On Norway’s icy border with Russia, unease over military buildup

On Norway’s icy border with Russia, unease over military buildup
By Gwladys Fouche

SETERMOEN/KIRKENES, Norway (Reuters) – Under a soft winter sun in northern Norway, U.S. Marines train in the ice and snow as they learn how to fight in the freezing cold.

“Which country is to the northeast?” Staff Sergeant Daniel Croak bellows at a group of 20 soldiers in camouflaged combat jackets and white trousers in a pine forest near the town of Setermoen.

“Russia!” they shout back.

The troops are part of a contingent of 650 Marines staging a recent joint military exercise with 3,000 soldiers from NATO-member Norway at a time when both NATO and Russia have increased their military presence in the Arctic.

A few hundred kilometers from Setermoen, Russia is modernizing its forces on the Kola Peninsula, home to its Northern Fleet. Russia has also carried out maneuvers in recent weeks, staging a major submarine exercise in the North Atlantic, according to intelligence sources cited by Norwegian media.

“Do not use your GPSes. They may be jammed,” Croak barks to the Marines, a warning stemming from NATO accusations – denied by Russia – that Moscow has in the past jammed GPS systems in Norway.

The rising tension is unsettling many Norwegians, not least in the town of Kirkenes, which for three decades has been trying to foster cooperation with Russia.

Residents can cross the nearby border quickly with a visa-free permit. Many go to the nearby Russian town of Nikel to buy petrol because it is much cheaper there, and street signs use both the Cyrillic and Latin scripts.

“I don’t like it that they build up the military on both sides of the border. We don’t want rising tensions,” said Eirik Wikan, co-owner of the Kimek shipyard in Kirkenes, which gets two-thirds of its revenues from repairing Russian vessels.

“Here in the north, we work together to reduce tensions … We are trying not to be part of them.”

“A RUSSIAN TOWN IN NORWAY”

About a third of the company’s 180 employees are Russian, 22 of whom work in the Russian port city of Murmansk.

Nikolai Chagin, a mechanic from the Russian town of Severodvinsk, has worked at the shipyard in Kirkenes since 2006.

“I don’t have those problems I used to have in Russia before: I have a good job, a normal salary,” he said.

About 10% of Kirkenes residents are now from the Kola Peninsula.

Kirkenes’ Samovar theater company performs in both Norway and Russia, and has Russian and Norwegians employees. Russian choreographer Nikolai Shchetnev feels at home and is thinking of applying for dual nationality.

“Kirkenes is a Russian town in Norway,” said Rune Rafaelsen, the mayor of Soer-Varanger municipality which includes Kirkenes.

He said he would not welcome more tanks on the border though he saw Norway’s NATO membership as “a guarantee that I can do my job.”

Russia denies responsibility for the rise in tensions. It blames the recent basing of U.S. Marines in Norway, which it sees as a security challenge.

But Norway’s worries grew after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and then staged Arctic military exercises including maritime maneuvers with ballistic missile-capable vessels present.

“These were clear messages from Moscow,” said Lieutenant-General Rune Jakobsen, Commander of the Norwegian Joint Headquarters — the Norwegian Armed Forces operational command center. “Do not be part of (NATO’s) ballistic-missile defense.”

Despite the tensions, he says Russian forces are behaving less aggressively on the frontier with Norway than in some other border zones between Russia and NATO, such as the Baltic Sea.

In efforts to build trust, Jakobsen has in recent weeks had talks with the regional head of Russia’s FSB security service in the Kola Peninsula, and met the new head of the Northern Fleet, Alexander Moiseyev, in Kirkenes.

“As a small nation neighboring a superpower, you have to strike the right balance between deterrence and reassurance,” Jakobsen said.

But the military exercises are also important for Norway.

“Working together is what makes it possible to fight together, if we have to,” said Brigadier Lars Lervik, commander of the Northern Brigade based in Setermoen.

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Turkey says could act in Syria unless U.S. withdraws support for Kurdish force

A Turkish military tank arrives at an army base in the border town of Reyhanli near the Turkish-Syrian border in Hatay province, Turkey January 17, 2018.

