What's Russia Doing in Syria?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

That’s what U.S. officials are wondering right now. Several news outlets, citing unnamed sources within the Obama administration, report that Russia is quietly making some moves inside Syria, such as sneaking in military groups and housing units that could hold hundreds.

This has put officials on edge, specifically John Kerry, who for the past few months has been trying to convince his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, to get the Kremlin’s support for a diplomatic solution to Syria’s civil war.

Here’s one theory for what’s happening, via The New York Times:

American officials acknowledge that they are not certain of Russia’s intentions, but some say the temporary housing suggests that Russia could deploy as many as 1,000 advisers or other military personnel to the airfield near the Assad family’s ancestral home.

Another theory:

Other American officials say they see no indication that Russia intends to deploy significant numbers of ground forces, but they say the housing would enable Russia to use the airfield as a major hub for ferrying in military supplies for the Syrian government, or possibly as a launching pad for Russian airstrikes in support of Mr. Assad’s forces.

Both would mean bad news for the State Department’s plans for handling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a longtime ally of Moscow. Reuters reports that Kerry called Lavrov on Saturday to say that, if these reports are true, an increased Russian military presence “could further escalate the conflict.” Both diplomats will be in New York this month, where Lavrov has promised he will keep the conversation going.