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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Russia May Be Eyeing Payoff for Military Buildup in Syria

by Jeff Seldin September 17, 2015

Russia's unrelenting military buildup in Syria is worrying U.S. defense and intelligence officials who say Russia's intentions are anything but clear and who remain suspicious of repeated calls by Moscow for direct military-to-military talks.

Yet Moscow's moves are also forcing some U.S. officials to concede that there likely is not any way forward in Syria without giving Russia a greater say.

"Russia is going to be part of the conversation because they are making themselves part of the conversation," a U.S. defense official told VOA on condition of anonymity.

"We're open to dialogue," the official said. "It's up to the Russians to tell us what they're doing."

Defense and intelligence officials say Russia's buildup at an air base in Latakia, along a stretch of coastline still controlled by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, looks to be "defensive in nature." But they caution that posture could change quickly.

U.S. officials say two large Russian Condor cargo planes are landing each day at the Latakia base, bringing in more supplies. Russian cargo ships have also been making deliveries.

Some of the newest deliveries include two Russian Mi-24 Hind attack helicopters, two Mi-15 Hip transport helicopters and 'about half a dozen tanks,' according to one U.S. official.

More troops

The Russians have also sent in more troops, building on the 200 naval infantrymen sent to Syria last week. And Moscow has flown in additional modular housing units, enough for an estimated 2,000 soldiers, suggesting an even greater Russian military presence may be on the way.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov raised the possibility of talks in a call this week with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova insisted Thursday that Moscow's intentions are clear.

'We are trying to prevent a total catastrophe in the region," she said. "At any moment when the American side expresses a wish to discuss our military and technical cooperation with Syria, we are ready to do that."

But U.S. officials have expressed reservations, saying that behind the scenes, Russian officials have been much more vague, refusing to elaborate on the purpose of the military buildup inside Syria or how they hope to collaborate with the United States.

Any such military-to-military discussions would be the first with Russia since Defense Secretary Ash Carter took office and the first since the U.S. suspended any military cooperation with Moscow after Russian forces moved into Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

"We're aware of the Russian interest," Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook told reporters Thursday. "Secretary Carter is consulting with his colleagues on the national security team as to exactly the best path forward."

'A losing bet'

The White House on Thursday left open the possibility of "tactical, practical discussions" with Russia, provided they focused on countering the terror group known as the Islamic State.

"We would warn them against doubling down on their support for the Assad regime," said White House spokesman Josh Earnest. "That's a losing bet. It's a losing bet for Russia. It's a losing bet for Syria."

The Russians, though, may not see it that way, calculating that a substantial increase in support for Syria's president will keep both their Syrian proxy and their influence in the region intact.

"It gives an aura of stability and even permanency to the Assad regime that it did not have before," said Christopher Harmer, a former U.S. Navy commander who is now a senior naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.

Harmer said a combination of the new Russian weapons and training along with the psychological boost the Russian presence is likely to give to Assad's forces could be enough to change not only the battlefield momentum but also the political reality.

"It essentially completely guarantees that there will be no political solution that involves Bashar Assad leaving Syria for the foreseeable future," he said.

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