Russia: Putting On A Show In Syria


October 6, 2015: Russia admits that it has indeed suddenly increased its military aid to Syria since August and is breaking the UN embargo to supply the Assad government with new weapons. That was clear as Russia announced the sale to Syria of another twelve MiG-29s. Only nine will be delivered by the end of 2016 and the last three will arrive in 2017. The Russia appears determined to immediately do a lot of rebuild what is left of the Syrian Air Force, which has suffered enormous (over 70 percent) losses since 2011. Russia has always provided tech and material (spare parts) support for this largely Russian fleet of warplanes and helicopters but not enough for the Syrians to keep more than 30 percent of the 370 aircraft and helicopters operational. The surge of Russian support will mean the Syrian Air Force can be rebuilt and thus be even more active. The 50 or so Russian aircraft in Syria consist of Su-34 and Su-30 fighter-bombers, Su-24M bombers and Su-25 ground attack aircraft as well as about a dozen armed helicopters. There are also many transport helicopters.

By early September satellite and ground level photos showed more Russian personnel and military equipment in Syria. This increase in Russian military aid to Syria solves several problems for Russia. For one, it prevents the looming collapse of the Assad government, which has been losing territory at an accelerating rate in 2015 and is facing a collapse in morale among its forces and civilian supporters. Russia has been a staunch ally of the Assad dynasty since the 1970s. Iran cannot provide more aid, mainly because despite the July agreement to lift sanctions on Iran that does not go into effect until early 2016 and until then Iran is as broke as ever. But the arrival of the Russian troops does boost Iranian morale and willingness to send in more troops to act as advisors and trainers. Apparently Iran has even sent in more special operations troops to match the growing number of Russian spetsnaz commandos in Syria.

The arrival of the Russians was also very good news for Hezbollah. The Iran backed Hezbollah militia has been providing thousands of fighters inside Syria but this has been increasingly unpopular among Hezbollah members and even more unpopular with Lebanese in general. That’s because Syria considers Lebanon a “lost province” and has always treated Lebanon badly. Hezbollah had to fight in Syria for the hated (by most Lebanese) Assad government because Iran has long been the main financial and military support for Hezbollah and demanded that Hezbollah send fighters to Syria. But Hezbollah leaders have been warning Iran that the Hezbollah operations in Syria were causing serious damage to the unity and effectiveness of Hezbollah in general. In fact, once it became clear that Russia was putting substantial combat forces in Syria, Hezbollah quietly informed Iran and the Assads that by the end of September Hezbollah would cease offensive operations in Syria and confine their participation to fighting Syrian rebel (especially al Qaeda and ISIL groups) attempts to get into Lebanon. Decisions like this are very popular with most Lebanese and especially welcome by Hezbollah fighters, who always thought they had signed up to defend Lebanon in general and the Shia minority of Lebanon in particular. Guarding the border is doing just that and will repair the damage to morale done because of combat operations inside Syria (and several thousand casualties suffered as a result). Now it is clear that Hezbollah, after receiving some additional weapons (including tanks) could be encouraged to do a little more. This might be something like pushing Syrian rebels much farther away from the Lebanese border as that would be tolerable to most Lebanese and help the Assad government as well.

Russia sees its intervention as a bold political move as the Russians describe their work in Syria as a direct attack on ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), which everyone agrees is a major threat. This can be seen by the fact there is little criticism of the Russian move from the Arab media. The Russian intervention also does what no one else dared to do. No one else, not even the Arab states most directly threatened by ISIL, were willing to send in ground forces. Russia sending dozens of warplanes and bombing more effectively (by ignoring the ISIL use of human shields) exposes the timidity of the American led air campaign. The U.S. has been using a very restrictive ROE (Rules of Engagement) that ISIL has exploited by widely using human shields at many of its key bases and personnel in general. As a result the most important ISIL facilities and concentrations of personnel are untouched by the bombing campaign. This plays into a recent scandal where dozens of American intelligence analysts have been leaking accusations that they have been ordered to modify their reports about the impact of the air campaign against ISIL to hide the fact that a lot of the ISIL targets hit were secondary ones ISIL did not see worth deploying human shields (and gunmen to keep the civilians there) to. The ROE also made it difficult to recruit and train Syrian rebels, given the extreme fear of ISIL retribution against anyone seen to be aiding the United States. Like the Arab air forces in Yemen, the Russians have an ROE that ignores human shields and bombs all targets of military value. If these more ruthless attacks do indeed hurt ISIL significantly more than the West will have to rethink its ROE.

