by Paul Iddon.
On January 6, 2017 Moscow announced for the second time in less than a year that it is partially withdrawing its forces from Syria (the fist announcement was in March 2016). This time the Russians said their withdrawal would begin with the departure of Russia’s only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, from Syria’s Mediterranean coast to to its home base in Severomorsk. It was a highly publicized event with the Syrian chief of staff even visiting the vessel the same day as the announcement.
Moscow claimed the withdrawal was a sign of its commitment to the Astana talks on Syria it is sponsoring in Kazakhstan. However, like their previous claim to be withdrawing in March 2016 Russia has simply rotated its forces already in Syria. The deployment of the Kuznetsov was more of a symbolic exercise for Russia. The carrier’s deployment amounted to little more than an embarrassing publicity stunt for the Russians. For one thing the carrier offloaded eight of its assumed ten Su-33s and one of its three MiG-29KUB(R)s to the Hmeimim Air Base in Latakia shortly after arrival – leading some to describe it as an aircraft courier rather than a carrier. Finally, a MiG-29KUB(R) and a Su-33 Flanker-D were lost in landing accidents. Withdrawing the Kuznetsov was never indicative of a substantial Russian drawdown.
Furthermore, last November Iran considered letting Russia use of its airbase in eastern Hamadan again (which it did for only a week last August) if the Kuznetsov were to withdrawal, though they later clarified it’s not on the agenda, only to reverse that position again twenty day later. Access to Hamadan once again would provide the Russians with a launchpad for their Tu-22 bombers, which would save them from flying these bombers all the way from Russian territory, reducing their flying time enables them to carry heavier payloads. But it has not come to that, yet: On January 21 and 23 – 25, 2017 Russian Tu-22’s were flying again from Mozdok to strike ISIS militants in the eastern Syrian city of Deir Ezzor (see video below).
On the ground in Syria there were no tangible signs that Russia was reducing its force presence or even its military activity. In mid-January, it was reported that Russia was sending six Su-24 Fencer bombers at Hmeimim airbase and replacing them with four Su-25 Frogfoot attack planes. However, satellite imagery of Hmeimim obtained by Belling Cat from October 26, 2016, January 10 and January 19, 2017, all show eleven Fencers, indicating none have yet to return home. Additionally, Israeli satellites have released images earlier this month showing SS-26 Iskander surface-to-surface missiles at Hmeimim (see imagery below). These missiles have a range of approximately 560 kilometers.
Russia is also continuing military operations in Syria. Negotiating a ceasefire with both Iran and Turkey ahead of the Astana talks Russian aircraft began coordinating with the Turkish air force against Islamic State (ISIS) militants in the northwestern city of al-Bab. Russia is supporting Turkish efforts there and both powers signed an agreement to coordinate airstrikes on January 12, less than a week after the announcement of the Russian drawdown.
Even in March 2016 when Russia was ostensibly withdrawing from Syria, Russian officials were careful to include a clause, that they could build-up all their forces again in a matter of hours. This time, Syria has permitted Russia to expand both its naval depot at Tartus and Hmeimim airbase in Latakia. Building up this infrastructure for its forces in Syria is hardly indicative of a Russia which intends to draw-down from Syria, on the contrary. Having this infrastructure in place would give Russia a sizable foothold in the region. Hmeimim airbase is large enough for up to 50 military aircraft. An expanded base at Tartus could also give Russia the capability to dock larger warships, giving it a larger foothold in the Mediterranean. Nevertheless,
Since intervening in Syria, Russia has demonstrated its reach by firing Kalibr missiles into Syria from the Mediterranean and Caspian Sea. As one Russian military analyst told Sputnik back in October, “If our new combat surface ships and submarines outfitted with Kalibr cruise missiles are based in Tartus, this will allow Moscow to keep the situation in the Middle East and Mediterranean under control.”
After such demonstrations of its strength and reach a more permanent Russian military presence in Syria’s west could prove to be the Kremlin’s way of showing that it has become a force in the Middle East to be reckoned with.