon, and heavy-duty KamAZ-6560 military trucks.
Intelligence sources have sighted at least 10 Russian warships sailing through the Bosphorus since Aug. 10. Some will have put in at Latakia by now, laden with military hardware and well as the first elements of the following two Russian Marine units:
- The 810th Separate Marine Brigade-Military Unit 13140, Sevastopol, Crimea. This unit is part of the Black Sea Fleet which occupied Crimea and has a second base at Temryhuk in the Rostov Region.
- The 336th Guards Białystok Marine Brigade. It is based in Baltiysk, the westernmost town of Russia, on the shore of the Strait of Baltiysk, which separates the Vistula Lagoon from Gdansk Bay. (Their motto: "There, Where We Are, There is Victory!") The town is an important Baltic Fleet base and a ferry port on the route to St. Petersburg.
Parts of these units served until recently in eastern Ukraine, fighting with pro-Russian separatists.
Russian military intervention set up in orderly stages
The Russian military expedition to Syria has been built up over the past ten weeks in orderly stages – from advance planning to logistical preparations to the landing of troops and hardware:.
1. On June 29, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem arrived in Moscow.
His visit was the cover for the secret arrival of a large Syrian military delegation. Syrian and Russian officers then sat down to establish the Russo-Syrian Military Commission, a brand new body for the clandestine organization of the Russian military deployment to Syria.
2. The RSMC, working full out, had an advance Russian military team ready to travel to Syria during the first half of August, along with prefabricated units to accommodate a staff of hundreds at the Jablah airfield near the Syrian port town of Latakia. This airfield has been transformed into a regular military base.
3. On Aug. 18, six advanced Russian MiG-31 interceptors (NATO-named Foxhound) landed at Mezze Airbase, the military section of Damascus international airport.
They were quickly followed by giant Antonov An-124 transports (NATO-named Condor), which unloaded 1,000 Kornet-9M133 anti-tank guided missiles.
Air cover for the incoming ground forces was therefore in place ahead of their arrival.
Russian fighter jets, UAVs go unremarked in Washington
4. A few days later, the Russian transports delivered at Mezze a load of Russian Pchela-1T unmanned aerial vehicles. The Pchela (meaning “bee”), is manufactured by the Russian Yakovlev Design Bureau for the primary task of surveillance and observation of battlefield environments, using down-linked video cameras. The UAV also serves for target designation and as a training target. It has a range of 60 km and an altitude of 100-2,500 m at a speed of 120-190 km/h.
The Pchela is launched by two solid-propellant booster rocket engines and recovered via parachute.
DEBKA Weekly’s military sources report that the Pchela’s arrival in Syria ought to have flashed red lights in the Pentagon, a warning that Russia was in the midst of building up a substantial ground force for direct intervention in the Syrian conflict.
Even the images of Russian fighter jets and a UAV flying over western Idlib in northern Syria, which began appearing on social networks on Sept. 2, did not strike sparks in the appropriate administration quarters.
US pushes NATO countries to deny Russia air passage
5. Moscow next began beaming satellite imagery taken from the various battlegrounds to the Syrian high command.
6. On Sept. 4, The Dmitri Donskoy TK209 (NATO-named Typhoon), reputed to be the biggest nuclear submarine in the world, was on its way to the Mediterranean and Syrian waters, armed with 20 RSM (NATO-code SS-N-30) Bulava 56 ICBMs, which are able to deliver up to 200 nuclear warheads.
The sub, escorted by two anti-submarine warfare ships, is expected to reach its destination by Sept. 15-16.
7. Then on Saturday, Sept. 5, Russia asked Ankara for “windows of time” for the passage of military aircraft through Turkish airspace to Syria. Turkey, a member of NATO, has not yet replied to the request, mainly because Washington is pressing hard for its rejection.
Athens and Nicosia, which received the same Russian request, is getting the same pressure.
According to DEBKA Weekly’s sources, the Russian high command was ready for this contingency and had charted an alternative route for the transfer of military strength to Russia over the Black Sea.
Tight Russian-Iranian coordination in deliveries
The giant Lebyazhye air base, 170km north of the southern Russian city of Volgograd, has been converted into the principal rear base for the Russian expeditionary force in Syria. It is normally home to a number of Air Force squadrons and air defense command centers. This air base’s unusually wide runway and large tarmac space makes it suitable for serving the huge transport planes used in the Russian military airlift to Syria.
After taking off from Lebyazhye, the huge aircraft cross over the Caspian Sea into northern Iran, turn into northern Iraq and fly through Iran’s air corridor to Damascus, coming in to land at Mezza Airbase.
A reserve ground force is standing by at Lebyazhye in case the Syrian war expands and calls for fast Russian reinforcements.
The Russian airlift is closely synchronized with the Iranian deliveries to Syria, which are smaller in scale than the Russian and flying in at the rate of two transports a day. But, say our sources, the quantities, types and scale of Tehran’s deliveries are also coordinated with the Russo-Syrian Military Commission.
8. Sept 6 saw the first Russian marines landing in Syria.
(More about this in a separate article)