Are Russia and the U.S. building military bases in Syria?

Russian Sukhoi Su-24M frontline bombers seen ahead of a flight at the Hmeymim airbase, Nov. 19, 2015.

Russian Sukhoi Su-24M frontline bombers seen ahead of a flight at the Hmeymim airbase, Nov. 19, 2015.

Alexander Yelistratov/TASS
The global media are increasingly reporting that the U.S. and Russia are building military bases in Syria.

Reports of a U.S. military base being built in northeast Syria are becoming more and more frequent in the international media. On January 24, 2016 the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet quoted Syrian sources as saying that the U.S. military, together with Syrian Kurds, were completing work to strengthen and expand the runway and set up necessary infrastructure at a former rural airfield in the town of Ramilan. The runway is currently 2,600 meters (8,530 feet) long and the airbase will soon be able to receive warplanes and military cargo aircraft, Interfax reports.

Against the backdrop of speculation about a U.S. military base, reports have emerged that Russia is also building a military base in northeast Syria, within 50 kilometers (31 miles) of the American one.

The Times and Fox News, citing a high-ranking source in Washington, said that the Russian base was being built just several kilometers from the Turkish border near the city of Al-Qamishli. In that Kurdish-controlled area, there are still some pockets that remain under the control of the Syrian government. One of these government-controlled areas allegedly has an airfield that the Russian military has decided to use.

Denials from both sides

Reports that the Americans are building a military base in Syria first appeared on January 21 in Militarytimes, citing the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group that is favorable to the opposition. At the time, a U.S. Department of Defense representative, Col. Steve Warren, refused to comment on the subject.

“That operation is ongoing,” Warren said. “But because of the special nature of these forces, it's very important that we not discuss specifically where they're located.” The U.S. based Stratfor intelligence company, which the Barron’s financial newspaper once referred to as the “shadow CIA,” voiced the opinion on January 22 that satellite “images support rumors of U.S. military activity in Syria.”

However, the U.S. military command continues to deny everything.

“Let me put it clearly, the U.S. Armed Forces did not take any airfields in Syria under their control,” Air Force Col. Patrick Ryder, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), said on January 24. According to him, “the location and number of our forces (in Syria) remain small” and they address the tasks “earlier declared by (U.S.) Secretary of Defense (Ashton) Carter.”

The Russian side also denied reports that a new military base was being built.

“There are no ‘new’ airbases or additional staging airfields for Russian military aircraft on the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic and none are being planned,” said Major General Igor Konashenkov, the official spokesman of the Russian Ministry of Defense. “Conjectures on this topic published in the British publication The Times are either an amateurish farce or a clumsy attempt at providing an information cover for Turkey moving a large group of troops to the Syrian border near Al-Qamishli.”

Alarm and doubt

On January 22, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed alarm over reports that over 200 Russian personnel had begun working on strengthening the runway at the airbase in Al-Qamishli, and sent military reinforcements to that section of the border, while soldiers began digging trenches, The Times reported.

The Russian military base in Latakia is located at the other end of the country on the Mediterranean coast. According to Lieutenant General Valery Gorbenko, the former commander of the 4th Air Force and Air Defense Army, the capabilities of the base in Latakia are more than sufficient, therefore he thinks that reports of a new Russian base in northeast Syria are unlikely.

“I don’t think that Russia would be building an airbase there because the one that they are using now allows them to reach practically the whole territory of the country, even without refueling,” Gorbenko said. “And even if they had to fly somewhere far, all the aircraft, except fighter bombers, are fitted with refueling capabilities. To build yet another base would require huge funds, as well as the need to protect it.”

“I see no point in an American base in that area either because they have bases on Turkish territory,” he added.

Or are they building it after all…

At the same time, Konstantin Sivkov, senior vice-president of the Academy of Geopolitical Problems, said that the construction of a Russian military base in that part of the country was driven by the logic of the events and he had little doubt that the reports were true.

“The Russian base is being built in order to prevent supplies from being delivered to militants in Syria from Turkey and to disrupt communications,” Sivkov said. “To that end, we need to deploy helicopter squadrons that could deliver strikes freely. The Americans are deploying their forces for a different reason – in order to ensure their presence in that area and, if necessary, to ensure cover for forces friendly to them, including from ISIS.”

First published in Russian in VZGLYAD.

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