Russian, Iranian marines join forces in Syria game changer

Report released by Israeli military intelligence website claims Russian and Iranian marines cooperating in Latakia to fight Syrian opposition in support of Assad regime

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Updated Feb 24, 2016

A report published by an Israeli military intelligence website has claimed that at least 1,000 marines from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) are teaming up with Russian forces in Syria to defeat opposition fighters who seek to topple Bashar al Assad’s regime.

According to the Israeli military intelligence report published on Friday, the IRGC marines recently arrived at the Iranian Ghorin military air base in Syria’s coastal Latakia province.

The Iranians are now set to make their way to a ground base built by the Russians in the city of Jableh, where they will join forces with the Russian Marine Brigades 810 and 336 to “save” Assad, the report stated.

Although the report stated it was too early to tell if the Russian-Iranian build-up in the Latakia province is to provide Assad with a safe haven in case he is forced to withdraw from the Syrian capital Damascus or if they were planning to pursue opposition fighters and ISIS militants after “settling in,” it warned that the province was turning into a “powerful Russian-Iranian military enclave.”

Earlier this week, US officials speaking to the Reuters news agency on the condition of anonymity claimed Russia had sent two tank landing ships and an additional cargo aircraft to Syria, including the deployment of a small number of naval infantry forces.

They added that the intent of Russia's military advances into Syria was still unclear, but one possible reason could be to prepare an airfield near the port city of Latakia, which is currently a stronghold for Assad forces.

The Syrian port city of Tartus currently hosts Russia’s only repair and replenishment naval base in the Mediterranean. Russia has denied that it plans to transform the port into a fully-fledged base.

However, the officials did not rule out the possibility that Russia may want to use Syrian airspace for air combat operations.

Russia has not commented on whether its military experts deployed in Syria are engaging in combat, but has insisted its intention is to help the Assad regime to fight ISIS militants, in line with international law.

“Our partners - representatives of the Syrian armed forces - need some help and guidance," Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov told the Russian Interfax news agency on Tuesday.

Speaking to Reuters on Wednesday, an unnamed official from the Assad regime said that Russian experts have always been present in Syria “but in the last year they have been present to a greater degree."

A Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, also insisted on Wednesday that this operation was nothing new, arguing that Moscow had been openly supplying weapons and sending military specialists to Syria for a long time.

"Russia has never made a secret of its military-technical cooperation with Syria,'' Zakharova said.

Russia delivering weapons to Assad

On Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov admitted that flights delivering humanitarian aid to Syria also carry military equipment, after Western nations were alarmed by Russian cargo planes flying into the country.

In response, Bulgaria, Greece and Ukraine complied to a request from the US to prevent planes carrying supplies from Russia to Syria from using their airspace, due to suspicions they could be carrying weapons to the Assad regime.

Iran, on the other hand, has allowed Russian planes to use its airspace to deliver weapons to the Mezzeh airbase in Damascus.

Two Western officials and a Russian source were cited by Reuters on Friday saying that Russia is providing anti-aircraft missiles to Assad’s forces. According to the Russian source, Russia had previously sent the SA-22 system, also known as the Pantsir-S1, to Syria in 2013.

The report also stated that Russia will deploy advanced S-300 air defence missile systems in its own base in Jableh as well as the Iranian base in Ghorin, while a Russian MiG-31 interceptor craft has been put on standby at the Mezzeh airbase.

Moreover, Russia is sending its Dmitri Donskoy TK-20 nuclear submarine to be stationed in Syrian waters, the report added.

According the the AFP news agency, Russia warned the Greek Cypriot administration on Friday to change the regular route taken by flights bound to the island on Sept. 14-17 as it will be holding military drills in the eastern Mediterranean with Syria between Cyprus and the port of Tartus.

Russia has reportedly issued NOTAMs (Notice to Airmen) to the US Federal Aviation Administration about the planned exercises which will include the firing of missiles.

US-Russia showdown

Moscow’s support for the Assad regime has raised anxieties in the West, with US officials expressing concerns over a potential standoff between Washington and Moscow if US-backed Syrian opposition forces are targeted by Russian troops.

Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, speaking to reporters on Friday, called on Moscow and Washington to revive communications between military commanders in order to avoid "unintended incidents" in Syria.

"We are always in favour of military people talking to each other in a professional way. They understand each other very well. It is important to avoid undesirable unintended incidents," Lavrov said.

US President Barack Obama, on the other hand, said later on Friday during a town hall meeting with US military personnel that Russia’s strategy of “doubling down on Assad is a mistake."

"We are going to be engaging Russia to let them know that you can't continue to double-down on a strategy that is doomed to failure," Obama said, adding Russian military presence in Syria could prevent a political settlement to end the conflict.

"The Russians are going to have to start getting a little smarter than they have been," Obama added.

Four-and-a-half years of fighting in Syria has left over 250,000 Syrians dead, according to UN estimates. More than 6.7 million Syrians have also been displaced internally while at least 5.4 million have fled to neighbouring countries such as Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan.

Author: Ertan Karpazli