Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Russia Reportedly Expands Syria Footprint with New Air Base

By Dan Urchick and Christopher Kozak

Russia reportedly plans to bolster its military presence in central Syria by deploying fixed-wing aircraft and ground support personnel to the Shayrat Military Airbase, according to an anonymous U.S. official. Shayrat Airbase is located twenty-five kilometers southeast of Homs City. The deployment of Russian warplanes to Shayrat Airbase would mark the first deployment of Russian fixed-wing assets outside of its established airbase at the Bassel al-Assad International Airport in Latakia Province. Russia previously deployed helicopter gunships to the facility in early November in response to advances by ISIS which threatened the strategic M5 Highway connecting Damascus to Homs City. Unconfirmed reports indicate that Russian engineers at Shayrat Airbase are working to complete a secondary air strip at least three kilometers long in order to prevent hostile indirect fire from limiting air operations. Syrian activists had reported in late October that the Syrian regime redeployed all of its aircraft away from Shayrat Airbase in order to conduct repairs and rehabilitation on the runway. The same unconfirmed reports suggested that the current Russian military contingent in Syria could rise to over one hundred aircraft accompanied by an additional one thousand Russian troops to engage in “selective kinetic engagements” and protect the new base.

Russia likely intends to leverage its forces at Shayrat Airbase to support ongoing ground offensives by the Syrian regime which aim to recapture the ISIS-held cities of Qaryatayn and Palmyra in eastern Homs Province. ISIS seized both cities in mid-2015 as part of a westward advance which threatened core regime terrain along the Syrian ‘central corridor’. ISIS advanced westward from Quryatayn on November 1, seizing the nearby town of Mahin and threatening to sever the primary ground line of communication between Damascus and the Syrian Coast. Pro-regime forces supported by Hezbollah later recaptured Mahin on November 23 with Russian support. Televised Russian military briefings revealed that Russia deployed at least four Mi-24 ‘Hind’ helicopter gunships and six 152mm towed howitzers to Shayrat Airbase in support of the regime offensive. Meanwhile, pro-regime forces have also advanced to within four kilometers of Palmyra and its historic ruins. The forward deployment of fixed wing aircraft to Homs Province would position Russia to provide direct support to the ongoing offensive operations against Qaryatayn and Palmyra in the face of heavy ISIS resistance. The deployment would also enable Russian warplanes to respond immediately to any coordinated ISIS pressure against the strategic T4 (Tiyas) Airbase along the highway between Homs City and Palmyra. Russia ultimately aims to preserve the stability of the Syrian regime by bolstering its eastern flank against the threat posed by ISIS to Damascus and Homs City.