The Road to Syria

Bill Whitaker reports from inside the Syrian base from which Russia is launching air strikes in support of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad

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The following is a script from "The Road to Syria" which aired on Jan. 10, 2016. Bill Whitaker is the correspondent. Henry Schuster and Rachael Morehouse, producers.

The civil war in Syria was a powder keg when the Russians intervened in September. They put up an airbase and started bombing targets there. Russian President Vladimir Putin said the airstrikes were aimed at fighting Islamic terrorism, but it quickly became apparent that the majority of the bombs were aimed, not at ISIS, but at other Syrian insurgent groups fighting the regime of Russia's ally, President Bashar al-Assad. Whatever their motives, the Russians have inserted themselves into the Syrian conflict and any discussion of how it might end.

A few months ago, 60 Minutes reported from the American base in Qatar, the command center for U.S. operations in the Middle East. We wanted to see the Russian base. So we asked and they agreed. We set out on the road to Syria -- which took us on a detour we didn't expect.

To get to the Russian airbase in Latakia, Syria, you have to start here in Moscow.

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Moscow CBS News

You don't just show up at the gates of the airbase. You have to be invited by the Russian Ministry of Defense, then taken on a Russian military transport on a circuitous five-hour flight over territory friendly to Russia -- the Caspian Sea, Iran, Iraq, before finally landing in Syria.

It was almost midnight when our plane took off from a Russian airbase outside Moscow. As we started to take pictures out the window, we were told "nyet," "no," something we heard often during the next three days.

This was the first face we saw after landing. That's Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. This once was a Syrian airport. Since the summer, the Russians have built barracks, brought in 4,000 personnel, paved roads, rolled in truckloads of equipment and munitions - erecting a bit of Russia in the heart of Assad-controlled Syria. This is mostly friendly territory, at least 20 miles from the closest frontlines, but the Russians aren't taking any chances. Helicopter gunships constantly patrolled the perimeter.

They took us out along newly extended runways to watch a steady series of planes taking off. The roar was deafening. The Russians invited about a dozen news organizations on this tour of the Latakia airbase. They especially wanted us to take note of their newest fighter-bomber, the Su-34.

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Su-34 CBS News

Our Russian guide in Syria, Major General Igor Konashenkov, is chief spokesman for the Ministry of Defense.

Over the previous 24 hours, he said, 320 insurgents and 34 armored vehicles were destroyed. Independent monitoring groups told us some of the planes we saw taking off did bomb ISIS targets, but most bombed more immediate threats to the Assad regime -- groups like the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army and al-Nusra, the Syrian arm of al Qaeda.

General Konashenkov wouldn't tell us how many planes are flying missions, but American military sources say the Russians have 36 fighter planes and 17 helicopters. The Russian military says they have flown more than 5,000 sorties -- mostly from here -- since President Putin ordered the bombing campaign in September.

Bill Whitaker: What is the primary goal of Russia in this intervention?

Vladimir Komoyedov, translator: The main task is to restore statehood in this region, Syrian statehood.

Admiral Vladimir Komoyedov is the chairman of the Russian Parliament's Defense Committee. He was involved in the planning of the Syrian mission.

Bill Whitaker: The United States is focused primarily on defeating ISIS. And Russia seems to have other priorities, supporting the Assad regime and helping the Assad regime fight its enemies. And that seems to take priority over fighting ISIS.

Vladimir Komoyedov: If you cut off the head, you get chaos. There's chaos in Libya, chaos essentially in Iraq. Half the country is under ISIL. And the head was chopped off there, you see. So, if you want to so stubbornly remove the leaders of Syria, it's an enormous mistake.

Bill Whitaker: I'm just wondering if you believe that Assad has a role in the future of Syria?

Vladimir Komoyedov: The problem is that he has lost some of his authority. The people themselves must figure out, in elections, whom to follow and how to build their lives, which have been essentially ruined in Syria.

Ruined, in large part, by President Assad's own military. We got the sense Admiral Komoyedov is not crazy about the Syrian president, who has dropped bombs on his own people. The admiral used a derogatory term to describe Assad, then asked that we not repeat it on TV.

Vladimir Komoyedov: We know why the opposition was formed. It was formed due to the mistakes of the president of Syria himself.

When they launched this mission back in September, the Russians said it would be temporary. After months of almost daily bombing, ISIS and the other insurgent groups fighting the Assad regime have barely been budged from the territory they hold. And Russia has added more planes and expanded to other bases here in Syria. The mission doesn't look so temporary anymore.

