Russia has sent a few dozen special-operations troops to Syria in recent weeks, Russian and Western officials say, redeploying the elite units from Ukraine as the Kremlin shifts its focus to supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Russia in late September launched a campaign of airstrikes in support of Mr. Assad’s government, and President Vladimir Putin has said Russian troops won't play a role in ground combat. But Russian military experts and officials say small numbers of special-forces units—whose missions are rarely acknowledged publicly—are also on the ground in Syria.
“The special forces were pulled out of Ukraine and sent to Syria,“ a Russian Ministry of Defense official said, adding that they had been serving in territories in eastern Ukraine held by pro-Russia rebels. The official described them as “akin to a Delta Force,” the U.S. Army’s elite counterterrorism unit.
A senior Western official also said a contingent of elite Russian forces was on the ground in Syria from eastern Ukraine. A U.S. defense official said one of their roles is to provide coordination between Syrian troops and Russian aircraft conducting airstrikes in support of the regime’s ground offensive.
Russia’s Defense Ministry declined to comment on the claims. It has said that some of its military specialists are helping to advise and train Syrian government forces on the Russian-made hardware they are getting.
The Russian ministry official said the assets sent to Syria in recent weeks include the Zaslon unit, trained to protect diplomatic assets and personnel. Nearly two dozen Russian military-intelligence officers are also on site to liaise with Mr. Assad’s military intelligence, the official said.
Robert Lee, a visiting scholar at Moscow-based defense industry think tank CAST, said boots on the ground could also improve the accuracy of airstrikes. “The use of forward ground troops to draw fire from enemy positions makes the use of air power much more effective,” he said.
Moscow has a long-standing military relationship with Damascus, and some Russian special forces were present in Syria even before the air campaign began Sept. 30. Those were concentrated near Tartus where Russia has a naval installation.