BEIRUT – Russian army officers have been overseeing the Syrian regime's offensive in the mountains northeast of Latakia, where pro-Assad forces have been advancing against beleaguered rebels.
On Wednesday, one day after Syrian army troops backed by Hezbollah and National Defense Force (NDF) militiamen routed rebels from their Salma redoubt, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that Russian officers were supervising the regime's military operations center for the Jabal al-Akrad front.
In turn, Lebanon's Al-Akhbar newspaper—which supports the Syrian regime—confirmed that Russian officers were present near the front-lines in the northwest of the country.
"Russian officers visited the Salma front accompanied by a number of Syrian army officers and toured a number of sectors on the way to Salma," a field source told the daily.
The Qatari-owned Al-Jazeera, in another report on developments in the area, cited opposition activists as saying that Russian officers in the field had "directed the Tuesday morning assault on Salma."
An undated video also circulated social media showing a Russian officer allegedly observing the battles outside Salma alongside members of the local NDF militia.
In the video, the Russian general—speaking through an interpreter—praised the NDF, saying that "during the time he has been in Syria, the NDF hasn't lost a single position."
"They haven't withdrawn from a single position," the general's interpreter said, adding that the Russian officer rated the NDF's work as "distinguished."
When an off-camera NDF member voiced his thanks to Vladimir Putin, the Russian officer responded: "This is our obligation toward the Syrian people."
Moscow's military intervention in Syria has steadily expanded in scope since it began airstrikes on behalf of the Syrian regime in late September, with reports indicating Russian military advisors, special forces and technicians have deployed outside Homs and in the south of the country.
In late November, a Kuwaiti daily with close access to Moscow's military intervention in Syria claimed that Russian ground forces had already engaged in fighting north of Latakia.
"For the first time Russian infantry forces, supported by tanks and planes, have taken part in an assault on Syrian takfiri opposition forces between Latakia countryside and Idlib countryside," Al-Rai reported.
"A strategic elevation was taken without any injuries in the ranks of the attacking forces," a "Syrian leadership source" told the newspaper's chief international correspondent, Elijah J. Magnier.
The report added that the Russian army was using Syria as a "training ground" to test its combat forces and military equipment "which have not [been used] in a real battle for many years."
"This shows that the Russian army is [bringing] its forces to a level of high competence through clashes with the enemy as a first step to involving combat units in the near future."
Al-Rai's Magnier has written a number of articles on Russia's bombardment campaign in Syria, claiming access to sources in both the Baghdad and Damascus operation rooms for the "4+1" military coalition of Russia, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Hezbollah.
Moscow has insisted that it will not conduct ground operations in Syria, however recent reports indicate the Russia has been deploying troops to prepare for combat operations.
On November 8, a group of Russian investigative journalists released a report showing pictures posted to social media by current and former Russian military personnel in the Hama and Aleppo provinces.
"Although we still don't have indisputable evidence of Russian servicemen taking a direct part in the fighting on the ground in Syria, we believe the situation observed contradicts the claims of Russian officials that Russian troops are not taking part and are not planning to take part in ground operations," the Conflict Intelligence Team said in its report.
Two weeks later, footage on Russian state television of a defense ministry briefing showed a map that listed a Russian army artillery unit as being deployed outside the Homs province town of Mahin, which was seized by ISIS in early November.
NOW's English news desk editor Albin Szakola (@AlbinSzakola) wrote this report. Ullin Hope translated the Arabic-language source material.