By Dominic Evans and Tuvan Gumrukcu

HATAY, Turkey (Reuters) – Turkey said on Wednesday it would not hesitate to take action in Syria’s Afrin district and other areas unless the United States withdrew support for a Kurdish-led force there, but Washington denied such plans and said “some people misspoke”.

Turkish President Erdogan has repeatedly warned of an imminent incursion in Afrin after Washington said it would help the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), led by the Kurdish YPG militia, set up a new 30,000-strong border force.

The plan has infuriated Turkey, which considers the Syrian YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militant group, which has fought an insurgency in southeast Turkey since 1984. The PKK is considered a terrorist group by the European Union, Turkey and the United States.

Deputy Prime Minister and Government Spokesman Bekir Bozdag told reporters after a Cabinet meeting the planned U.S.-backed force posed a threat to Turkey’s national security, territorial integrity and the safety of its citizens.

“We emphasized that such a step was very wrong,” he said. “Turkey has reached the limits of its patience. Nobody should expect Turkey to show more patience.”

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson denied that the United States had any intention of building a Syria-Turkey border force and said the issue had been “misportrayed, misdescribed”.

“Some people misspoke. We are not creating a border security force at all,” Tillerson told reporters on board an aircraft taking him back to Washington from Vancouver, where he had attended a meeting on North Korea.

“I think it’s unfortunate that comments made by some left that impression,” he said, without giving details. “That is not what we’re doing.”

He said Turkish officials had been told U.S. intentions were only “to ensure that local elements are providing security to

liberated areas”.

The Pentagon said in an earlier statement it was training “internally focused” Syrian fighters with a goal of preventing the Islamic State group’s resurgence and ensuring Syrians displaced by the war could return to their communities.

“We are keenly aware of the security concerns of Turkey, our coalition partner and NATO ally. Turkey’s security concerns are legitimate,” it said.

TANKS DEPLOYED

Some Turkish troops have been in Syria for three months after entering northern Idlib province following an agreement with Russia and Iran to try to reduce fighting between pro-Syrian government forces and rebel fighters.

The observation posts which the Turkish army says it has established are close to the dividing line between Arab rebel-held land and Kurdish-controlled Afrin.

Turkey’s National Security Council said earlier on Wednesday Turkey would not allow the formation of a “terrorist army” along its borders.

As the council met, a Reuters reporter witnessed the Turkish army deploying nine tanks to a military base just outside the city of Hatay, near the border with Afrin, to the west of the area where the border force is planned. That followed earlier reports of a military buildup in the area.

“When the Turkish people and Turkish state’s safety is in question, when it is necessary to remove risks and destroy threats, Turkey will do so without hesitation,” Bozdag said.

On Monday, with relations between the United States and Turkey stretched close to breaking point, Erdogan threatened to “strangle” the planned U.S.-backed force in Syria “before it’s even born”.

Turkey and the United States, both allies in NATO, were on the same side for much of Syria’s civil war, both supporting rebels fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But a decision by Washington to back Kurdish forces fighting against Islamic State in recent years has angered Ankara.

The United States has about 2,000 troops on the ground in Syria.

Bozdag reiterated Ankara’s demand that Washington cease its “inexplicable” and “unacceptable” support of the YPG.

“In the case that Turkey’s demands are not met, we will take determined steps in Afrin and other regions to protect our interests. We will take these steps without considering what anyone can say,” Bozdag said. “When will this happen? Suddenly.”

The Cabinet also agreed to extend a state of emergency imposed after a failed 2016 coup attempt from Jan. 18, Bozdag said, in a move likely to prolong a post-putsch crackdown that saw more than 50,000 people arrested and 150,000 others sacked or suspended from their jobs.

(Writing by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington and David Brunnstrom on board a U.S. government aircraft; Editing by Peter Graff, James Dalgleish and Paul Tait)

Tillerson arrives in Iraq after rebuke from Baghdad over paramilitaries

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson listens to a reporter's question alongside Qatar's Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani during a media availability after their meeting, in Doha, Qatar October 22, 2017. REUTERS/Alex Brandon/Pool

By Maher Chmaytelli

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrived on Monday in Iraq, hours after the government rebuked him for calling on it to send home Iranian-backed paramilitary units that helped defeat Islamic State and capture the Kurdish-held city of Kirkuk.

