Russian troops deployed in Syria’s coastal governorate of Latakia have reportedly arrived in the Hama governorate, located east of Latakia, to provide supplies to areas under the control of Bashar al Assad’s regime.
While sources linked to the regime claim the supplies only included food and aid for civilians affected by the ongoing civil war, which has killed an estimated quarter of a million people and displaced half the country’s population in over four years of fighting, opposition affiliated media suggested that Russia had sent military officers and equipment to Hama.
Speaking to opposition outlet Alsouria.net, activist Suhaib al Rahmoun said more than ten buses and a number of trucks carrying equipment accompanied a delegation of Russian officers and experts to the Al-Nawair Hotel in Hama city on Monday. The convoy also included the regime’s Defence Minister Fahd Jassem al Freij, the activist added.
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“The area around the hotel has seen a heavy security presence by regime forces, which have cordoned off the Real Estate Interests Building and closed the street leading to the hotel,” Rahmoun said, while a Hama-based correspondent working for Alsouria.net confirmed all roads leading to Al-Aasi Square in central Hama had been cut off.
Several checkpoints were also reportedly set up across the city as regime forces checked cars and pedestrians.
Although restrictions around the hotel were eased on Tuesday morning, the road leading directly to the hotel where the Russian delegation is staying is still closed, another activist identifying himself as “Saifeddin” said.
“Several military vehicles can be seen and anti-terrorism forces, military police and the so-called ‘Desert Hawks’ militias are deployed in the area,” he told the opposition outlet.
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According to another pro-opposition source in Syria, the Russian delegation is also establishing a barrack in the Equestrian Club in the southeast of the city.
The regime’s Hama-based governor Ghassan Khalaf, on the other hand, told the Al-Watan newspaper the trucks were merely carrying 15 tons of humanitarian aid that had been delivered to Latakia on Saturday.
Russian military expansion
Last 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.
The officials 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 the Assad regime and his minority Alawite sect.
According to a report published by the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) on Sunday, Russian forces are working to extend an airstrip near the Hemeimeem military airport in Latakia, the second most important regime-controlled airport after Damascus airport.
"Russian forces are building a long runway capable of accommodating large aircraft near the Hemeimeem military airport in Latakia province," the report said, adding that the Russians are "preventing Syrians, whether military or civilian, from entering the area where they are building the runway."
SOHR director Rami Abdurrahman further said sources had also cited that Russia was extending the Hamadiyeh airport, which is located in the Tartus governorate south of Latakia, another regime stronghold.
The port city of Tartus also currently hosts Russia’s only repair and replenishment naval base in the Mediterranean, but Russia has denied claims that it plans to transform the port into a fully-fledged base.
Russia has not commented on whether or not 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, who took advantage of the power vacuum arising from the civil war to take control of large swathes of territory in Syria, establishing a de facto capital of their self-proclaimed “caliphate” in the city of Raqqa.
However, last week Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov admitted that flights delivering humanitarian aid to Syria also carry military equipment.
While Bulgaria, Greece and Ukraine complied to a request from the US to prevent cargo planes from Russia to Syria from using their airspace over suspicions they could be carrying weapons to the Assad regime, Iran has allowed Russian planes to use its airspace to deliver weapons to the Mezzeh airbase in Damascus.
An Israeli military intelligence report released last week also stated that Russia will deploy advanced S-300 air defence missile systems in the city of Jableh in the Latakia governorate, where the Russians have set up a ground base.
Furthermore, the report claimed that a Russian MIG-31 interceptor craft has been put on standby at the Mezzeh airbase, while Russia’s Dmitri Donskoy TK-20 nuclear submarine will be stationed in Syrian waters.