Russian warplanes are taking off from their base in Syria’s coastal province of Latakia, which is bustling with activity as Moscow presses its air blitz days before scheduled peace talks.
A pair of Su-25 jets flew past, returning from a mission shortly after sunrise, and air force crews readied combat jets for more missions. Two heavy transport plans were parked near the main terminal as soldiers toting assault rifles stood guard.
Since Russia launched its air campaign in Syria on September 30, its warplanes have flown nearly 6000 missions. The number is impressive for a compact force comprising just a few dozen warplanes.
The Russian military brought a group of Moscow-based reporters to the base on Wednesday to see the operations. Defence Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov said on Tuesday that over the previous four days Russian warplanes had flown 157 sorties striking 579 targets in six Syrian regions.
The Russian military has said it was targeting the Islamic State group and other extremists and has angrily dismissed Western accusations of hitting moderate rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Moscow also has rejected claims that its aircraft have hit civilians, saying they only target military facilities away from populated areas.
The Syrian government and the opposition are set to sit down for talks in Geneva, scheduled for Monday. The negotiations are meant to pave the way for a political settlement with a new constitution and elections in a year and a half, but hopes for their success are dim.
International negotiators, including the United States and its allies and Assad’s backers, Russia and Iran, have failed to reach common ground on which of the myriad Syrian militant groups should be considered extremists and fair game for strikes and which should be part of political talks.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry were meeting in Switzerland on Wednesday to try to resolve the differences over who is eligible to join the UN-mediated peace talks.
Meanwhile, the relentless Russian air campaign has helped the Syrian army recover and regroup after a series of failures last year and score significant battlefield gains in recent weeks.
Some believe that a string of military successes would likely encourage Assad’s government to take a tough stance in the talks.