BEIRUT - Russia has dispatched military advisors west of Palmyra in a bid to shore-up regime military efforts against ISIS and protect key airbases on the edge of Syria’s desert, according to an activist media outlet.
“Over the past few days Russia has sent small special units and military advisors with extensive experience in mountain and desert combat [to] the area west of the city of Palmyra that is still controlled by regime forces,” All4Syria reported Wednesday.
A “regime force” source told the pro-rebel website that “these units will execute command-and-consultation missions, and provide assistance and military advice to regime forces in that area.”
“They will not have a classical combat nature but a very special combat nature (intelligence) – if the situation demands, and especially if absolutely necessary, Russian air-drops will be executed in that area at specific points,” All4Syria cited the source as saying.
“The main launch base for these forces lies inside the T4 airbase, as the Russians have set up a command HQ for their ground and air forces there,” the source added.
The source went on to claim that Russian helicopter pilots stationed at the T4 airbase had refused to remain at the desert outpost because they were worried about the possibility of ISIS attacks.
“The Russians evacuated a fleet of Mi-24 military helicopters from T4 to the Al-Shayrat airbase last month because the Russian pilots were afraid of surprise attacks by ISIS.”
In late November reports began to emerge that Russia was expanding its military operations in Syria, with unnamed US defense officials saying Moscow was preparing to launch aerial sorties from the T4 and Al-Shayrat airbases outside Homs.
On November 30, Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai reported that Moscow wanted Hezbollah, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Iraqi militias fighting on behalf of the Bashar al-Assad regime to seize the ISIS-held towns of Qaryatayn and Palmyra, both of which are located near the Al-Shayrat and T4 bases, in order to “prevent any shelling that might affect the Russian air forces inside it.”
The Homs town of Qaryatayn was taken by ISIS in early August, months after the extremist group took control of the desert town of Palmyra—which lies on key logistical routes in eastern Syria—earlier in the summer.
The report’s author, Elijah J. Magnier, has close access to Moscow’s military intervention in Syria and regularly reports on Russia’s military moves in the war-torn country.
His report was published a week after the regime retook the town of Maheen, which is located 17 kilometers east of Qaryatayn.
However, the see-saw battles in the region have tipped back in the favor of ISIS, with the extremist group seizing Maheen, once again, on December 9, before pushing further to the east to threaten the nearby Assyrian town of Sadad, which is located south of the Al-Shayrat airbase.
Moscow has insisted that it will not conduct ground operations in Syria, however recent reports indicate that Russia has been deploying troops to prepare for combat operations.
In mid-November, footage on Russian state television of a Defense Ministry briefing showed a map that listed the Russian army’s 120th artillery brigade as being deployed outside Maheen.
NOW's English news desk editor Albin Szakola (@AlbinSzakola) wrote this report. Ullin Hope translated the Arabic-language source material.