Stratfor shows that the Russians Are Coming – to Syria

Summary: The United States has almost 800 bases in 70 nations around the world, so it’s natural that Russia building a base in Syria would spark hysteria among Americans. So rather than pay attention to our special operations units, active in 135 nations this past year, let’s focus on the Russians in Syria. Stratfor provides the satellite photos and analysis that tell you what you need to know. Use the knowledge wisely.


Explaining Russia’s True Presence in Syria

Stratfor, 25 September 2015

Stratfor has been closely tracking the Russian buildup of military power at Bassel al Assad air base in Syria, charting the uptick of forces throughout September. Aside from the air assets and defensive ground capacity identified at the air base, reports indicate potential Russian activity at several other locations across the Syrian coastal region.

Widely circulated satellite photography dated Sept. 13 revealed construction at the Istamo weapons storage facility and the appearance of tents at the al-Sanobar military facility south of Latakia. Though this led to conclusions of a possible Russian military presence at those facilities, more recent and detailed imagery provided by our partners at AllSource Analysis seems to contradict this assertion.

Satellite imagery of the al-Sanobar military complex from Sept. 23 does not show any sign of a notable Russian military presence. The tent camp that was present in the Sept. 13 imagery is nowhere to be seen. Also, no particular Russian military equipment or vehicles can be identified.

Russian forces likely move through the area frequently because of their continued activity at the port of Latakia, the activity at the nearby Bassel al Assad air base, and the transit of Russia advisers and trainers to the Syrian front lines, where they are embedded with military units. Because of this, it is possible that the Sept. 13 imagery caught a temporary encampment of Russian forces operating in the Syrian coastal area, as opposed to a more sustained deployment of combat forces to the al-Sanobar complex.


At the Istamo weapons storage facility, there are a number of well-defined changes. Large concrete surfaces have been put in place or are under construction, and the assembly of a potential fuel depot is underway. The process of ground clearing and early paving was already visible in the widely circulated Sept. 13 imagery, and the more recent Sept. 23 imagery shows the progress of construction. Though this is similar to the construction underway at the Bassel al Assad air base, there are strong indications that the Istamo facility is not intended for use as a base by Russian combat forces.

Russian or Syrian helicopters at base

AllSource Analysis identified the helicopters that are visible on the paved surface at Istamo as transport helicopters and Kamov Ka-27 or Ka-28 helicopters. The Syrian military uses these types of military helicopters, and the Ka-27 (or its export version, the Ka-28) is the exact type of helicopter the Syrian navy had previously operated out of the Bassel al Assad air base. However, those types of aircraft are no longer visible at Bassel al Assad, and the majority of equipment there now likely belongs to Russia.

Though it cannot be directly proved through the latest imagery, the limited Russian presence at the Istamo weapons storage facility is likely the result of a relocation of local forces. An expanded Russian contingent at the Bassel al Assad location would have displaced the Syrian naval aviation unit previously stationed there. Setting up a major air base requires space, time and protection. The exclusion of indigenous Syrian units affords the Russians a higher degree of operational security. Moscow will want to run the base — and any subsequent operations staged from there — independent of Damascus.

While there is indeed Russian activity in Syria outside of Bassel al Assad air base, the airfield remains the most sizable concentration of Russian air and ground combat forces in Syria. Russian force elements will continue to disembark at the ports of Latakia and Tartus because the sea bridge is the logical offloading point for large amounts of personnel and heavy equipment in bulk, but the center of gravity of the Russian deployment remains Bassel al Assad.

Explaining Russia’s True Presence in Syria
is republished with permission of Stratfor.


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20 thoughts on “Stratfor shows that the Russians Are Coming – to Syria”

  1. Anti-submarine helicopters? Those will be SO useful against ISIS, why didn’t WE think of that?! ISIS can rest easier knowing that this is the best that Stratfor can find on the Russian menace.

    I would hate to be a Russian soldier assigned to Syria, this just can’t end well for them.

    1. And now I understand why Putin invested effort in Syria. Nobody is talking about what is going on in Ukraine and Russia is viewed as a potential partner against ISIS. Obama is even talking to him again.

