Exclusive: How Russian mercenaries are manning Syria's air defenses escribió:
Last week, anti-government activists in Syria posted a shaky video on YouTube showing an ungainly military vehicle crawling along the desert near Damascus, spewing clouds of blue smoke and churning up dust. The vehicle is a high-tech Russian-built anti-aircraft system, designed to shoot down airplanes and missiles up to 30 miles away.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has more than a hundred of these massive weapons in his arsenal, and they comprise only part of his vast, Russian-built missile defense system. As the White House inches closer to bombing Syria over the regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons, and as Moscow continues to act an intermediary for its ally in Damascus, an important complication has been lost in the hubbub: There are Russian contractors on the ground in Syria, and they could become American targets, according to military experts and former intelligence officers.
“There are Russian technicians manning those anti-aircraft missiles,” a former high ranking U.S. intelligence officer tells Vocativ.
The presence of these technicians, analysts say, means the odds are good that Russian personnel could be killed in a protracted American bombing campaign. It also means that things could get messy fast. After all, it’s one thing to “fire a shot across the bow,” as Obama recently said, explaining the nature of the possible strike. But it’s quite another to kill the citizens of a former Cold War adversary in a military operation that the world doesn’t seem to support. As another former CIA official put it: “What happens when you hit a bunch of Russians?”
That question may soon be answered. Decades ago, the Soviet Union built up Syria’s missile defenses, as part of its alliance with Assad’s father, Hafez. But in 2007, the younger Assad went shopping in Moscow, buying up weapons in droves, says Pieter Wezeman, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a Sweden-based think tank. The Syrians seemed to purchase anything they could get their hands on: hundreds of shoulder-held missiles, along with short-, mid- and long-range anti-aircraft missile defense systems. (One system known as the S-300 can hit a target from nearly a hundred miles away, though the Russians may not have delivered it yet.) “It’s all layered,” explains an international arms consultant.
The reason the Syrians need the Russian technicians on the ground, the consultant adds, is that air defense isn’t like a home stereo system: You can’t just plug in the power chord and press “on.” The Russians are there to make sure the systems are working together effectively; they’re the only ones on the ground with the proper technical expertise. “This is standard,” says Wezeman. “It is important in places like Syria, where there’s no advanced technology infrastructure.”
A spokesman for Almaz Antey, the Russian company that manufactures Assad’s anti-aircraft systems, says the firm has no technicians deployed in Syria. Yet Wezeman, the arms contractor and four former senior U.S. intelligence officers are certain there are Russian technicians on the ground, ensuring that Assad’s high-tech weaponry functions properly.
These technicians aren’t the only Russians in Syria right now. Moscow, for instance, has a naval base in Tartus, an Assad stronghold in the eastern part of the country. But it’s extremely unlikely that the U.S. would target the base for fear of killing Russians in uniform.
More at risk are the Russian technicians, who will be manning Syria’s missile defense systems. Experts say the most dangerous place to be when a war begins is at the helm of an anti-aircraft missile battery. In a sustained air campaign, these batteries tend to be the first targets.
If an American bombing campaign against Syria kills Russians in the process, no one really knows how Russian President Vladimir Putin will react. While some worry things could spiral, others think Moscow would simply shrug. “The Russians think even less about their contractors than we think about our contractors,” says the arms consultant.
But Russian deaths could work in Putin’s favor. “The Russians will make a big deal of it, more of a big deal than it is,” says a former Defense Department intelligence official.
Either way, a new sort of big deal has emerged in the form of a diplomatic overture from Moscow. On Monday, U.S. President Barack Obama expressed at least some interest in a Russian proposal for Syria to hand over its chemical weapons stockpiles to avert an American attack. ”It’s…a potentially positive development,” Obama said of the proposal. “If it’s real.”