Even while Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry agree to hold a conference to try and broker peace, hints from intelligence sources that a contingent of the highly-secret Zaslon unit has been deployed to Syria suggest that Moscow is quietly preparing for the potential downfall of the Assad regime.
There is already a small Russian naval force in the Mediterranean with a contingent of 300 Naval Infantry marines and, most significantly, almost-empty troopships which could be used to transport Russian nationals. These would be able to handle a relatively orderly evacuation through the port at Tartus, at which the Russians already have rudimentary naval facilities.
However, if Zaslon special forces have indeed been sent to Syria, it suggests that Moscow feels a rather more pressing need to strengthen security for its embassy in Damascus as well as for the Russian military and technical advisers currently deployed around the country.
Zaslon (‘Screen’) is perhaps the most secret of Russia’s many spetsgruppy or special forces detachments. It is part of the SVR, the Foreign Intelligence Service — specifically its Directorate S, responsible for undercover operations. Formed in 1998, Zaslon is tasked with covert missions abroad ranging from protecting officials in dangerous environments to conducting assassinations. It numbers some 280 operators, who are trained and equipped to the highest standards.
Unlike most Russian special forces, Zaslon does not publicize its activities or even its existence. They have sometimes supplemented embassy security details in especially dangerous conditions; indeed, they provided security for former SVR director Mikhail Fradkov when he visited Damascus last year. They are typically used for more direct operations, though. Zaslon was rumored to be part of the operation to assassinate insurgents who kidnapped and killed four Russian diplomats in Iraq in 2006, for example, and they may be ready to free captured Russian military advisers.
However, according to one Russian report, two Zaslon elements were also deployed to Baghdad in the dying days of the Hussein regime. Their mission was to seize or destroy documents which Moscow would have found embarrassing had they ended up in U.S. hands. Given the scale and depth of Russian support for Assad, it could similarly be that they are also in Syria to cover Moscow’s tracks or else ensure that sensitive military technology — including new surface-to-air systems — does not end up in foreign hands.
Either way, if the reports are true, they further suggest that behind Moscow’s tough rhetoric on Syria, it is seriously preparing for Assad’s fall.