Despite the recent Russian announcement that it is withdrawing troops from Syria Russian warplanes are still supporting Syrian government forces advancing in the northwest around Homs, Palmyra and Aleppo. Russia has made it clear that it is only withdrawing some of its air power and military personnel. The departing forces can be returned quickly if needed. Russia will maintain control of port facilities on the Syrian coast and nearby airbases. The withdrawal announcement is believed to be a Russian effort to get the Assad government to go along with whatever peace deal can be arrived at in the upcoming UN sponsored peace talks. This might include a partition of Syria (which the Assads oppose) into a Kurdish state in the northeast (which Turkey opposes), an Assad (non-Kurds, non-Sunni) state in the west from Damascus north to Aleppo and west to the coast) and a Sunni state (the rest, which is most of the territory and population of Syria.) The Sunni state would be stuck with most of the Islamic terrorists, which have been largely kept out of the Kurdish and non-Sunni territory. Everyone would apparently cooperate to crush the most troublesome Islamic terrorists. These would mainly be al Qaeda and ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) affiliated groups. Partition is currently seen as the least worst option.
In the last week Syrian troops retook Palmyra, which ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) grabbed in May 2015. Palmyra was a major ISIL victory but since the beginning of 2016 Russian air and ground forces have worked with Syrian troops to methodically fight their way back to Palmyra and surrounding Deir Ezzor province in general. ISIL had, at the end of 2015, controlled most of Deir Ezzor province, including Palmyra, which is astride the main road from Deir Ezzor to Damascus (the national capital and Assad stronghold). Supporting government forces in Deir Ezzor became more difficult with the loss of Palmyra in mid-2015. Syrian troops apparently now intend to advance on the ISIL capital of Raqqa (227 kilometers to the northeast).
The Russians made a difference not just with air strikes but with thousands of special operations troops and military trainers for combat or support troops. There were also hundreds of technical experts to assist the Syrians in refurbishing elderly (or just overworked) weapons and military equipment. Now weapons and gear also arrived and the Syrian troops had to be quickly taught how to use all this stuff. By January 2016 the impact of all this effort was visible to people on the ground (and Western photo satellites). The Syrian troops were using new Russian artillery as well as more of their own stuff because the Russians had shipped in lots of ammo and spare parts. Russian UAVs were providing target information and the Syrian infantry seemed more precise and confident as they called in supporting artillery and air support before advancing. All this has made it much harder for the rebels to defeat the Assad government and much easier to accept a peace deal that keeps the Assads in power. This is apparently the Russian goal.
Since early October, largely because of Russian air support, government forces have advanced in the northwest around Homs and Aleppo as well Palmyra and in the south near the Israeli border. As always, the government forces are willing to negotiate terms with rebels to gain control of a city or town in order to minimize damage to the place and avoid casualties. Government forces have also cleared most rebel forces who had been advancing into Latakia province, which is where the Syrian ports are. Most of the Russian aid comes in through these ports. Down south near the Israeli border the Syrian Air Force owns the air.
Fighting has flared up again in Ukraine. This war is nearly two years old and has left over 9,000 dead at least 20,000 wounded. Most of the casualties have been civilians. There is a ceasefire in place but no progress on working out an end to the Russian effort to grab a chunk of eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine is not the only foreign problem. Russia is coming under increased international pressure over its more frequent use of Cold War secret police tactics inside and outside Russia. The main accusation, which there is growing evidence of, is using murder to silence or terrify those considered “enemies of the state” (Russia). This sort of thing was common during the Cold War and because the Cold War era Russian secret police (KGB) dominate the current government the return of these illegal (even according to Russian law) tactic was not a surprise. But the resulting dead bodies have become yet another cause of tension between Russia and most of the rest of the world. These deaths have occurred in Britain, the United States and Ukraine recently. Russia also insists that it has no soldiers in Donbas but does admit there are Russian citizens there (as volunteers). It’s already been proven (via captured Russian troops) that those soldiers serving in Ukraine often have to go through an administrative process whereby they are temporarily no longer part of the Russian military. This despite the fact that they still get paid, including generous “danger pay” for Donbas service and are back in the military once their Donbas tour is over.
