The Pentagon said on Wednesday that the Russia is building a new military base near the historic city of Palmyra, though the story is being disputed by Russian military officials.
Palmyra is a UNESCO world heritage site where militants of the Islamic State were driven out recently by Syrian government forces. The report of the new military encampment comes despite Russian President Vladimir Putin pledging to withdraw their military forces from Syria back in March. In fact, Russian capabilities are “almost identical” to what they were before, according to Army Colonel Steve Warren, a spokesman for the U.S.-led campaign against ISIS.
“They continue to have air power there, they continue to have ground forces, they continue to have artillery,” Warren told reporters in a Baghdad teleconference on Tuesday, according to the Washington Post. “They still have Spetsnaz providing advice and assistance to the Syrian regime.”
The Pentagon is monitoring Russian activities near the ancient city, including the build-up of an operating base, and the alleged presence of Russian Special Operations forces, or Spetsnaz. The new military outpost was built in the weeks following the Syrian liberation of Palmyra from ISIS, which was also assisted by Iranian troops and Russian airstrikes. Warren warned during his teleconference that the new military base gives Russia “a foothold for a more enduring presence” in Syria and the entire region.
Russian officials are denying the official story told by the Pentagon. According to a Russian Defense Ministry spokesman who spoke to the state-run news agency TASS, the base is a temporary encampment constructed to support de-mining operations throughout the city.
“There have been no and are no ‘new Russian bases’ on the territory of Syria’s Palmyra,” Major General Igor Konashenkov said to TASS on Tuesday. “The satellite photographs of the area’s territory, published by UNESCO and mentioned by the agency… feature a temporary camp of units of the International Anti-Mine Center of Russia’s Armed Forces, which earlier engaged in mine clearing in the historical part of Palmyra, and today [engage in mine clearing] in the locality of Tadmur.”
However, Maamoun Abdulkarim, head of the antiquities and museums department in Damascus, told ABC News that the Russians did not ask permission to build the military barracks.
“The head of Syria’s Antiquities and Museums department, who noted the town’s priceless antiquities are safer thanks to the Russian presence, nonetheless said he would not have granted Russia permission to build the camp if he had been asked. A UNESCO official said it was unclear whether the encampment was in a buffer zone to the archaeological site, but said it does not pose a threat to the historic area.”
The American School of Oriental Research’s Cultural Heritage Initiative posted pictures taken from satellite by analytics company DigitalGlobe to Facebook that show construction near the ancient site. In addition, recent video footage of the base posted to YouTube by Syria’s state-run al-Masdar news shows equipment and operations that seem consistent with a de-mining operation, but also show what is allegedly a Russian Pantsir S-1 medium range surface-to-air missile system.
The base has notably been built within the borders of the protected UNESCO heritage site. The Russians are reportedly building barracks, clinics, and offices. If the encampment is proven to be in the buffer zone of the site, it would be a direct violation of international treaties protecting such precious archaeological zones.
“We refuse to give permission even if it was for a small room to be built inside the site whether it is for the Syrian army, Russian army or anyone else,” Abdulkarim said in a telephone interview from Damascus, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. “We will never give such permission because this will be in violation of the archaeology law.”
It is unclear at this time how far the Russian base at Palmyra will expand or if it will be built to support Russian attack helicopters and gunships that regularly fly nearby from the Russian air bases at Tiyas and al-Shayrat, to the west of the ancient city.
[Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images]