Iraq is one of the few countries allied closely to both the United States and Iran, and Tillerson’s effort to drive a wedge between Baghdad and Tehran appeared to have backfired, drawing a sharp statement from Prime Minister Haidar Abadi’s office.

Tillerson visited Iraq a day after a rare joint meeting with Abadi and Saudi Arabia’s king Salman in the kingdom’s capital Riyadh.

After that meeting he called on Iraq to halt the work of the Tehran-backed paramilitary units, which have operated alongside government troops in battles against Islamic State and, since last week, in a lightning advance that seized the oil city of Kirkuk from Kurdish security forces.

Iraqi forces are deploying tanks and artillery just south of a Kurdish-operated oil pipeline that crosses into Turkey, a Kurdish security official said, the latest in a series of Iranian-backed operations against the Kurds.

“Iranian militias that are in Iraq, now that the fight against Daesh and ISIS is coming to a close, those militias need to go home,” Tillerson said on Sunday in Saudi Arabia.

Abadi’s office responded sharply.

“No party has the right to interfere in Iraqi matters,” a statement from his office read. It did not cite the prime minister himself but a “source” close to him. It referred to the mainly Shi’ite paramilitaries, known as “Popular Mobilization”, as “patriots”.

 

SAME SIDE

The international battle against Islamic State fighters in northern Iraq since 2014 saw the United States and Iran effectively fighting on the same side, with both supporting the Iraqi government against the militants.

Washington has 5,000 troops in Iraq, and provided air support, training and weapons to Iraqi government forces, even as Iran armed, trained and advised Shi’ite paramilitaries which often fought alongside the army.

The latest twist in the Iraq conflict, pitting the central government against the Kurds, is trickier for U.S. policymakers. Washington still supports the central government but has also been allied to the Kurds for decades.

Iran is the pre-eminent Shi’ite power in the Middle East. Shi’ites, including Abadi, are the majority in Iraq which also has large Sunni Arab and Kurdish communities.

Iran exhibited its sway over Baghdad’s policies during tensions over a referendum last month in which the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region voted to secede from Iraq against Baghdad’s wishes, Kurdish officials say.

Baghdad responded to the vote by seizing the oil city of Kirkuk, which the Kurds see as the heart of any future homeland.

Major-General Qassem Soleimani, commander of foreign operations for Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, repeatedly warned Kurdish leaders to withdraw from Kirkuk or face an onslaught by Iraqi forces and allied Iranian-backed fighters, Kurdish officials briefed on the meetings said.

Iraq’s Sunni neighbors, including Saudi Arabia, share Washington’s concerns over Iran’s influence in Iraq.

 

IRAN DISMISSES TILLERSON REMARKS

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif dismissed Tillerson’s remarks. The paramilitaries could not go home because “they are at home” already, he was quoted as saying by the state news agency IRNA.

Abadi has asserted his authority with the defeat of Islamic State in Mosul and the Iraqi army’s sweep through Kirkuk and other areas which were held by the Kurds.

The buildup at the Kurdish oil export pipeline is taking place northwest of Mosul, an official from the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) security council said.

The loss of Kirkuk dealt a major blow to the Kurds, who had been steadily building an autonomous region in northern Iraq since a U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein, who oppressed them for decades.

“We are concerned about continued military build-up of Iraqi forces and Iranian-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces towards the Kurdistan Region,” said the Kurdistan Region Security Council (KRSC) in a statement.

Elections for Iraq’s Kurdistan region’s presidency and parliament set for Nov. 1 will be delayed because political parties failed to present candidates, the head of the electoral commission Hendrean Mohammed told Reuters.

Parties have been unable to focus on the elections because

of turmoil that followed the referendum, a Kurdish lawmaker said on condition of anonymity.

 

(additional reporting by Jon Landay; writing by Michael Georgy; editing by Peter Graff)

 

NATO seeks to manage Russia’s new military deployments

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg addresses a news conference during a NATO defence ministers meeting at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium,

By Robin Emmott

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin’s high-profile military deployments aim to showcase Russian power in any global confrontation with the West, NATO officials say, but the alliance will not seek to match Moscow’s actions.

