Well protected military bases to remain in Syria – Kremlin spokesman

A pilot of the Russian Airspace Forces gets aboard a Su-24 strike bomber at the Hmeimim airbase in the Latakia Governorate of Syria. © Ramil Sitdikov
President Vladimir Putin ordered the withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria, but the Khmeimim and Tartus bases are to stay, properly protected, the president’s spokesman said commenting on Startfor’s analysis of the Russian task force remaining in Syria.

“I just want to remind that the president has taken the decision to pull our contingent out, but to keep the temporary bases in Khmeimim and Tartus and maintain their security,” Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said, stressing that questions about it should be addressed to the Ministry of Defense.

Speaking to veterans of the Syrian campaign, who came to the Kremlin to be decorated with orders and medals for their service, President Putin said personnel still stationed at Khmeimim and Tartus bases will continue serving “effectively secured from the sea, land and air.”

“All components of the air defense, including short range Pantzir-F systems and long range S-400 Triumph systems will be on permanent alert,” the president said.

“All of our partners have been warned and informed: our air defenses will engage any targets we consider endangering Russian servicemen. I want to stress that – any targets,” Putin said.

Last Friday, global intelligence think tank Stratfor published analysis based on commercial satellite imagery provided by the Digital Globe (DG) taken on March 17, which exposed the presence of a considerable number of warplanes and attack helicopters remaining at Khmeimim airbase in Latakia province.

Stratfor believes the announced Russian military withdrawal from Syria was largely completed by March 20, but the American think tank assumes Moscow will maintain a significant military presence in the country.

After the announced withdrawal began on March 15, all 12 Sukhoi Su-25 ground attack aircraft deployed at Khmeimim airbase left Syria, along with three Sukhoi Su-34 tactical bombers, a number of Ilyushin Il-76 military cargo planes and a Tu-154 transport jet. Some Sukhoi Su-24 bombers remain, according to Stratfor.

However, the think tank points out that “Russians are still expanding infrastructure and facilities at the [Khmeimim] airbase,” noting that some “additional assets” have been deployed to the base in the past few days.

None of the Russian air superiority Sukhoi Su-30 and Su-35 fighter jets has been withdrawn from Khmeimim, Stratfor points out, while an unspecified number of Mil Mi-28 and Kamov Ka-52 helicopter gunships have been added to the task force in Syria, an ideal tool to hunt down fast moving mobile targets in the Syrian desert, by day or night.

Combat sorties from Khmeimim continue, Stratfor acknowledged, with the Russian Air Force concentrating efforts on Islamic State (IS, former ISIS/ISIL) positions near Palmyra.

Stratfor also noted some concrete works underway at the base close to S-400 positions, possibly preparing some sort of apron for military hardware or aircraft.

Active logistics activities are also visible at the Tartus naval base, where Stratfor spotted dozens of trucks readied either to load cargo from arriving ships or vice versa.

Stratfor calls attention to the fact that none of the heavy artillery, armored fighting vehicles (and rumored T-90 tanks) are among those vehicles at the port, which means that military hardware delivered to Syria in recent months remains on the battlefield, providing fire support for Syrian troops engaging jihadists.

On March 17, President Putin made a notable statement, saying Russia is ready to expand its military presence in Syria “in a matter of hours” and put to use “everything in our armory.”

“We wouldn’t like to do that, [because] military escalation is not our choice,” Putin said.