Bill Whitaker: Did Russia overestimate the power of the Syrian Army?

Vladimir Komoyedov: But we have been fulfilling our obligations to Syria and we will go on fulfilling them. President Assad shouldn't rest on his laurels. He needs to work on his army, and raise its morale, and if necessary, lead the army himself. He needs to unite his forces which are scattered like fingers. They must be clenched into a fist. If you can't beat them, at least you can give them a black eye.

It was the Russians who got a black eye when one of their war planes was shot down and a pilot killed by the Turkish Air Force in late November.

That incident may have been why we were taken to Tartus, two hours south of Latakia. This is the Russian navy's only foothold in the Mediterranean. Holding onto this base seems to be one key reason President Putin maintained, and now is escalating his support for Bashar al-Assad.

This day, our destination was the Moscow, a guided missile cruiser that lay a mile offshore.

They brought us aboard and did everything short of firing off one of its missiles to demonstrate Russia's naval might. The Moscow is normally the flagship of the Black Sea fleet. It now has a new mission.

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Bill Whitaker: When I see all of this, I just wonder, who are you fighting? ISIS doesn't have any capability like this.

General Konashenkov told us the ship's main mission is not to fight terrorists. After Turkey shot down the Russian fighter, the Moscow was reassigned to provide anti-aircraft defense.

That a Russian-guided missile cruiser is providing air defense against Turkey, a U.S. ally, in what was supposed to be a war against ISIS and Islamic terrorism is a sign just how complicated this temporary mission has become.

Maria Lipman: Russia has to be reckoned with, which has been Putin's goal all along throughout the 15 years of his leadership.

Maria Lipman is a political analyst in Moscow, one of the few independent voices willing to publically criticize President Putin.

Maria Lipman: Seeing Russia waging this state-of-the-art military operation in a very important region made the Russians feel proud. This began with the annexation of Crimea, when Russia reinstated historical justice, the way it was seen in Russia.

Bill Whitaker: So this is primarily not about Syria, but about Russia's place in the world?

Maria Lipman: Of course it is also about Syria. But I do not think the goal-- the primary goal was to stop the war. I think the primary goal was Russia's stature in the world.

We wanted to know what they thought of Russia's war here in Latakia, a coastal province, home to about two million people. This is Assad territory. The shops looked full and life seemed normal as we rode through town. We weren't allowed off the bus -- for security reasons, our Russian minders said. Instead, they took us to a refugee camp at the city's sports complex. While hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled to Europe from the bombs and brutality of President Assad and his opponents, the Russians wanted to show us people who had fled to the safety of the Syrian government. These are about 5,000 of the millions of refugees from this civil war.

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Bill Whitaker at refugee camp CBS News

Amid the tents, we found this woman. She's been here three years, after fleeing Aleppo with her daughter and grandchildren.

Bill Whitaker: What was happening in Aleppo that made you come here to this camp?

They destroyed our homes she told us. She said her son was killed.

Bill Whitaker: You lost everything?

She told us she didn't know who was responsible for the barrel bomb, dropped from a plane that destroyed her house. But barrel bombs are a signature weapon of the Assad regime.

Bill Whitaker: Do you hope to go home again?

God willing she said. She told us she felt safe here in the government-run camp - and she was grateful to the Russians for helping out.

For those on the receiving end of the Russian bombs, it's a different story. The Russians have presented this war through a series of videos of precision strikes with intelligence from satellites and drones. Yet as we were shown the planes being heavily armed for their missions, we saw many of what are known as dumb bombs being loaded - unguided weapons, which human rights groups say have led to more than 500 civilian deaths.

Bill Whitaker: Correct me if I'm wrong, I have read that many of the targets hit by the Russians have been selected by the Syrians. Is that true?

Vladimir Komoyedov: We use our data and Syrian data. But I think there's a trick in your question, that supposedly if we're striking we're hitting the wrong target. Yes, there may be mistakes. But you have to know that such things happen. We know how many times the Americans have missed, you know. War is not like going for a stroll somewhere in the park. War is death. It's weaponry, it's fire.

We saw little of that during our trip to Syria. By design, the Russians showed off their firepower but not the results and the results have not been dramatic. According to the defense and intelligence publication, IHS Jane's, after three months of Russian bombing, the Syrian army has managed to take back less than one percent of the territory seized by the insurgents.