Curtis Scaparrotti, the U.S.-led alliance’s top commander, told allied defense ministers on Wednesday that more than 120,000 Russian troops took part in exercises in September which culminated with the firing of a missile capable of carrying nuclear warheads, diplomats said.

As Russia’s sole aircraft carrier passed Europe’s shores this week, reports of its warships equipped with nuclear-capable missiles in the Baltic alarmed allies. The alliance is also concerned by Moscow’s deployment of ballistic Iskander missiles in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.

“The main challenge is not individual events or deployments,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters. “It is the overall picture, where we see a substantial increase in Russia’s capabilities at sea, in the air and on land; exercises with a more aggressive patterns.”

Stoltenberg declined to say publicly what he thought Russia’s overall aims are. But Scaparrotti, who is also a U.S. army general, told defense ministers that Russia was seeking, in military parlance, “escalation dominance,” according to people briefed on the discussions.

That strategy holds that a military power can best contain and control conflicts if it is dominant at each step in an escalation with an adversary, potentially all the way to the biggest threat of nuclear weapons.

Some military analysts believe Putin holds this doctrine close to his heart.

“Putin is showing a desire for dominance,” said a senior NATO diplomat. “From the Arctic, to the Baltic and the Black Sea, sometimes simultaneously, Russia wants to use sophisticated weaponry mixed with ships of a Soviet vintage.”

NATO-RUSSIA COUNCIL “WITHIN WEEKS”

In written remarks to reporters, Scaparrotti said only that “actions speak louder than words” and noted the Kremlin’s decision to consolidate control of the armed forces in Moscow and nuclear missile tests.

NATO says its decision to send 4,000 troops, planes, tanks and artillery to former Soviet republics in the Baltics and to Poland next year is a measured response compared to what NATO believes are 330,000 Russian troops amassed near Moscow.

“We will not mirror what Russia is doing,” Stoltenberg said. “We are not in a Cold War situation,” he said, referring to when 300,000 U.S. service personnel were stationed in Europe. NATO generals want to adhere to a 1997 agreement with Moscow not to station substantial combat forces on the NATO-Russia border.

Norway, which has a long border with Russia, will allow 330 U.S. troops to be stationed on its soil for a limited period from next year, the first time foreign troops have been posted on its territory since the end of World War Two.

Stoltenberg hopes to convene another NATO-Russia Council – the forum bringing together Russia’s top diplomat to the alliance and NATO envoys – in the next few weeks, diplomats say. Stoltenberg, who hails from Russia’s neighbor Norway, insists there is no attempt to isolate Moscow.

However, diplomats also complain that discussing such issues as Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and near-misses between Western planes and Russian jets, have come to nothing.

That leaves NATO trying to learn more about Russia’s aims if Putin continues to escalate the stand-off with the West.

“One thing we need to address is if we all have the capacity to read Russia’s behavior satisfactorily. Russia is doing a lot of new, unfamiliar things,” said Britain’s ambassador to NATO Adam Thomson, who served as a diplomat in Moscow in the 1980s.

“It is obviously trying to signal but it is not clear that we know how to understand those signals,” he told reporters.

(Reporting by Robin Emmott; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Britain, U.S. sending planes, troops to deter Russia in the east

NATO defence ministers attend a meeting at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium,

By Robin Emmott and Phil Stewart

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Britain said on Wednesday it will send fighter jets to Romania next year and the United States promised troops, tanks and artillery to Poland in NATO’s biggest military build-up on Russia’s borders since the Cold War.

Germany, Canada and other NATO allies also pledged forces at a defense ministers meeting in Brussels on the same day two Russian warships armed with cruise missiles entered the Baltic Sea between Sweden and Denmark, underscoring East-West tensions.

In Madrid, the foreign ministry said Russia had withdrawn a request to refuel three warships in Spain’s North African enclave of Ceuta after NATO allies said they could be used to target civilians in Syria.

