By Andrew Osborn and Alexander Marrow
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia has set up a helicopter base at an airport in the northeastern Syrian city of Qamishli, the Russian Defence Ministry’s Zvezda TV channel said on Thursday, a move designed to increase Moscow’s control over events on the ground there.
Two Mi-35 helicopter gunships were shown flying low over desert terrain before landing at the new base, which is protected by mobile Pantsir surface-to-air missile systems.
Only three helicopters, including an Mi-8 military transport helicopter, have so far been deployed at the new facility, Zvezda said, but more will follow.
Russia has two permanent military facilities in Syria, an air base in Latakia province used for air strikes against forces opposing President Bashar al-Assad, and a naval facility at Tartus on the Mediterranean
It was unclear if the new base would be permanent, but it suggests Moscow is seeking greater control over events near the Turkish border where Russian and Turkish forces carry out joint patrols.
The patrols, agreed by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Tayyip Erdogan, are meant to ensure the border area is free of Kurdish YPG fighters that Ankara views as a threat.
“Right now it’s a small base to facilitate Russian operations in northeastern Syria, but potentially this could come in handy for Russian operations east of the Euphrates if and when the U.S. withdraws completely from Syria,” said Vladimir Frolov, a senior former Russian diplomat.
“It gives Russia more bargaining power, more facts on the ground under Russian control. But militarily it’s largely symbolic and not designed to take on U.S. air power.”
Zvezda showed Russian military police protecting the base. Armored vehicles and ground crews for the helicopters were also shown, as was a weather station and a small doctor’s surgery.
“This is the first group of Russian military helicopters here in northern Syria ... It’s a historic moment. From this day onwards our aviation group will operate permanently at Qamishli’s city airport,” said Pavel Remnev, Zvezda’s correspondent.
The Zvezda report was broadcast on Thursday, but appeared to have been filmed the previous day.
The deployment comes less than a month after U.S. forces withdrawing from northern Syria were pelted with potatoes by residents after President Donald Trump abruptly ordered them out.
A Reuters reporter said U.S. forces were spotted on the outskirts of Qamishli city on Tuesday however.
A U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that the United States was aware of the reports.
“The United States plans to remain in northeast Syria and will continue hunting ISIS wherever they hide,” the official said referring to Islamic State. The official added that the United States would continue to de-conflict military operations with Russia.
One Kurdish source said Russian forces, including helicopters, had long maintained an informal presence at the airport and suggested Moscow might be exaggerating the importance of its decision to establish a more formal presence.
Russia has started using military helicopters to patrol an area near Syria’s border with Turkey in order to protect Russian military police on the ground there, Zvezda said.
The Kremlin first launched air strikes in Syria in 2015, turning the tide of war in Assad’s favor, and says it wants to help him fully regain control of the country.
Additional reporting by Andrey Kuzmin and Tom Balmforth in Moscow, by Rodi Said in northern Syria and Idrees Ali in Washington; Editing by Giles Elgood and Alistair Bell