Ukraine isn’t the only foreign nation Russia is having problems with Iran has still not received all the components of the S-300 anti-aircraft systems it purchased from Russia. It is believed that Israel made a deal (involving Syria and other matters of mutual interest) to delay the Iranian effort to get the S-300 operational. Whatever the case the S-300 is not operational and the Iranians are angry about it. The Iranians are also angry about some Russian behavior in Syria, mainly the Russians insisting that everything be done the Russian way.
March 26, 2016: In eastern Ukraine (Donbas) pro-Russian rebels again broke the ceasefire in a big way with dozens of incidents over several days where rebels fired on Ukrainian forces. This killed two Ukrainian soldiers and wounded eight.
March 24, 2016: Russian media reported that during the recent fighting around Palmyra in Syria a Russian commando, on a recon mission, found himself cut off and surrounded by ISIL gunmen. The Russian soldier called in an airstrike on himself, killing dozens of ISIL men but himself as well. The government says this was the seventh Russian fatality since Russian troops entered Syria last October.
March 23, 2016: State controlled media released data confirming what most Russians suspected, there has been a sharp increase in poverty since 2014. By late 2015 there were nearly 20 million Russians living, according to government statistics, in poverty. That’s about 14 percent of the population. This is the highest the poverty rate has been since 2006, when there were 22 million. Between then and 2014 high oil prices and a growing economy reduced that to 16 million. The number of Russians living in poverty is expected to keep increasing in 2016 at least and maybe longer. The economy has been successful at adapting to the low oil prices and sanctions but this has not prevented more people from losing jobs (or seeing their work hours decline). Higher inflation and declining value (in foreign currency) of the ruble has also hurt by depleting savings faster and increasing the cost of living. The government has cut just about everything in the budget (except the military) in order to provide some relief for those reduced to poverty by the current situation.
March 15, 2016: Russian warplanes began leaving Syria today, 24 hours after Russia announced a partial withdrawal of its military forces. By the end of the month about 21 fixed wing aircraft had left, leaving 24 in Syria along with nearly as many helicopters. Most of the jets that left were older aircraft that are more expensive and time-consuming to keep flying. By the end of March more helicopter gunships had arrived, often more recent models than those that had left or were still there. In effect the Russians reduced their ability to “generate sorties” (send an aircraft out on a mission) by about a quarter with this withdrawal.
Russia always said that its military participation in Syria would be brief and this announcement confirms that. There is all sorts of speculation about what is “really going on” and there are some pretty obvious practical reasons for Russia pulling back in Syria. There is a well-known shortage of smart bombs and pilots who can use them. There is also a shortage of replacement parts for combat aircraft. Then there is the expense of air operations. Most of the half billion dollars the Syrian operation has cost Russia so far has gone to keep the aircraft flying. Russia is broke because of low oil prices and international sanctions. An extended presence in Syria would be unpopular back in Russia because of the cost, although the government has kept Russian casualties low. Meanwhile 3,000 or so Russian advisors and technical personnel are staying. This will continue to aid and encourage Assad forces. Meanwhile Russia has gained much, like combat experience for many of its new weapons (which makes it easier to get export sales) and combat experience for Russian officers, NCOs and special operations forces. Russia also demonstrated to friends and enemies alike in the Middle East that Russia was a more dependable ally than the United States.
March 14, 2016: Russia announced that it was pulling most of its military forces (over fifty warplanes and several thousand troops) out of Syria. Or something like that as no details have been provided. This withdrawal is supposed to start this week but many believe it is a negotiating tactic. Russia pointed out that their troops made it possible for Syrian government forces to retake over 400 towns and villages more than 10,000 square kilometers of territory and that Russian forces can leave now. While the Russian presence reversed rebel advances that threatened to defeat the Syrian government by late 2015 the Russian assistance has not defeated the rebels. Despite still being divided (and often fighting each other) the rebels remain more powerful than the government forces. Russia cites the long-delayed peace talks as made possible because of the Russian intervention. Yet the peace talks are more about posturing than performance. The elite combat and support troops Russia sent to Syria are exhausted and need some rest.