      Nice move, Mr. Putin, but I cannot help feeling like both Putin and Obama are playing a tactical game without reference to a coherent strategy.

    2. Alexander: “Narcos hace submarines, what makes you believe that ISIS can not have submarines?”

      Narco-gangs have a lot of things that ISIS does not, for example, a coastline. I’m going to have to categorize this as a poor attempt at humor unless you can show me some articles from reputable news sources supporting the theory that ISIS has subs.

    3. “Narco-gangs have a lot of things that ISIS does not, for example, a coastline.”

      Last time I checked Libya had a coast to the Mediterranean Sea,
      Sirte was in the Libyan coast, and ISIS was in control of Sirte.

      1. Alexander,

        That’s a great catch! I suspect people have difficulty keeping up with the increasing scope of ISIS. I know I do.

        Side note: looking at the details of these battles — such as the Battle of Sirte in Spring 2015. These casualties would be considered a light day’s skirmish in most civil wars. I don’t know what that means.

    4. Editor,
      Yes, as even the wiki page says “On 23, September ISIL assert the control of whole Sirte and it’s Beach with no Elements of Pro Gaddafi loyalists remaining. The Expelsion of Pro Gaddafi loyalists bring end to months long battle of Sirte with a decisive ISIL victory.”

      I think it means that they have mastered the art of getting their opponents to not even have the will to fight them.

  2. I’m still not convinced these stories aren’t just Washingtonion millenialist fever stewing up. Syria has been with the Russians for a very very long time. They pave a runway and move around a few helicopters — what’s the implication here?

    If anything Putin wins, if only for not being completely crazy, like the USA. I mean, I get that most of the bad things they say about Assad are actually true — but at least, this is some kind of plan. The USA is approaching that point where it simply cannot do anything at all. We’ve killed so many people, we have no friends left. Being one of those four-five guys who were the remains of the psychologically vetted pro-USA rebel force in Syria, that had to be the loneliest job in the country. No wonder they gave their trucks and ammo to Al Nusra.

  3. With Iran, Russia, the USA, the EU, Israel and the remnants of Syria attempting to deal with ISIS the chances of an incident triggering unforeseen consequences is probably quite high.
    It is disappointing that we are stumbling towards a real Armageddon while so many leaders are fixated on the folly of controlling the world’s climate by regulating CO2.

    1. Hunter,

      “It is disappointing that we are stumbling towards a real Armageddon”

      That’s quite an exaggeration. There are no stakes in Syria that are worth a nuclear confrontation between the US and Russia. Also, during the past 65 years militaries of both have become skilled at managing these little brush wars.

    2. Exaggeration aside, I see the proximity of so many players and their proxies as troubling. I do agree (and fervently hope) that a nuclear dimension is not likely. I guess I mean more of a long, intense, drawn out proxy war that drags in American and NATO forces into a confrontation with Russia. and Iran.

    1. Infowarrior,

      Good question. I don’t know. What might happen is — as I predicted last year — that ISIS will get crushed because they’ve made enemies of almost everybody. It’s the anti-John Boyd strategy (he advocated making friends and strengthening alliances, while helping your foes do the opposite).

      No matter how ineffective or weak, their growing mass of foes might eventually win. As engineers say, quantity has a quality all its own.

      Also, their policies for running their State look insane to me. That can’t help.

  4. Ed, I think you have no idea what you’re talking about, I don’t think ISIS will get crushed any time soon. They use different techniques. I hope you’re right though

    1. El T,

      “They use different techniques”

      Different than what? And why would these “different techniques” overcome their lack of resources, lack of allies, and that they’re surrounded by enemies? While that doesn’t guarantee their defeat, this suggests that the odds are against them.

  5. Different than the west. the west holds back. Isis goes all the way. that is against us.

    I just think you think its easier than it is

    1. elT,

      “Different than the west. the west holds back. Isis goes all the way. that is against us.”

      You must not be familiar with the history of counter-insurgency since WWII. Other than using WMD, there’s not much that western nations haven’t tried. Nothing works.

      “I just think you think its easier than it is”

      Not so. I just pointed to the odds. No mention of ease or duration.

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