The ships were part of an eight-ship carrier battle group – including Russia’s sole aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov – that is expected to join around 10 other Russian vessels already off the Syrian coast, diplomats said.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the troop contributions to a new 4,000-strong force in the Baltics and eastern Europe were a measured response to what the alliance believes are some 330,000 Russian troops stationed on Russia’s western flank near Moscow.

“This month alone, Russia has deployed nuclear-capable Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad and suspended a weapons-grade plutonium agreement with the United States,” Stoltenberg said, also accusing Russia of continued support for rebels in Ukraine.

Those ballistic missiles can hit targets across Poland and the Baltics, although NATO officials declined to say if Russia had moved nuclear warheads to Kaliningrad.

NATO’s aim is to make good on a July promise by NATO leaders to deter Russia in Europe’s ex-Soviet states, after Moscow orchestrated the annexation of the Crimea peninsula in 2014.

NATO’s plan is to set up four battle groups with a total of some 4,000 troops from early next year, backed by a 40,000-strong rapid-reaction force, and if need be, follow-on forces.

As part of that, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced a “battle-ready battalion task force” of about 900 soldiers would be sent to eastern Poland, as well as another, separate force equipped with tanks and other heavy equipment to move across eastern Europe.

“It’s a major sign of the U.S. commitment to strengthening deterrence here,” Carter said.

Britain’s Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said Britain would send an 800-strong battalion to Estonia, supported by French and Danish troops, starting from May. The United States wants its troops in position by June.

London is also sending Typhoon fighter aircraft to Romania to patrol around the Black Sea, partly in support of Turkey.

“Although we are leaving the European Union, we will be doing more to help secure the eastern and southern flanks of NATO,” Fallon said.

SYRIAN SHADOW

Others NATO allies joined the four battle groups led by the United States, Germany, Britain and Canada to go to Poland, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia. Canada said it was sending 450 troops to Latvia, joined by 140 military personnel from Italy.

Germany said it was sending between 400 and 600 troops to Lithuania, with additional forces from the Netherlands, Norway, Belgium, Croatia and Luxembourg.

Stoltenberg said allies’ commitments would be “a clear demonstration of our transatlantic bond.” Diplomats said it would also send a message to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who has complained that European allies do not pay their way in the alliance.

For the Kremlin, the U.S.-led alliance’s plans are already too much given Russia’s grievances at NATO’s expansion eastwards, although Stoltenberg denied going too far.

But NATO’s troop announcements in the Baltic states and Poland were partly overshadowed by the dispute about whether Spain should refuel the Russian warships, which was later resolved by Moscow’s decision to withdraw its request.

NATO’s tensions with Russia have been building since Crimea and the West’s decision to impose retaliatory sanctions.

But the breakdown of a U.S-Russia brokered ceasefire in Syria on Oct. 3, followed by U.S. accusations that Russia has used cyber attacks to disrupt the presidential election, have signaled a worsening of ties.

Even before the break down of the Syrian ceasefire, Russian President Vladimir Putin suspended a treaty with Washington on cleaning up weapons-grade plutonium, signaling he was willing to use nuclear disarmament as a new bargaining chip in disputes with the United States over Ukraine and Syria.

(Additional reporting by Sabine Siebold; Editing by Tom Heneghan)

Exclusive: Russia builds up forces in Syria, Reuters data analysis shows

The Russian Navy's missile corvette Mirazh sails in the Bosphorus, on its way to the Mediterranean Sea, in Istanbul, Turkey

By Jack Stubbs and Maria Tsvetkova

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia has built up its forces in Syria since a ceasefire collapsed in late September, sending in troops, planes and advanced missile systems, a Reuters analysis of publicly available tracking data shows.

The data points to a doubling of supply runs by air and sea compared to the nearly two-week period preceding the truce. It appears to be Russia’s biggest military deployment to Syria since President Vladimir Putin said in March he would pull out some of his country’s forces.

The increased manpower probably includes specialists to put into operation a newly delivered S-300 surface-to-air missile system, military analysts said.

The S-300 system will improve Russia’s ability to control air space in Syria, where Moscow’s forces support the government of President Bashar al-Assad, and could be aimed at deterring tougher U.S. action, they said.

