Syrian President Bashar Assad (L) and Russian President Vladimir Putin..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
MOSCOW - When Vladimir Putin announced the withdrawal of most of Russia's military contingent from Syria there was an expectation that the Yauza, a Russian naval icebreaker and one of the mission's main supply vessels, would return home to its Arctic Ocean port.
Instead, three days after Putin's March 14 declaration, the Yauza, part of the "Syrian Express," the nickname given to the ships that have kept Russian forces supplied, left the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk for Tartous, Russia's naval facility in Syria.
Whatever it was carrying was heavy; it sat so low in the water that its load line was barely visible.
Its movements and those of other Russian ships in the two weeks since Putin's announcement of a partial withdrawal suggest Moscow has in fact shipped more equipment and supplies to Syria than it has brought back in the same period, a Reuters analysis shows.
It is not known what the ships were carrying or how much equipment has been flown out in giant cargo planes accompanying returning war planes.
But the movements - while only a partial snapshot - suggest Russia is working intensively to maintain its military infrastructure in Syria and to supply the Syrian army so that it can scale up again swiftly if need be.
Putin has not detailed what would prompt such a move, but any perceived threat to Russia's bases in Syria or any sign that President Bashar Assad, Moscow's closest Middle East ally, was in peril would be likely to trigger a powerful return.
Russia operates an air base in Hmeymim and a naval facility at Tartous. Putin has said Russia will keep both and that they will need to be well protected.
"Since the main part of the force de facto stayed there, there is no reason to reduce the traffic," said Mikhail Barabanov, a senior research fellow at the Moscow-based CAST military think tank. "Supplies for the Syrian army remain significant as well."
Moscow has not revealed the size of its force in Syria, nor has it given details of its partial withdrawal.
Reuters has calculated that around half of Russia's fixed-wing strike force based in Syria flew out of the country in the days after the partial draw down was made public. The precise number of planes Russia had was secret, but analysis suggested it had about 36 fixed-wing military jets there.
On Monday, state TV showed three heavy attack helicopters being flown out of Syria along with some support staff.