SYRIA

What these images reveal about Russia’s presence in Syria

A recently published photo of a Russian soldier taken in Tartus, Syria.
A recently published photo of a Russian soldier taken in Tartus, Syria.

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Over the last few days, a series of photos showing young Russian soldiers posing in front of portraits of Bashar al-Assad have stirred a lot of controversy. The soldiers are shown either wearing uniforms or holding weapons. Some people have taken these photos as conclusive proof that Russia is taking part in the Syrian civil war. But the photos were taken in a Russian military base on the Syrian coast, far from the front lines. There’s no doubt that Moscow is playing a more active role in the Syrian conflict, but to what extent?

Photos of Russian soldiers whip up a media frenzy

The photos that have gathered the most media attention in recent days would appear to be those posted on September 4 by Nikolay Mahno, a pro-Kiev activist currently living in Ukraine. The photos are presented as a rebuke to Russian President Putin, who has consistently denied that the Russian army has been participating in the Syrian conflict.

Mahno insists that the Russian soldiers in Syria are no longer just “instructors but also special forces soldiers and navy personnel.” He adds that “most of them are in Tartus, but they’re also in Homs, Damascus, etc… there are some who stay for 4-6 months and pretend to be Arab.”

A few examples of photos taken from a series published by a Ukrainian Internet user (to see all the photos, click here).

Most of the photos taken from the series currently doing the rounds were originally posted on Internet pages belonging to Russian soldiers currently serving in Tartus (here's one example). The city is located some 220km northwest of Damascus and has been home to a Russian naval base since 1971. For years, the Russian military installation there has been referred to as little more than a ‘Potemkin’ after it was largely abandoned in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse. But the site has recently taken on new strategic significance and is now a key replenishing point for the Russian navy. When the Syrian uprising descended into bloody armed conflict in 2011, Moscow began regularly sending warships to the Western Mediterranean.

This images taken from Tartus show life on the Russian base, and don’t by themselves prove the involvement of Russian military forces in the Syrian conflict. Furthermore, certain photos are much older than the Ukrainian Internet user claimed.

The date on this photo was removed– though it is unclear whether the act was intentional or not. Despite that, Internet users assert that the original photo was posted back in February 2014.

Photo of a soldier taken in a park in the city of Tartus.

As for the few photos that were reportedly taken outside the Tartus naval base, it’s impossible to prove that they show Russian fighters engaged in military operations. When contacted by France 24, the Internet user who posted the original batch of photos admitted that he had mistakenly posted several photos of soldiers from Kazakhstan that had been taken out of their original context.

Finally, location markers, like ‘Hama’, or ‘Homs’, for example (see below), are not proof of where the photo was taken. A simple tool like Photoshop enables someone to doctor the date or place.

Location markers at the bottom of the photos can be faked or added.

Advice and training: the official task handed down to Russian soldiers

Although Russia hasn’t hidden the fact that its naval base has taken on a new lease of life, it has been far less upfront about the actual role played by soldiers serving in Tartus or even how many have been sent there. However, locals have noted a growing Russian presence over the last few months.

Syrian officials have also openly acknowledged the arrival of Russian troops. Citing a Syrian military source, the website The Arab Source claims that on the first weekend of September “a significant number of Russian soldiers arrived in Tartus in light of Russia’s growing role in the Syrian conflict.” According to the same source, “There are currently between 700 and 800 Russian soldiers on Syrian soil, including 40 who reportedly arrived in the last few days [Editor’s note: at the start of September]. Their mission is to train new recruits for the National Defense Forces [Editor’s note: a group of pro-government armed civilians] and to teach them how to use new military equipment brought by naval forces Friday morning.” Most of these soldiers are reportedly serving near Lattakia, whilst the rest can be found in the governorate of Tartus and to the west of Homs. According to this source, role of the Russian soldiers boils down to advising and training the Syrian army.

Syria has always counted Moscow among its closest allies, even more so since Vladimir Putin came to power back in 1999. As such, Russia has openly declared its support for Syria in the name of “fighting terrorism”. That said, the Kremlin has steadfastly denied sending troops to take part in armed combat. At the start of September, Vladimir Putin also made it clear that in his mind it was too early to think about committing ground troops.

A Russian presence in the skies above Syria?

But there could be good reason to think that Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict goes further than the Kremlin is letting on. Specialist military blogs have recently speculated about the appearance of Russian fighter jets and drones in Syrian airspace after photos taken in Idlib province were uploaded to accounts linked to the jihadists who control the area.

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According to The Aviationist – a blog that specializes in aviation – if the photos are indeed verified, they could serve as proof that a “Russian expeditionary force is already in Syria and has begun flying from a Syrian air base.” Using the angles made available to them, specialists claim to have spotted the Soukhoi SU-34 tactical bomber – a plane not found in the Syrian air force – and the Pchela 1T, a Russian drone.

The Kremlin’s spokesperson roundly denied these allegations at the start of September. He also asserted that no Russian jet fighters were taking part in airstrikes in Syria.

 

A brand-new armored personnel carrier sows doubt

But that’s not the only thing that’s got the attention of military experts. They’ve also picked up on the presence of a BTR82A in a video showing heavy fighting near Lattakia, filmed by the media wing of the pro-regime National Defense Forces militia. There are several reasons to believe that this armored personnel carrier isn’t being operated by Syrian soldiers. Firstly, this relatively new model only started being rolled out in the Kazakh army in 2012 and in the Russian army from 2013 to 2014, meaning that can’t have already been exported to Syria. What’s more, in the video the armored vehicle is shown carrying camouflage used by the Russian army as well as the figure 111 on the rear left-hand side. A Syrian version of this APC would logically bear the same code in Arabic, or at least the usual identifiers carried by Syrian forces. In addition to that, between 2:00 and 2:16 a man can be heard shouting in Russian “Go on! (inaudible) More! Keep going!” as the APC fires at the hill opposite.

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It’s impossible to say that these images alone serve as irrefutable proof that Russia is fighting alongside forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Yet even if this BTR82A was only delivered to the Syrian army, its presence in areas of heavy fighting goes to show that Russia is in the process of ramping up its support to Damascus by sending its most up-to-date military hardware.