NOW YOU SEE THEM

09.05.15 5:27 PM ET

Exposing Russia’s Secret Army in Syria

Some wear uniforms, some don’t, but from highway checkpoints to jet fighters, Russians are being spotted all over the Assad dictatorship’s heartland.

Russian military officers are now in Damascus and meeting regularly with Iranian and Syrian counterparts, according to a source with close contacts in the Bashar al-Assad regime. “They’re out in restaurants and cafes with other high officials in the Syrian Army,” the source told The Daily Beast, “mainly concentrated in Yaafour and Sabboura, areas that are close to each other, and in west Mezze,” referring to a district in the capital where Assad’s praetorian Fourth Armored Division keeps an important airbase. “The Russians aren’t in uniform, but they’re constantly hanging out with officers from the Syrian Army’s central command.”  

Other Syrians claim to have seen Russians in uniform. 

One family that recently traveled from Aleppo to Damascus by taxi before emigrating by plane to Turkey says it saw a small contingent of Russian troops embedded with Syrians at a military checkpoint in the capital. “We were near the Shaghour district when we noticed two soldiers who were not Syrian,” a family representative said. “They were tall, blond and blue-eyed and wore different fatigues from the Syrians and carried weapons. I’m telling you, they were Russian.” 

The opposition-linked website All4Syria seems to corroborate such eyewitness accounts. Many residents of Damascus, it claimed, have “observed in the first three days of September a noticeable deployment of Iranian and Russian elements in the neighborhoods of Baramkeh, al-Bahsa, and Tanzim Kfarsouseh.” The Venezia Hotel in al-Bahsa “has been turned into a military barracks for the Iranians.”

Such news comes amid a flurry of reports that Russia has made plans for a direct military intervention in Syria’s four-year civil war and may actually have started one already. The New York Times reported Saturday that Russia has sent prefabricated housing units, capable of sheltering as many as 1,000 military personnel, and a portable air traffic control station to another Syrian airbase in Latakia. That coastal province, the Assad family’s ancestral home, has already seen Russian troops caught on video operating BTR-82 infantry fighting vehicles against anti-Assad rebels, atop rumors that Moscow may be deploying an “expeditionary force,” including Russian pilots who would fly combat missions.

A social media account affiliated with the al-Qaeda franchise Jabhat al-Nusra posted images of what appeared to be Russian Air Force jets and drones flying in the skies of Syria’s northwest Idlib province. They were, specifically, the Mig-29 Fulcrum, the Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker, the Su-34 Fullback, and the Pchela-1T drone. These images were analyzed as credible by the specialist website The Aviationist, which also noted that “during the past days, Flightradar24.com has exposed several flights of a Russian Air Force… Il-76 airlifter (caught by means of its Mode-S transponder) flying to and from Damascus using radio call sign ‘Manny 6,’ most probably supporting the deployment of a Russian expeditionary force.

ISIS isn’t in Idlib; the terror army was driven out of the province completely. As one U.S. intelligence official put it to The Daily Beast, “The question is, what are Russia’s underlying motivations? Are they really there to fight [ISIS], or just to prop up Assad?” 

The concern is that Russia could use military strikes against ISIS as a kind of cover or feint for attacking rebel forces as well, including non-Islamist groups. The U.S. sees these forces as a potential bulwark against ISIS. But they also have as one of their primary goals overthrowing Assad—an effort that Washington has been unwilling to support. 

The White House has fallen back on its customary posture of wait-and-see as proof mounts that the Russians are coming. Spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters this week: ”We are aware of reports that Russia may have deployed military personnel and aircraft to Syria, and we are monitoring those reports quite closely. Any military support to the Assad regime for any purpose, whether it’s in the form of military personnel, aircraft supplies, weapons, or funding, is both destabilizing and counterproductive.” Another unnamed U.S. official told Britain’s Daily Telegraph, ”Russia has asked for clearances for military flights to Syria, [but] we don’t know what their goals are.”

