Palmyra may be the first Islamist target to be attacked

Uniformed Russian soldiers are now guarding checkpoints on roads around three military bases on the Syrian Mediterranean coast as Moscow plans its first attacks on the enemies of President Bashar al-Assad.

Russian drones – more than half flown by Russian ground controllers inside Syria – are now flying regularly over Palmyra, which may be the first Islamist target to be attacked, according to Syrian military sources.

The Syrian army is reporting a vastly improved intelligence capability around the old Roman city, captured by Isis in May and used as an execution yard for civilians and captured government soldiers. Drones are being flown at night over the Isis-controlled deserts of eastern Syria.

Syrian troops are planning to recapture Palmyra if Russian aircraft can do sufficient damage to Isis around the city – perhaps within the next three weeks – but Syrian diplomats have been told by the Russians that Moscow’s actions depend on reaction to the speech which President Vladimir Putin makes at the United Nations on 28 September.

Mr Putin is expected to present himself as the leader most capable of destroying Isis after the failure of the US and other western nations.

Five large Russian transport aircraft delivered further supplies to the military base adjoining Latakia airport on Saturday afternoon and civilians in the Mediterranean port say that at night the sky is alive with jet aircraft.

The Russians have brought so much equipment into Syria – mostly for Syrian army use – that another base near Tartous has been turned into a military helicopter park, the third now being used by the Russian military.

Russian fighter pilots are being given the task of taking part in military operations in Syria, as it would take too long to train the country’s own pilots to fly the advanced fighter-bombers now arriving.

But Russian troops will not be involved, except in an emergency, in any ground operations, sources say.

Russian soldiers guarding the air bases, however, are in full uniform as they share checkpoint duties with their Syrian counterparts and are not attempting to conceal their presence from civilians in Latakia.

Non-combat though their status may be, Mr Putin can now claim that he – unlike the western powers – has soldiers with “boots on the ground” to fight Isis in Syria.

Robert Fisk

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