New satellite images released Tuesday reveal what appears to be new construction at two Syrian military facilities near the Mediterranean coast, the latest indicator that Russia may soon deploy its own military forces into the country’s civil war.
The images, provided by IHS Jane’s, a defense-intelligence provider, show development of a weapons depot and military facility north of an air base at Latakia.
The images suggest Russia is preparing to place troops in both places, Robert Munks, editor of IHS Jane’s Intelligence Review told the Wall Street Journal.
The bases pose new challenges for the Obama administration, which has already expressed concern over Russia’s growing involvement in the region.
The U.S. is concerned Russian troops might directly support the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad in the over four-year-long conflict, exacerbating the fighting that has killed over 250,000 people and displaced some 11 million.
Russia’s foreign ministry claims it’s actions in Syria are in support of the fight against terrorism in the region.
Moscow has recently dispatched more than two dozen combat aircraft to the airfield in Latakia. U.S. defense officials said last week Russian surveillance drones had begun flying in the area, and Moscow has also sent tanks, air-defense systems, armored-personnel carriers and enough housing for 2,000 people.
Pentagon officials said they weren’t certain if the development of the two new bases seen in the satellite images was related to Russia’s military presence at the airfield.
“There is clearly capability beyond just force protection that is on the ground there,” one senior military official told the Wall Street Journal. “But the questions remain: What are they going do with it? Where are they going to do it? Who are they going to do it with? And who are they going to do it against?”
The Obama administration is hoping to turn the potential show down with the Kremlin into a diplomatic opportunity to bring Russia onboard with the fight against the Islamic State.
Officials are also exploring whether the U.S. could worth with Moscow to ease Mr. Assad from power and place a successor from his Alawite sect in power, preventing a collapse of government that would likely create a hole for Islamic State terrorists to take over.
President Obama plans to push the idea during a series of meetings next week at the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is also attending the U.N. General Assembly. The White House is still weighing whether Mr. Obama will meet with him.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Mr. Obama believes “a Russian decision to double down on Assad’s leadership is a losing bet.” Mr. Earnest said Russia’s intentions within Syria remain unclear.
“But we continue to be interested in Russia sending a signal about their willingness to constructively support the international coalition to degrade and ultimately destroy” Islamic State, he said.