A group of investigative bloggers believe they have found proof that three serving or former Russian soldiers are operating in Syria after geolocating photographs to the troubled regions of Hama, Aleppo and Homs. The Kremlin began launching airstrikes in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on September 30 this year, but has persistently denied taking part, or intending to take part, in ground operations.
A report by the Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT) released today (November 8) analysed social media, including Instagram accounts, relating to three soldiers who serve or have served with the Russian military. The CIT previously revealed the first confirmed death of a Russian soldier in Syria in October this year after extensive research into the Ukrainian conflict.
CIT said in their report: "We believe that Russia's operation in Syria is a "hybrid war", not unlike the one seen in Ukraine. Apart from the airstrikes, Russia provides Assad forces with surface-to-surface rocket systems, combat vehicles, equipment, advisors, artillery support and spotters.
"Although we still don't have indisputable evidence of Russian servicemen taking a direct part in the fighting on the ground in Syria, we believe the situation observed contradicts the claims of Russian officials that Russian troops are not taking part and are not planning to take part in ground operations."
The three men were Ayas Saryg-Ool, a soldier they said served in Russia's 74th Separate Motorised Rifle Brigade, Vladimir Boldyrev, who it believed was a Russian marine from the 810th Separate Marine Brigade, and Ilya Gorelykh, who they said had served in Russia's Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) special forces.
Moscow is believed to have increased its presence in Syria, with U.S. officials saying that personnel numbers have doubled from 2,000 to 4,000. And according to Reuters, Russia's military jets are based in Latakia, in western Syria, a considerable distance to where the three servicemen were located.
On a Facebook post they showed both Boldyrev and Saryg-Ool's with geolocation tags in Hama Province. CIT also published screenshots from the Instagram page of Gorelykh, posted in late October, it showed he had uploaded pictures from Aleppo. One of the images showed him holding an assault rifle in civilian clothes. In another image he is posing with three other armed men apparently taken near Homs.
Boldyrev denied he was an acting serviceman sent to Syria, saying the picture was taken when he was a conscript. The images posted to social media had been removed on Sunday.