Russia Zigzags Away from Pullout from Syria with Four New Air Bases, 6,000 More Troops

It took Vladimir Putin 13 days to reverse course on Russia’s military role in Syria. On Dec. 11, 2017, on a rare trip to the Russian Khmeimim air base in Latakia, he made this announcement: “In two-and-a-half years, Russia’s military along with the Syrian army have defeated the most battleworthy gang of international terrorists. In this connection I’ve decided that a significant part of the Russian military contingent located in Syria will return home to Russia.” He added: “If the terrorists raise their heads again we will hit them with such strikes as they have never seen.” He concluded by telling the troops that they were “returning with victory” to their homeland and loved ones.

But then, on Dec. 24, Russian Defense Minister Gen. Sergey Shoigu announced the start of work on upgrading the bases in Tartus and Khmeimim. Damascus had agreed to host Russian forces there for at least another 49 years. Shoigu revealed that the development of the two bases had been authorized by President Putin, “We have started the process of formation of our permanent force in Syria,” he said.

The Russian minister’s words were just as misleading as those of his boss 13 days earlier. The Russians were not only in Syria to stay, but expanding their military infrastructure and personnel. DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources have learned that, although some Russian units were indeed pulled out of Syria – possibly to mask what was really going on – more were quietly deployed in their place just a few days later. Furthermore, they were not just working on upgrading the two existing sites in western Syria, but taking over and expanding four additional Syrian Air Force bases. (See attached DEBKA Map)

Work on those bases may explain why no Syrian air force jets have taken to the skies for operations in the past month.

  1. The Tiyas Military Airbase (also known as T-4) in the Homs Governorate west of Palmyra, is the largest in Syria. The Russians are massively converting it into their main center of aerial operations in central Syria. Tyas will also provide backup as needed for Khmeimim, which recently came under drone, missile and mortar attack.
  2. Palmyra (or Tadmor) Airport provides air support for operations in eastern Syria including the Deir ez-Zour province. Moscow has now agreed to hand it over to Iran. The Revolutionary Guards Al Qods chief Gen. Qassem Soleimani is planning to make Palmyra the main assembly center for the pro-Iranian Iraqi Shiite militias to be deployed from southern Iraq to Syria. (See the separate article on the new Shiite army Russia and Iran are building in Iraq.)
  3. Their presence at the Hama Military Airport west of Hama will enable the Russians to exercise control from the air of central Syria and the highways to Damascus from the north and the center. Still more importantly, this airport’s location places it just 125km as the crow flies (173km by road) from Russia’s Tartus naval base on the Mediterranean coast. Should the naval base come under attack, air support will be available in the space of two hours and 22 minutes, at most.
  4. Shayrat, the Syrian Air Force’s 50th Air Brigade’s base, is located at Homs. (It became notorious as the target of a massive US Tomahawk attack last year in retribution for the Assad regime poison gas massacre of civilians.) Its two runways and 40 hardened shelters are the main gate of entry for Russian and Iranian air transports landing day by day to deliver troop reinforcements and supplies of weapons and spare parts for military systems and vehicles.

Our military sources report that the Russian armed forces have designated 6,000 officers and men for deployment at the four renovated bases in Syria – most of them air force and special operations personnel. Some have already arrived.

The attached map clearly depicts the new layer of military bases Moscow has commandeered in western, central and eastern Syria. They directly face the chain of military locations the Americans have decided to keep in northern Syria. The two powers are evidently in a race for bases in Syria. In strategic terms, both Washington and Moscow are in the process of dividing a large swath of Syria between them. Therefore, whoever eventually takes over the reins of government in Damascus will find themselves left with just half of Syrian territory under their rule.

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