Russia is only sending a few thousand ground troops but these are some of the best troops Russia has and ISIL and the other Islamic terrorist rebels will suffer much heavier casualties if they clash with these Russians. All this will boost morale among troops and Syrian civilians in Assad territory and make it more likely that a Russian peace proposal that keeps the Assads in power, even if it means a partition of Syria, will be more acceptable to the world. Russia says it is sending only “volunteers”. This is a policy adopted in Ukraine, and for good reason. While “acting strong” is popular with most Russians, the risk of your own conscripted sons getting sent to Ukraine or Syria and killed or maimed is definitely not popular. To the dismay of Russian leaders it was found that even when young volunteer (“contract”) soldiers get hurt there is popular backlash. This despite government willingness to pay compensation (not a Russian tradition) to families of the dead as well as to disabled soldiers. Thus Russia has an incentive to rely a lot on tech and mercenaries (mainly supplied by Iran) to avoid Russian casualties. 

By mid-September Russia had brought in enough warplanes and troops to support and protect the airbase near the coast in Latakia province. After that the Russian air combat operations began. Despite Russian talk about it all being about ISIL, most of the attacks so far have been against the most immediate threats to the 20 percent of Syria that the Assad forces control. To placate foreign criticism Russia did hint that a column might be sent east to threaten the ISIL capital Raqqa. That would certainly be possible but even the Russians realize that most of the ISIL gunmen in the east are based among the population outside Raqqa and while these fanatics would die in large numbers they would also be inflicting a lot of unwelcome casualties whoever the Russians had fighting on the ground.

Russia wants to carry out a “heroic intervention” to defeat ISIL and earn some positive publicity. That sort of thing is badly needed as Russia is currently seen as a treacherous bully because of its aggression in Ukraine and elsewhere in East Europe. By the end of the year Russia expects to turn that around, even if some depict them as a treacherous and opportunistic hero. Smashing ISIL would nevertheless be praised and appreciated. The main problem Russia faces is doing this with a minimum of Russian casualties. That means inspiring the Syrian military, the Hezbollah militia and Iranian mercenaries to do most of the dangerous work on the ground. The Assads don’t much care if there are civilian casualties because that has never been an issue with the Assads. If you are supporting the rebels or simply too close you are in danger and your safest option is to run.

For the West the major negative to all this is that the Russian effort is largely in support of the Assad government which is seen in the region as treacherous and oppressive and why there has been a civil war in Syria since 2011. But since ISIL showed up in 2013 it’s been a three-way civil war between the Assads, ISIL rebels and non-ISIL rebels all fighting each other. Russia and Iran (long-time Assad backers) have always sought to make the war mainly about destroying ISIL, not the Assads. Some Arab countries have been willing to support this, seeing ISIL as the greater threat. Russia is also willing to support a plan to split Syria up and leave the Assads in control of their “heartland” (the area from Damascus to the coast.) This idea has proved to be very hard to sell so far but a Russian victory may change that.

Russia now has troops at the Syrian naval base in Tartus as well as an airbase near the port city of Latakia (85 kilometers north of Tartus). The Russians are expanding airbase and port facilities. In effect all this help Russia is reinforcing the Assad heartland along the coast. In addition to warplanes and helicopters (both transport and gunships), there also appear to be anti-aircraft and artillery missile systems. Syria provides Russia with an opportunity to test many of their new guided bombs, rockets and missiles under combat conditions. The spetsnaz are expected to carry out raids (via helicopter), mainly to collect intelligence (documents, prisoners, electronics). Russian officials are already talking about shifting Russian troops (especially volunteers) from the Ukrainian border (Russia still does not admit it has troops in Ukraine) for duty in Syria. Russia actually has very few combat ready troops. There are less than 100,000 of them and most are tied down in the Caucasus, Ukraine and in the strategic reserve. Russia does not like to mess with the strategic reserve, which is considered essential for unexpected threats to the homeland. Thus about half the combat ready troops are kept in the reserve and regularly sent into combat zones in order to give other units some rest and recuperation time in the reserve. Troops in strategic reserve train a lot, get used to new weapons and equipment and integrate new recruits into units. Strategic reserve troops are also available for parades and other publicity related event. 

Turkey is threatening to shoot down Russian warplanes that continue to slip in and out of Turkish air space. Russia takes that threat seriously and apologized for several recent incidents which appear to have been accidental. Russia says bad weather was at fault but the main problem is Syrian rebels operating close to the Turkish border and often crossing it unexpectedly. The Russian pilots will often lose track of the border when going after rebels who may have recently slipped across the border. There is another element in all this. Russia and Turkey are ancient enemies and Turkish public opinion backs using violence against Russian incursions, even accidental ones. Russia is only launching twenty or so sorties a day. That number is increasing (to a hundred or more a day in a month or so) but pilots are ordered to ensure that every sortie counts. This is especially true because the Russians have a big advantage over NATO here as the Syrian Army has lots of personnel who can speak Russian and are familiar with the procedures for calling in air strikes. So when the Russian pilots get a call for air support they know it is a confirmed target and the morale of the troops down there will soar if the Russian fighter-bombers can get the job done. This is what the Russian pilots are under orders to do. Russia could simply avoid rebels near the border but they know that the rebels would quickly exploit that.

