Russia’s visible presence in Latakia

This month, Russia has visibly picked up its military assistance to the embattled Syrian regime, sending military equipment and personnel by sea and air to regime installations on the Syrian coast.

We have seen movement of people and things that would suggest the air base south of Latakia could be used as a forward air operating base,” Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, told a news briefing Monday.

Recent satellite imagery of the airbase south of Latakia, the Bassel al-Assad International Airport, corroborates the Pentagon’s statement that Bassel International is undergoing expansion works to handle increased air traffic, including new helipads and airplane taxiways, with ground already cleared for further construction.

Although just last week Syria’s information minister Omran al-Zoubi called reports of a Russian military buildup in Syria “concocted,” saying “there are no Russian forces or Russian military action by land, sea or air in Syria,” Damascus openly seeks a Russian presence along the coast

“We welcome any widening of the Russian presence in the region, especially on the Syrian coast,” Bashar al-Assad told Russia Times reporters this past March.

It seems Moscow has taken Assad up on his offer. “Russians strolling the streets of Latakia, occasionally in military uniform, but sometimes not, are now starting to get people’s attention–we didn’t see that before,” Latakia-based journalist Salim al-Amar tells Syria Direct’s Noura Hourani.

Q: Where are Russian military personnel based at in Latakia province?

There are Russian military personnel based at several places in Latakia province, for example, just north of the Cote d’Azure beach, at a naval base and research facilities site 7km north of Latakia city. Residents and tourists used to walk along the beach south of the naval base, and take dips in the water. But since early September, regime checkpoints and security forces are stopping anyone from getting anywhere near the base, without saying why.

For the most part, the Russians live in pre-fabricated living units. Most of these pre-fabricated homes are in Humaymim, near the Basel al-Assad airport, on land known for its orchards and groves at the town’s outskirts.

Inside Latakia city itself, Russians strolling the city’s avenues, sometimes in a military uniform, but sometimes not, are now starting to get people’s attention. We didn’t see this sort of thing before.

Q: How many pre-fabricated living units are we talking about?

Judging from the estimates of local activists, there are some 1,000 pre-fabricated homes near Bassel al-Assad airport.

Q: Are Russian troops taking part in combat in Syria?

I haven’t seen any evidence of that.

Q: Tell me about Bassel al-Assad International Airport–are there Russian military personnel there now?

Every now and then Russian planes land at the airport, unloading soldiers, who are then moved to pre-fabricated living units nearby. Others are transported to a Russian base in Tartus.

Q: What about naval shipments?

Russian ships have indeed arrived, carrying weapons and military equipment. And when Russian ships arrive, the regime stops anybody from setting foot in the port, even workers and merchants who have to unload and transport goods inland.

Q: What exactly is the regime up to?

In my opinion, the current uptick in Russian activity is about the regime trying to protect its coastal territories, and any nearby Russian interests–naval bases or research facilities, for example.

The regime also wants to reassure its own sect, the Alawites, that they’re safe and sound now with Russia’s help. With every rebel victory, Alawites are losing confidence in the regime and allied Shiite militias. Also, the regime hopes to dispel any rumors that Russia is about to abandon it.

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor. She left Syria at the beginning of the conflict.

Joseph Adams

Joseph was a 2013-2014 Boren Fellow in Arabic based in Amman, Jordan and is the founder of Open Syria. He holds BA and MS degrees in political science from UCLA and MIT, and is an MA degree candidate in Arabic at Middlebury College.