Satellite imagery of the Bassel al Assad International Airport in Latakia, Syria, confirms reports of sustained Russian military transport flights to the Syrian airfield, where the Russians appear to be establishing a base of operations. The satellite imagery, captured Sept. 4, shows a recently constructed air traffic control station in the vicinity of newly laid asphalt surfaces, alongside shipping container-sized structures believed to be mobile housing units. Construction is underway throughout the airport; surfaces are being leveled and new structures are being erected. Earthworks are visible along the entire length of the easternmost runway, likely part of improvements to the airfield to allow the ingress of heavier transport aircraft.
The reinforcement of the airport shows that Moscow is preparing to deploy aerial assets to Syria, if it has not already done so. To sustain an overseas presence, Moscow must establish a sustained logistical connection and have forces in place to defend it. In this case, Russia is looking to establish an air bridge, with everything that entails. Stationing Russian aerial assets — such as fighter jets and attack helicopters — inside Syria is a clear escalation of Moscow's involvement in the country. Russia's previous involvement was limited to the transfer of equipment, spare parts and weaponry to the Syrian government and the provision of intelligence support.
Signs of a growing Russian military presence emerged last week. Alligator- and Ropucha-class landing ships from the Black Sea Fleet, clearly laden with vehicles and equipment, were seen sailing toward Syria through the Bosporus. Photos of Russian soldiers and marines from at least two separate Russian units deployed in Syria — the 810th Marine Brigade and the 336th Guards Marine Brigade — are increasingly surfacing on social media. Russian troops have been spotted in the provinces of Latakia, Tartus, Homs and Damascus. Some Russian forces are also deployed at the Syrian Naval Academy in Latakia.
These deployments aside, Stratfor has not observed a substantial Russian presence on the battlefield, either against rebel forces or the Islamic State. As previously noted, there are signs that Russian personnel have directly engaged the rebels, but this remains uncommon. It is more likely that Moscow has embedded advisers with Syrian units on the ground rather than committed formal combat units to the fight. Russia could be marshaling its forces and equipment in Syria ahead of the deployment of full-sized combat units that would support loyalist forces, but that is unlikely. Right now, it is more probable that the Russians are limiting their direct involvement. By establishing an air base they are in a position to deliver substantially greater supplies to Damascus' forces, provide close air support as required, and deploy more advisers and intelligence officers to embed with loyalist forces.
Nevertheless, even this level of support is concerning for the rebel groups in Syria opposing al Assad. Russian aid to the government could erode the rebel momentum on the battlefield, just as Iranian and Hezbollah intervention did in 2013. Increased Russian presence in Syria serves a number of purposes, but by fortifying the loyalists, Moscow hopes to better position itself in negotiations that might bring about a political solution to the conflict. Yet, by establishing a secure air bridge, Russia opens the gates for rapid intervention, should it choose. Beyond Moscow's growing commitment, it will be increasingly difficult for the Russians to avoid mission creep as they support their favored faction in the Syrian conflict.