Actually, their goals aren’t terribly hard to discern, nor do they necessarily contradict implicit White House policy, whatever Earnest says. 

Photographs circulated on social media showing what appeared to be Russian soldiers in Zabadani, a city 45 kilometers north of Damascus, which has changed hands several times during the civil war. For months rebels have been fending off a scorched-earth assault by the Syrian army, Hezbollah and Iranian forces, which the U.N. assesses to have led to “unprecedented levels of destruction.” So the injection of Russian legionnaires into a multinational cocktail of combatants duking it out in Zabadani would make perfect sense. The city is considered the sine qua non of Iran’s “strategic corridor” in Syria, which runs from the capital to Lebanon and up along the Mediterranean coastline. The formidable Islamist rebel brigade Ahrar al-Sham knows who’s in charge here—it has even negotiated an ultimately unsuccessful ceasefire directly with the Islamic Republic rather than with Assad.

“The Russians are clearly setting themselves on the ground in regime areas, planting the flag in ‘Alawistan,’ as it were,” says Tony Badran, a Syria expert at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, referring to the Alawites, the schismatic Shia sect to which the Assad clan and the more powerful Syrian regime elites belong. “This, ironically, reinforces the Obama administration’s position, which has drawn a clear line around the regime enclave: The opposition is not to enter Damascus and the coastal cities. So the Russian deployment actually fits well with the administration’s approach.”

Right on cue, then, came Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement Friday that Syria would soon hold new parliamentary elections and inaugurate a power-sharing government with what he deemed a “healthy” opposition. He did not specify what he considered the diseased opposition, although this would almost certainly include Free Syrian Army fighters the CIA and Pentagon has been recruiting as U.S. proxies.  

While Putin dismissed the existence of any Russian combat forces in Syria as “premature,” he did allow that he was “looking at various options” for militarily involving himself in the war.  Coming from someone who only admits to Russian invasions after the fact, such a signposting of motive should not be ignored.

Moscow’s close coordination with Tehran, both in Damascus and internationally, is also no coincidence. Iran is now busy shopping a new international “peace plan” for Syria, one that goes beyond the parameters of the previously inked Geneva II protocol.  

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Intriguingly, just weeks after Iran agreed to a deal to control its nuclear program in exchange for international sanctions relief, Major General Qasem Soleimani, the commander of its own expeditionary force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-Quds Force, flew to Moscow for talks with Russian officials, violating the international travel ban related to his terrorist activity. No doubt solidifying Russian backing for whatever he has planned for Syria was high up on Soleimani’s agenda.

This isn’t the first time since the Syrian war broke out that there’s been chatter about Russian troops in Damascus.

In May 2013, sources close to the Kremlin suggested that Putin had dispatched the Zaslon special forces detachment to the Syrian capital. Formed in 1998, and conceived as a clandestine unit combining the purviews of America’s Delta Force and Secret Service, Zaslon consists of a mere 280 highly trained operatives. It answers to Russia’s foreign intelligence service, the SVR, and is tasked with protecting high-value Russian officials in uncertain conditions and sometimes even conducting assassinations. It was rumored to have killed Iraqi insurgents in 2006 after the latter had captured and executed Russian diplomats. 

As Mark Galeotti, a New York University-based specialist on Russia’s military and security forces, observed two years ago: “According to one Russian report, two Zaslon elements were also deployed to Baghdad in the dying days of the [Saddam] Hussein regime. Their mission was to seize or destroy documents which Moscow would have found embarrassing had they ended up in U.S. hands. Given the scale and depth of Russian support for Assad, it could similarly be that they are also in Syria to cover Moscow’s tracks or else ensure that sensitive military technology—including new surface-to-air systems—does not end up in foreign hands.”

Under the present circumstances, it is now likely that any Russian soldiers in Damascus are there to fortify and ring-fence another spent Baathist regime, if not to join in a war that is fought increasingly by “foreign hands.”


— With additional reporting by Shane Harris