Russia expands military presence in Syria

Russia is expanding its presence in Syria, adding a second airbase as well as other command posts. Currently, Moscow has four operating bases in Syria including recently added bases in Hama and Tiyas. But now the West is most concerned about the second airbase in Shayrat capable of supporting fixed-wing aircraft which greatly expands Russia’s capability of airstrikes. With the second airbase, the Russian air force in Syria is expected to double in the number of aircraft but also increase in terms of number of soldiers. Shayrat is about 25 miles from the Syrian city of Homs, also close to the Lebanon border which is a key city connecting the coastal parts with the capital of Damascus. The Russian decision is considered as an expansion rather than a defensive move as the other Russian airbase is not under threat due to the Syrian rebels not operating anywhere close. Currently, it is assumed that Russia holds some 31 warplanes and 15 helicopters at Latakia.

Since Turkey shot down a Russian Su-25 warplane last week, Russia has also moved its warship Moskva closer to the Syrian coast to provide additional cover with air defense missiles for its base in Latakia. But on the top of that, Moscow also deployed S-400 air defense system believed to be sending a robust signal not only to Turkey but also to the public at home about extent of Russian efforts to protect its air assets in Syria. The S-400 is Russia’s most modern air defense system with the capability to reach targets from Latakia even to Israel, eastern Mediterranean and large part of Turkey beyond the Syrian border. Meanwhile, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad called Russian involvement in the conflict balance changing on the ground. The Syrian President also stated that Turkey has downed the Russian jet due to its dissatisfaction with developments on the ground in Syria, particularly owing to Russia’s intervention.

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News Briefs:

  • NATO agreed to keep alliance troop levels in Afghanistan at 12,000 throughout next year and is now seeking for funding 350,000 Afghan forces to increase their capability to secure the country against Taliban militants. The Taliban’s takeover of the northern city of Kunduz in September has shaken confidence in the ability of Afghan forces to do so. Back in October, the U.S. President Barack Obama announced about his decision to maintain the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan at 9,800 in 2016 despite his previous plan to withdraw most of the troops before 2017. But unlike the U.S., NATO has never set an end to its mission in Afghanistan. NATO also launched a campaign to rise about #3 billion euros to pay Afghan state security forces for 2018-2020. The current budget of the Afghan security forces is agreed up to the end of 2017. NATO troops in Afghanistan comprise of about 7,000 U.S. forces and 5,000 from the rest of NATO members and non-member states.
  • After Russia banned the entry of Turkish trucks to its territory, Azerbaijan expressed readiness to ensure the transit of goods from Turkey to Central Asian states. Akif Mustafayev, the national secretary of Azerbaijan said the decision was taken before deterioration of Russian-Turkish relations in order to attract cargo flows. He also emphasized country’s strategic plan to provide the railway company with broad powers of freight transportation given that Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway will be put in operation by the end of 2016. Azerbaijan also hopes the country will remain the main transit route even after improving Russia-Turkey relations, additionally relying on Caspian Sea ferries to cope with the transit volume. Prior to the conflict, 30,000 Turkish trucks out of 200,000 were transporting goods through Azerbaijan, the rest crossing Georgia-Russia border into Russia and Central Asia. Current revenues for Azerbaijan from transportation via Europe-Caucasus-Asia corridor amount $350 million a year, which is now expected to increase 4-5 times.
  • Belarus is seeking a $3 billion loan from International Monetary Fund for the period of 10 years and is offering economic reforms in return. The President Alexander Lukashenko called the IMF loan offer a better value than any other alternatives including a deal with Russia. The specific reforms are unclear yet, but Lukashenko mentioned some such as setting tariff rates and increasing pension age. This development comes less than a month after Lukashenko rejected structural economic reforms at the swearing-in ceremony anticipating them as threat to political system and the entire government. The country is struggling in economy with GDP down 3.7 percent in the last nine months. Belarus took $3.9 billion IMF loan in 2009 and had $12.5 billion foreign debt in the beginning of last month.
  • Tajikistan is planning to close all money exchange points to deal with its national currency at the edge of collapse. The Tajik somoni reached 7.6 against dollar in comparison to January when the dollar was selling for 5.3 somoni. According to the government order, only authorized banks will be allowed to effect currency exchanges meaning also limited available amount. The National Bank of Tajikistan stated that bureaus de change speculate the rates and profit from market instability. Buying and selling foreign denomination outside of the authorized points will become subject of prosecution including for the country’s 1, 400 exchange offices. But the move is expected to shift exchange to underground and force businesses desperate for cash in the unregulated black market.
  • Thousands of protestors rallied in Armenian capital Yerevan against government proposed constitutional reforms. The protest precedes the December 6 referendum on the President Serzh Sarkisian’s proposal to change Armenia’s system from presidential to parliamentarian, headed by prime minister instead of a president. The opposition alleges the proposition as an attempt by Sarkisian to extend his grip on power by swapping positions after stepping down as a president in 2018, although he denied plans to run for any government after his last term. Some 5,000 protestors lead by opposition parties demand change of the government against the proposed constitutional change.
  • India and Kazakhstan are working on the railway and port project to develop links via Turkmenistan and Iran. Kazakhstan is currently in talks with Adani Group to build a container terminal at Gujarat’s Mundra Port. The port is presumed to become a drive through between the railway link from Kazakhstan to Bandar Abbas Port in Iran and Indian markets on the other hand. The Kazakh-Turkmen-Iran leg of the project is already operational and now attempting to link the Indian markets with Eurasia. Kazakhstan is India’s largest trading partner in the region with a total trade volume of $1.3 billion. The two countries have steadily increased relations after PM Narendra Modi’s visit to Astana last July.

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