On the same day that President Obama told reporters at the global climate change summit in Paris that he expects Russia to end its involvement in Syria in the near term, officials at the Pentagon are reportedly telling Fox News that Russia is close to opening another airbase in the war-torn country.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to send combat aircraft and helicopters to support the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has been widely criticized by the Obama administration. The president and his advisors have criticized the Russian effort there, which has been more focused on propping up the Assad regime than on fighting the terror group ISIS, despite claims to the contrary from the Kremlin. The Russian effort, they said, was doomed to fail.
Obama on Tuesday seemed to suggest that an end might be coming sooner than expected. According to wire service reports, he told reporters, “I think it is possible over the next several months that we see … a recognition [in Moscow] that it's time to bring the civil war in Syria to a close.”
He said that memories of Russia’s ill-fated war in Afghanistan in the 1980s are still painful among the Russian people.
“I think Putin understands that — with Afghanistan fresh in the memory for him — to simply get bogged down in an inconclusive and paralyzing civil conflict is not the outcome that he’s looking for,” Obama said.
However, that doesn’t exactly square with a report from Fox News Tuesday that quotes unnamed Pentagon officials confirming that rather than looking to draw down its presence in Syria, the Kremlin appears to by bulking up. Lucas Tomlinson said that Russia has begun operating helicopters out of a second air base in Shayrat, Syria and is believed to be preparing to use it for fixed wing aircraft. The network also reported that Russia appears to be increasing the number of forward operating bases it uses to mount helicopter attacks on the rebels fighting Assad.
Tomlinson quotes one unidentified official saying that the move can’t be seen as defensive or otherwise explained away. “This is an expansion,” he said.
In response to the downing of one of its bombers by Turkish fighter jets last week, Russia has also been moving more anti-aircraft missile batteries into Syria. Yesterday, the Kremlin announced that some Russian fighter-bombers were now being outfitted with air-to-air missiles. This is unquestionably a message to Turkey, because neither ISIS nor the Syrian rebels have the ability to challenge Russian planes in the air.