Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this month ordered the "main part" of his forces out of Syria in a surprise withdrawal – but according to a Reuters analysis on Wednesday, he has since increased the deployment of equipment to the region.
Putin has continued his campaign to prop up Bashar al-Assad's regime even after the withdrawal announcement on March 14, and apparently he is intent on maintaining enough firepower on the ground to be able to rapidly escalate Russian actions if Assad is threatened.
Reuters notes that the naval icebreaker Yauza, a main supply vessel for Russian forces in Syria, did not return to its Arctic Ocean port after Putin's announced withdrawal, but instead three days after the declaration left the Russian Black Sea for Tartous, Russia's naval facility in Syria.
Photographs of the ship analyzed by the news agency showed it was carrying very heavy cargo, as it sat so low in the water its load line could barely be seen. It is unclear what exact equipment was on board.
Aside from the Yauza, Russia also sent the Caesar Kunikov and the Saratov to the Mediterranean Sea shortly after the withdrawal – both are landing ships, generally used to transport troops and armor, and both were clearly very heavily loaded.
Russia pulled around half of its fixed-wing strike force from Syria in the days after the withdrawal was announced, according to Reuters, but an examination of shipping data, official information, info from naval sources and photographs by bloggers of Russian ships passing the Bosphorus strait show the military buildup in Syria is not being brought to a close.
Rather it seems Russia has more war ships in the Mediterranean near the Syrian coast than at the time of Putin's announcement, with more than 12 naval craft accounted for in the region. They are there to guard cargo ships, but they likewise can fire devastating cruise missiles from the sea.
In addition to increasing the equipment being shipped to Syria, the analysis indicated that several ships returning from Syria to Russia appeared unloaded on their way home, and showed no signs of carrying heavy cargo.