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Russian troops in Syria What we know and don't know about the Russian military's role in the Syrian civil war

Source: Meduza
Photo: George Ourfalian / AFP / Scanpix

According to several media reports over the past several days, Russia has suddenly escalated its military presence in Syria. The US government has even reacted to the buzz, warning that Russia's expanded role risks escalating the country's ongoing armed conflict. According to unofficial reports, Russian troops are already participating in combat. Meduza takes a look at what's known and not known about Russia's military role in Syria.

What's known

Moscow supplies weapons to Syria. Russian officials make no secret of these arms transfers, saying all deliveries are carried out within the framework of pre-existing agreements. These shipments include Russia's S-300 long range surface-to-air missile systems. The Kremlin openly supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who's currently engaged in a two-front war against rebels supported by the United States and the terrorist organization ISIS, against whom the US is also waging a bombing campaign. 

The United States has expressed concern about Russia's growing military presence in Syria. Since late August, journalists have reported circumstantial evidence that Russia has been transferring additional weapons to Assad's forces, and possibly even deploying some Russian troops in Syria. According to The New York Times, the Russian military has delivered "prefabricated housing units for hundreds of people" and a "portable air traffic control station" to an airfield in Latakia, Syria’s principal port city. Russian defense officials have also reportedly asked Syria's neighbors several times in recent weeks for permission to enter into their airspace. Washington says Russia's activities could "provoke an escalation in the conflict," if this information proves to be accurate.

Bloggers have discovered evidence of Russian troops already in Syria. Since late August, a video allegedly filmed in battles near Latakia has circulated online. The footage appears to feature a brand new Russian BTR-82A armored vehicle, which Moscow has not officially transferred to Syria. In the video, men speaking in Russian can be heard. Russian bloggers (the same ones who uncovered the graves of Russian soldiers allegedly killed in Ukraine) conducted an investigation and found that at least two warships carrying military hardware left Sevastopol for Syria at the end of August. On social media, Russian military personnel and their relatives have posted evidence suggesting that Russian soldiers have been sent on a mission to Syria expected to last several months.

A meeting between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (right) and Mikhail Bogdanov, special representative for Vladimir Putin. December 10, 2014.
Photo: SANA

What's unknown

How many Russian soldiers are in Syria today? No one can say precisely, except for officials in Moscow, who are unsurprisingly reluctant to specify. According to The New York Times, the housing units deployed near to the base near Latakia can accommodate roughly 1,000 people.

What exactly are Russian military personnel doing in Syria? It's possible that they've been sent to Russia's naval facility in Tartus, which is located near the port of Latakia, against which the rebels are waging an offensive. Vladimir Putin has said talk of Russian participation in combat operations in Syria is still "premature."

Are Russian troops participating in combat? According to the website, Russian soldiers have been helping to organize the defense of the Latakia mountains since early August. Neither journalists nor researchers have produced any definitive proof of Russian troops engaging in combat, however.