By Tom Coghlan, Michael Evans and Sara Elizabeth Williams
Russian forces are fighting alongside President Assad’s army, according to Syria’s government-run television station.
A three-minute film shot by a militia loyal to Assad showed troops backed by an armoured vehicle that is among the most advanced in the Russian Army. Russian voices were clearly audible.
The footage claimed to show government forces fighting advancing rebels in the Latakia mountains, in the heartland of Assad’s Alawite minority.
Analysts were surprised by the appearance of a BTR-82A armoured car, which was delivered to Russian troops only last year. The turret gun system, which can be seen firing in the footage, contains sophisticated stabilisation, night vision and satellite navigation systems.
The audio track to the footage includes an off-screen voice shouting commands in Russian, apparently to the crew of the vehicle. “You can hear Russian, that is correct,” Igor Sutyagin, a Russian military specialist at the Royal United Services Institute, said.
Russian military advisers have long been thought to be in Syria as part of Moscow’s support for the regime. However, they have never been seen taking part in combat operations.
Dr Sutyagin said he was not certain whether the Russian speakers were serving soldiers or civilian ex-military contractors, who would be a “deniable presence” for Moscow.
The news comes amid reports of growing Russian involvement in the war and with Moscow pushing for a regional coalition against Isis that would include Assad forces.
Photographs uploaded to a shipping blog site on August 20 showed a Russian naval vessel heading south through the Bosphorus strait, its decks crammed with military vehicles. The destination of the alligator-class landing ship Nikolai Filchenkov is unknown, but is suspected to be the Russian-controlled Syrian port of Tartous.
The pictures attracted the interest of analysts because it was the first time a vessel had been seen carrying military hardware through Istanbul so openly.
The Russian military’s relationship with Syrian forces goes back decades. Tartus is Russia’s only base on the Mediterranean and many Syrian officers receive training in Moscow.
Rebel activists in Latakia identified the mountaintop town of Slunfeh, east of the port city, as a listening post run by Russian troops.
“The Russians have been there a long time,” an activist with the Free Syrian Army 1st Division said. “There are more Russian officials who came to Slunfeh in recent weeks. We don’t know how many but can assure you there has been Russian reinforcement.”
Syria.net, a rebel website, alleged on August 12 that Russian forces had started to take a direct role in organising regime defensive lines in the mountains above Latakia. Two Russian-made drones were photographed after crashing in rebel held areas of nearby Idlib province in July.
The Syrian government has boasted of the continued strength of Russian support. Assad said on Lebanese television last week: “We have strong confidence in the Russians as they have proven throughout this crisis, for four years, that they are sincere and transparent in their relationship with us.”
Last week the pro-regime propaganda outlet al-Watan, a questionable source, reported that Russia planned to build a second military base at Jableh, on the coast south of Latakia.
The Russian government has denied a report carried by the Israeli newspaper Ynet on Monday that Moscow was preparing to deliver an entire “expeditionary force” to Syria to fight openly alongside regime troops. Russia has not confirmed reports in the Turkish media that six Mig-31M aircraft landed in Damascus on Sunday.
“In the coming weeks,” the Ynet report claimed, citing unnamed Western diplomats, “thousands of Russian military personnel are set to touch down in Syria, including advisers, instructors, logistics personnel, technical personnel, members of the aerial protection division and the pilots who will operate the aircraft.”
US officials confirm that Washington monitors Russian support for the Assad regime, but officials from the Pentagon, State Department and White House all declined to comment on changing levels of that support or rumours of a Russian “expeditionary force”.
President Obama said last month that the Syrian regime’s key allies — Russia and Iran — “recognise that the trend lines are not good for Assad”.