By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
Amid a range of reports of sightings of Russian military personnel and equipment used in combat in Syria, Russia's role in the conflict escalated sharply with the confirmation of Russian aircraft and armoured vehicles being flown in by the dozens. Coinciding with the renovation of Hmeemeem/Bassel al-Assad IAP for use as a Russian military base, Il-76 strategic airlifters or (more likely) Il-78 aerial refuelling planes have been sighted escorting military aircraft such as the Su-30SM and Su-24M(2) over Syria, together with An-124 strategic airlifters reportedly carrying at least two Mi-17 and two Mi-24/35 helicopters amongst a range of other weaponry.
The airfield, formerly housing around a dozen Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) Mi-14 and Ka-28 naval helicopters until their departure in recent weeks, is swiftly being expanded both in size by the construction of new helicopter pads and a taxiway as well as in its defensive structure to cope with the influx of Russian aircraft and equipment and help secure the base from any future rebel offensive. Although this expansion was previously noted by various media, it was not until the 19th of September that satellite imagery confirmed the presence of Russian fighter aircraft sitting unprotected on the runway, their shelters not having been built yet.
Aside from the four Su-30SM advanced jet fighters photographed at the time, video footage shows what appear to be another four Su-24 fighter-bombers closely escorting an Il-78 and possibly four more Su-27/30 aircraft flying in similar fashion above Northern Homs on the 20th and 19th of September respectively, highly likely heading for Hmeemeem/Bassel al-Assad IAP in closeby Lattakia as well. Another possibility is that the aircraft flew over the Caspian sea, through Iran and Iraq, a theory which would explain the approach taken by the planes over Homs but which would seem like a risky strategy considering the large amount of foreign aircraft currently active over Iraq and Syria. It is known the first batch of four Su-30SMs crossed Greek airspace however, so it is likely both routes are used.
An unconfirmed image from the 18th of September as well as comments made by a U.S. official on the deployment of four Russian Air Force Sukhoi jets to Syria suggest at least three batches of aircraft have so far been flown in: Together comprising four Su-30SMs, four Su-24M(2)s and another four as of yet unidentified aircraft, possibly also of the Su-30SM type.
The Su-30SM brings with it capabilities previously unavailable to the SyAAF, and will allow the Russian Air Force (RuAF) to closely follow any offensives or defensive actions. Information acquired can be relayed back to ground-forces, the Su-30SM thus acting as a flying command platform. The wide array of both guided and unguided weaponry available to the Su-30SM makes it an extremely versatile aircraft well suited to the Syrian battlefield. However, the fact that these aircraft represent some of the most modern fighters in use by the RuAF, capable of both ground-attack sorties as well as air-to-air engagements, might allude to another reason for their choice. Having just concluded the first talks with U.S. counterparts on the Syrian conflict right before the first sighting of these fighters, their presence in Syria delivers a strong message to the world.
Although less capable than the Su-30SM, the stationing of Su-24M(2)s is little surprising given the SyAAF is also operating this aircraft, which were all recently upgraded from MK standard to M2 standard in Rzhev, Russia. 819 Squadron, responsible for operating the Su-24M2 in Syrian service, continues to fly with eleven operational airframes based at T4, Central Syria. The possible housing of RuAF Su-24M(2)s at this airbase would help ease logistics, and making use of the extensive infrastructure already available there would be a sensible choice.
This combined force has the capability of quickly changing the situation on the ground by mass bombardments, depending on the ultimate amount of aircraft stationed in Syria. Any rebel offensive could be stopped dead in its tracks, or their defences could be blown away during one of Russia's or the regime's offensives.
The news of increased military involvement by the Russian Federation in the Syrian conflict certainly does not come out of the blue: A flurry of reports ranging from the downing of Russian drones in late July to the delivery of (likely Russian-operated) Pantsir-S1 air defence systems earlier this month all testify of what is shaping up to be a major surge in backing for the Syrian regime. Interestingly, videos first showing a recently delivered Russian BTR-82A IFV, later of an R-116-0.5 signals vehicle and now of two T-55s (one with a North Korean laser-range finder) in the Lattakia governorate all seem to show equipment being operated by (or in the last case, simply ridden by) Russian military personnel, indicating the Russian Army will be directly involved in combat situations. From these developments it is clear that Russia will not allow the regime to succumb from rebel offensives, and despite the fact that the war is far from being fought, it would appear the reality is that Assad will remain in power for the foreseeable future.