Russia 'expanding' second air base in Syria

Russia 'expanding' second air base in Syria
Russia is expanding a military base in central Syria in a sign it intends to use it as its second air base in the country, activists say.
4 min read
04 December, 2015
Russia is reinforcing a military airport in central Syria as a new base for its warplanes as government forces edge closer to Palmyra, said a military source and monitoring group on Thursday.

"The preparation phase for the al-Shairat base is nearing its end. It is being prepared to become a Russian military base," said a military source, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"A number of Russian advisors arrived in al-Shairat weeks ago," the source said, adding that the base would begin being used by Russian forces before the end of this month.

       Russia has been operating its air raids from Latakia [Getty] 

Since Moscow began air strikes in Syria on 30 September, its war planes have operated out of Hmeimim base in the coastal province of Latakia.

Shairat lies in Syria's central Homs province, north of several towns where government forces and allied militias backed by Russian air strikes have been fighting the Islamic state group. 

Late last month, government forces recaptured the town of Mahin after IS overran it on 1 November.

Government troops have fought to edge closer to the historic town of Palmyra, about 130 km east of al-Shairat and held by IS since May.

Rami Abd al-Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said Russia was "building new runways at the al-Shairat airport and reinforcing its surroundings in order to use it soon for operations" in Homs province.

Abd al-Rahman said Russian helicopters were already using the nearby T-4 military airport to strike IS targets in Palmyra. 

See Also: Britain's Royal Air Force to bomb Syria 'with care'

"Syrian regime forces are about three kilometres from Palmyra and are advancing from the south and west with air cover by Russian helicopters," he said.

The troops have also reached the edges of al-Qaryatain, a mixed Christian-Muslim village in Homs province that IS seized in August.

The military source said Russian and Syrian aircraft had conducted at least 40 air raids in and around al-Qaryatain in the past 24 hours.

He said there would be "an important advance" within 72 hours.

On Thursday, details of a possible ceasefire agreement for the last rebel stronghold in Homs city, the al-Waer quarter, were revealed.

If successful, the UN-sponsored ceasefire could see peace return to the besieged district for the first time in years, which could have broader implications for the ongoing war.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has pledged to intensify his country's fight against IS after the group's Egypt affiliate claimed to have shot down a Russian airliner carrying 224 passengers.

Starting on 7 October, Syria's army launched ground attacks with Russian air support in at least four provinces across the country.

Early Friday, Russian war planes carried out air raids on rebel-controlled areas in Daraa province in the south. The towns of Inkhil, Simlin and Zamrin were bombarded as well as shelled by regime forces, according to al-Araby al-Jadeed's Syria correspondent Rami Swied.

UK joins 'Inherent Resolve'

On Thursday, a British war plane struck the IS-controlled Omar oil field in eastern Syria just hours after a critical parliamentary vote.  

       The UK joined the war in Syria on Thursday [Getty]

Britain is already engaged in the US-led coalition aerial assault on IS territories in Iraq but looking to expand its involvement to areas the group controls in Syria, following the attack in the French capital on 13 November, which killed 140 people.  

The British contribution forms only a tiny part of US led "Operation Inherent Resolve", which has been bombing Islamic State in Iraq and Syria for more than a year with hundreds of aircraft. Previously, the small British contingent participated in strikes on Iraq but not Syria.  

The strikes have so far failed to dislodge the militants from a swathe of territory where they have proclaimed a Caliphate to rule over all Muslims, although Washington and its allies say they have helped halt the fighters' advance. 

Washington has announced it will deploy more special forces to conduct raids in both Iraq and Syria and help locate targets for air strikes.

President Barack Obama said in an interview this did not mean a large scale ground assault like the 2003 US invasion of Iraq "with battalions that are moving across the desert".

"But what I've been very clear about is that we are going to systematically squeeze and ultimately destroy ISIL and that requires us having a military component to that," he told CBS, using an acronym for Islamic State, also known as ISIS or Daesh. 

Most of the world's powers are now flying combat missions over Iraq and Syria against IS.

But any consensus on how to proceed has been thwarted by opposing policies over the four-year-old civil war in Syria, which has killed 250,000 people, driven 11 million from their homes, left swathes of territory in the hands of jihadist fighters and defied all diplomatic efforts at a solution.