Ukraine continues to issue well documented reports proving that Russian troops are in eastern Ukraine (Donbas). At the same time Ukraine admits that they see less pressure from Russian forces in Donbas and attribute this to Russia shifting its attention to Syria. For example, rebels are pulling their heavy weapons (tanks and artillery) back from the frontline, an overdue action mandated (but often ignored) by the current ceasefire. Ukrainian forces responded by pulling their heavy weapons back as well.  There is a lot of bad news for Ukraine as well. The anti-corruption effort is still not making much progress and neither is the economy. Now NATO has told Ukraine that there is not enough support in Western Europe and North America for providing Ukraine as much military aid as Ukraine believes it needs to deal with Russian aggression. In other words Ukraine is being told to make whatever deal they can with Russia because without a major Russian invasion the voters in NATO nations will not support the kind of help Ukraine wants.

Russians are finally getting some good news. The inflation rate seems to have stopped growing and has been stuck at about 15 percent for a year now. The ruble is not getting any weaker (against foreign currencies). It is currently 65 rubles per dollar. A year ago the value of the Russian ruble fell to a record low (38.8 rubles per dollar) and continued to decline. Russian, and foreign, investors were alarmed at the impact of the sanctions and the lower oil price on the Russian economy and the ruble/dollar exchange rate is a major indicator. But over the last few months the ruble has stabilized or even gained a little. Yet the economy, and GDP, is still shrinking just more slowly. Unemployment continues to increase and managers concentrate on survival not expansion plans. 

October 5, 2015: Ukraine revealed that 16,000 soldiers had deserted since early 2014. Some of these men took their weapons with them and those cases are the ones most likely to be prosecuted. This is not a particularly high number of deserters considering the large number of volunteers, reservists and conscripts put into uniform in the last 18 months. For many of these men that initial enthusiasm quickly dissipated when they reached the front lines in east Ukraine. Russia appears to have suffered a similar percentage (over ten percent) of desertions among troops sent into Ukraine. The Russian backed rebels out there suffered even higher desertion rates. In Ukraine, as in Russia, even more men are avoiding conscription via bribes or simply disappearing (often leaving the country).

October 2, 2015: In the south (Chechnya) police arrested a new ISIL recruit and two ISIL supporters. The local police are locals and Moslem.

October 1, 2015: The Baltic States (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia) have called on the UN to say (and do) something about the continuing Russian threats and interference in the internal affairs of the Baltic States. These three countries are also NATO members and want NATO to more forcibly proclaim that NATO would indeed invoke the mutual defense clause of the NATO treaty and come to the aid of any of the Baltic States attacked by Russia. At the moment Russia seems distracted by its Syrian operations but these three countries have been threatened (and often occupied) by Russia frequently in the last thousand years and don’t see that changing anytime soon. The Baltic States are alarmed (but not giving out details) about recent NATO planning sessions that concluded the Russians could, if they mustered most of their combat ready forces in the Baltic region, take the Baltic States before NATO reinforcements could stop the invasion.

September 30, 2015: Russia told foreign nations (especially NATO) to keep its aircraft out of Syrian air space. NATO refused and continued air operations over Syria as did Arab members of the American led air coalition. Russian warplanes also began their daily strikes on ground targets today.

September 22, 2015: Some Syrians have reported seeing Russian UAVs flying surveillance missions in western Syria.

September 21, 2015: Israel and Russia reached an agreement on how to avoid military clashes in Syria. In short, Russia recognizes the Israeli need to stop Iran or Syria from transferring weapons to Hezbollah. Thus Russia says it will not interfere with Israeli aircraft or ground forces attacking attempts to make such transfers. Israeli warplanes have also been used to retaliate against rebel and Syrian forces for incidents where bullets, rockets or shells from Syria landed in Israel. Russia will also leave these actions alone. Israeli warplanes have made dozens of attacks in Syria since 2013, several of them to destroy Russian weapons being moved to Lebanon (by Hezbollah). Israel made it clear that it could not back off on using air power to protect their Syrian and Lebanese borders and Russia said it understood that and did not want any problems over this issue. Apparently the two nations have set up a procedure to keep each other informed when Russian and Israeli warplanes or ground forces might encounter each other.

September 20, 2015: In Damascus an unidentified rebel group managed to fire some mortar shells at the Russian embassy. One of these shells landed inside the embassy compound but caused no casualties. Russia and the UN protested the attack.

September 17, 2015: Israeli and Russian diplomats began quietly trying to work out an arrangement regarding the recent Russian military buildup in Syria.





Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contribute. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   contribute   Close