Since Vladmir Putin announced on March 14 that he was withdrawing Russian forces from Syria because he considered his objectives there “generally accomplished,” there have been several high-profile flights of jets, helicopters, and troops back home to Russia. But a new Reuters report indicates that, far from the spotlight, the Russians may still be sending more military equipment to Syria than they’re withdrawing:
[A]n examination of shipping data, official information, tips from maritime security sources and photographs from bloggers of Russian ships passing the Bosphorus strait en route from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, shows no signs that the “Syrian Express” is being wound down.
Those photos, as the Reuters story details, show ships that consistently sit lower in the water (i.e. are loaded more heavily) going from Russia to Syria than vice versa—meaning Russia is shipping more in than out. It’s impossible to know exactly what—troops, armor, materiel—is going in though. On the other hand, some details are plainly visible:
A Reuters analysis of the same data shows Russia is also likely to have reinforced its naval force in the Mediterranean and now appears to have more war ships near the Syrian coast than at the time of Putin’s declaration.
Their role is to protect cargo ships. Their presence also gives Moscow the option of firing cruise missiles from the sea.
Several things may be going on here. Firstly, the Assad government is still a Russian client and is probably still not completely secure and entrenched. Russia may be using the ceasefire to help the Syrian government build back its strength. Secondly, Russia has long-term plans for Syria, plans that involve military bases and do not involve Assad falling:
Putin has not detailed what would prompt [a large-scale return to the War], but any perceived threat to Russia’s bases in Syria or any sign that President Bashar al-Assad, Moscow’s closest Middle East ally, was in peril would be likely to trigger a powerful return.
Russia operates an air base in Hmeymim and a naval facility at Tartous. Putin has said Russia will keep both and that they will need to be well protected.
The bottom line is, Russia’s version of success in Syria always looked different than the American one did. the Kremlin is perfectly happy to prop Assad up while he butchers his own people, holding onto only part (but the important part) of his country, and generally to accept a status quo—a broken country, ongoing slaughter—that the U.S. would find unacceptable in an allied state. Putin’s “Mission Accomplished” moment last month made for great domestic TV; now he is pivoting to the next step. It might just work for him.