“The S-300 basically gives Russia the ability to declare a no-fly zone over Syria,” said Justin Bronk, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London.

“It also makes any U.S. attempt to do so impossible. Russia can just say: ‘We’re going to continue to fly and anything that tries to threaten our aircraft will be seen as hostile and destroyed’.”

Russia’s Defence Ministry did not respond to written questions. A senior air force official, speaking on condition of anonymity, dismissed talk of an increase in supply shipments.

But data collated by Turkish bloggers for their online Bosphorus Naval News project, and reviewed by Reuters, shows reinforcements sent via Russia’s “Syrian Express” shipping route from the Black Sea increased throughout September and have peaked in the last week.

The data shows 10 Russian navy ships have gone through the Bosphorus en route to Syria since late September, compared with five in the 13-day period before the truce — from Aug. 27 to Sept. 7.

That number includes The Mirazh, a small missile ship which a Reuters correspondent saw heading through the Bosphorus toward the Mediterranean on Friday.

Two other Russian missile ships were deployed to the Mediterranean on Wednesday.

Some of the ships that have been sent to Syria were so heavily laden the load line was barely visible above the water, and have docked at Russia’s Tartus naval base in the Western Syrian province of Latakia. Reuters has not been able to establish what cargo they were carrying.

Troops and equipment are also returning to Syria by air, according to tracking data on website FlightRadar24.com.

Russian military cargo planes flew to Russia’s Hmeymim airbase in Syria six times in the first six days of October — compared to 12 a month in September and August, a Reuters analysis of the data shows.

INCREASED ACRIMONY

Russia sent its air force to support the Syrian Army a year ago when Moscow feared Assad was on the point of succumbing to rebel offensives. U.S.-led forces also carry out air strikes in Syria, targeting Islamic State positions.

Aerial bombardments in the past two weeks, mainly against rebel-held areas in the Syrian city of Aleppo, have been among the heaviest of the civil war, which has killed more then 300,000 people in 5-1/2 years.

Since the collapse of the ceasefire in September, acrimony between the United States and Russia has grown and Washington has suspended talks with Moscow on implementing the truce.

U.S. officials told Reuters on Sept. 28 that Washington had started considering tougher responses to the assault on Aleppo, including the possibility of air strikes on an Assad air base.

“They (Russia) probably correctly surmise that eventually American policy will change,” Bronk said, commenting on the analysis of the tracking data.

“They are thinking: ‘We’re going to have to do something about this, so better to bring in more supplies now … before it potentially becomes too touchy’.”

The FlightRadar24.com data shows Ilyushin Il-76 and Antonov An-124 cargo planes operated by the Russian military have been flying to Syria multiple times each month. It offers no indication of what the aircraft are carrying.

But the Il-76 and An-124 transporters can carry up to 50 and 150 tonnes of equipment respectively and have previously been used to airlift heavy vehicles and helicopters to Syria.

State-operated passenger planes have also made between six and eight flights from Moscow to Latakia each month. Western officials say they have been used to fly in troops, support workers and engineers.

Twice in early October, a Russian military Ilyushin plane flew to Syria from Armenia. Officials in Yerevan said the planes carried humanitarian aid from Armenia, a Russian ally.

Russia’s Izvestia newspaper reported last week that a group of Su-24 and Su-34 warplanes had arrived at the Hmeymim base in Syria, returning Russia’s fixed-wing numbers in the country to near the level before the drawdown was announced in March.

(Additional reporting by Hasmik Mkrtchyan in Yerevan and Murad Sezer in Istanbul, Writing by Jack Stubbs, Editing by Christian Lowe and Timothy Heritage)

Exclusive: Russia builds up forces in Syria, Reuters data analysis shows

The Russian Navy's missile corvette Mirazh sails in the Bosphorus, on its way to the Mediterranean Sea, in Istanbul, Turkey,

By Jack Stubbs and Maria Tsvetkova

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia has built up its forces in Syria since a ceasefire collapsed in late September, sending in troops, planes and advanced missile systems, a Reuters analysis of publicly available tracking data shows.

