The Russian Military Pullback That Never Was

The odd thing about President Vladimir Putin’s dramatic announcement that he was pulling the bulk of Russian forces out of Syria is that, ever since then, they have doubled up on their military activity. It is conducted by 3,500 Russian combat troops, airmen and contingent of commando fighters left in place.
DEBKA Weekly zeroes in on a dozen activities that are not exactly compatible with a military pullback:
1. Hmeimim air base outside Latakia, the main Russian facility in Syria, is alive with around 20 warplanes, an air defense system and 2,000 personnel, including 200-300 civilian specialists.
Military observers say they are needed to shore up Syrian President Bashar Assad’s control of the western coastal strip and fight terror.
The aircraft include a squadron of 9-12 Su-24 tactical bombers; the most recently-arrived Su-30 and Su-35 fighters; and four Su-35s deployed to Syria on January 31. .A number of Ka-52 and Mi-28N attack helicopters has also been spotted at the base. The two types of helicopters are armed with Vikhr and Ataka anti-tank missiles and a 30-mm gun.
2. Russia’s air defense systems are still in position. “Russian air defenses will be on combat duty in Syria and will be used against all targets posing threats to the Russian forces.” President Putin said. According to the Russian leader, those systems will include the Pantsir S1 and the medium and long-range S-400.
The presence of the S-400 enables Russia to establish a no-fly zone over the Hmeimim air base and all of Latakia province along the western coast, which is home ground for the bulk of the Syrian army. The S-400 has a striking range of 400 kilometers.
3. Around 230-250 elite Spetsnaz troops continue to operate in Syria in a battalion drawn from several units, including the 431st Naval Reconnaissance Brigade, and snipers and scouts from the newly-formed Special Operations Command.
Their tasks appear to cover battlefield reconnaissance, particularly marking out targets for artillery fire and air strikes, and special security-related missions in areas exposed as much to terrorism as to conventional attack.
A group of Spetsnaz troops are deployed to Damascus in case the Assad regime collapses.
4. Putin said last week that Moscow could rebuild its military presence in Syria within a few hours if necessary.
He is clearly intent on preserving the gains made in the last five months by Russia’s large-scale intervention in the Syrian war and its aerial campaign from October 1. Keeping the Assad regime stable remains Moscow’s paramount goal.

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