Russia has confirmed sending special forces troops to Syria over the past few weeks to support its mission backing the government of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, according to a report from the Wall Street Journal. “The special forces were pulled out of Ukraine and sent to Syria,“ a Russian Ministry of Defense official told the WSJ. The anonymous official seemed to explicitly admit to a Russian military presence in the Ukraine, something which the Kremlin has fiercely denied.
The Russian official added that the special forces, who are “akin to a Delta Force,” the elite special forces unit in the US military, had been operating in pro-Russian rebel held areas of Ukraine before being called off to Syria.
The special forces group will join the Zaslon unit, which is currently protecting diplomatic assets in Syria. The increase in ground forces will likely help coordinate air strikes which mainly target US-backed anti-Assad rebels.
This is not the first indication that Russia has dispatched ground troops to the Syria conflict. On October 5th, NBC reported that Russia has sent a small number of artillery units to aid in an Assad regime ground offensive against Hama.
Russia has shown off its high-end military capabilities in Syria as well. As US Navy Commander Garrett I. Campbell wrote for the Brookings Institution, Russia’s firing of cruise missiles from warships in the Caspian Sea 900 miles away from their targets showed a “previously unknown capability” for Russia’s military. Campbell notes that Russian warplanes have also maintained a ferocious bombing pace, launching as many strikes against anti-regime rebels on some single days as the US-led anti-ISIS coalition carries out against the jihadist group in a typical month.
But Russia’s deep investment in the war carries some risks, too, with 2/3rds of Russian citizens opposing the possible use of combat troops to prop the Assad regime, and reports from pro-government sources of Russian combat deaths in the country. The deployment of special forces shows how serious the Kremlin is about backing Assad — more evidence of Moscow’s deep investment in bailing out a foreign leader’s faltering and possibly doomed regime.