The data points to a doubling of supply runs by air and sea compared to the nearly two-week period preceding the truce. It appears to be Russia’s biggest military deployment to Syria since President Vladimir Putin said in March he would pull out some of his country’s forces.

The increased manpower probably includes specialists to put into operation a newly delivered S-300 surface-to-air missile system, military analysts said.

The S-300 system will improve Russia’s ability to control air space in Syria, where Moscow’s forces support the government of President Bashar al-Assad, and could be aimed at deterring tougher U.S. action, they said.

“The S-300 basically gives Russia the ability to declare a no-fly zone over Syria,” said Justin Bronk, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London.

“It also makes any U.S. attempt to do so impossible. Russia can just say: ‘We’re going to continue to fly and anything that tries to threaten our aircraft will be seen as hostile and destroyed’.”

Russia’s Defence Ministry did not respond to written questions. A senior air force official, speaking on condition of anonymity, dismissed talk of an increase in supply shipments.

But data collated by Turkish bloggers for their online Bosphorus Naval News project, and reviewed by Reuters, shows reinforcements sent via Russia’s “Syrian Express” shipping route from the Black Sea increased throughout September and have peaked in the last week.

The data shows 10 Russian navy ships have gone through the Bosphorus en route to Syria since late September, compared with five in the 13-day period before the truce — from Aug. 27 to Sept. 7.

That number includes The Mirazh, a small missile ship which a Reuters correspondent saw heading through the Bosphorus toward the Mediterranean on Friday.

Two other Russian missile ships were deployed to the Mediterranean on Wednesday.

Some of the ships that have been sent to Syria were so heavily laden the load line was barely visible above the water, and have docked at Russia’s Tartus naval base in the Western Syrian province of Latakia. Reuters has not been able to establish what cargo they were carrying.

Troops and equipment are also returning to Syria by air, according to tracking data on website FlightRadar24.com.

Russian military cargo planes flew to Russia’s Hmeymim airbase in Syria six times in the first six days of October — compared to 12 a month in September and August, a Reuters analysis of the data shows.

INCREASED ACRIMONY

Russia sent its air force to support the Syrian Army a year ago when Moscow feared Assad was on the point of succumbing to rebel offensives. U.S.-led forces also carry out air strikes in Syria, targeting Islamic State positions.

Aerial bombardments in the past two weeks, mainly against rebel-held areas in the Syrian city of Aleppo, have been among the heaviest of the civil war, which has killed more then 300,000 people in 5-1/2 years.

Since the collapse of the ceasefire in September, acrimony between the United States and Russia has grown and Washington has suspended talks with Moscow on implementing the truce.

U.S. officials told Reuters on Sept. 28 that Washington had started considering tougher responses to the assault on Aleppo, including the possibility of air strikes on an Assad air base.

“They (Russia) probably correctly surmise that eventually American policy will change,” Bronk said, commenting on the analysis of the tracking data.

“They are thinking: ‘We’re going to have to do something about this, so better to bring in more supplies now … before it potentially becomes too touchy’.”

The FlightRadar24.com data shows Ilyushin Il-76 and Antonov An-124 cargo planes operated by the Russian military have been flying to Syria multiple times each month. It offers no indication of what the aircraft are carrying.

But the Il-76 and An-124 transporters can carry up to 50 and 150 tonnes of equipment respectively and have previously been used to airlift heavy vehicles and helicopters to Syria.

State-operated passenger planes have also made between six and eight flights from Moscow to Latakia each month. Western officials say they have been used to fly in troops, support workers and engineers.

Twice in early October, a Russian military Ilyushin plane flew to Syria from Armenia. Officials in Yerevan said the planes carried humanitarian aid from Armenia, a Russian ally.

Russia’s Izvestia newspaper reported last week that a group of Su-24 and Su-34 warplanes had arrived at the Hmeymim base in Syria, returning Russia’s fixed-wing numbers in the country to near the level before the drawdown was announced in March.

(Additional reporting by Hasmik Mkrtchyan in Yerevan and Murad Sezer in Istanbul, Writing by Jack Stubbs, Editing by Christian Lowe and Timothy Heritage)