Although the campaign in Syria is officially over, Russian military personnel remain in the country and their number is unlikely to decrease significantly in the future.
Specialists and military equipment of the Russian Armed Forces' International Mine Action Center prepared to be sent to the Syrian city of Palmyra from the Hmeimim airbase. Photo: TASS
Questions continue to surround the Russian military presence in Syria, especially given the new diplomatic overtures from the U.S. that appear to recognize the role of Russia military power in changing the strategic dimensions of the conflict. On July 14, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry were scheduled to meet to discuss a new U.S. offer that might entail greater military coordination between the two powers.
This new flurry of diplomatic activity several questions: What is actually happening in Syria? How strong will further Russian military support to Syria be? And who is actually fighting on the ground for Russia?
Officially, of course, Russia has no real military presence in Syria. On March 14, Vladimir Putin declared that the Russian military had successfully fulfilled its task in Syria and ordered the withdrawal of the main part of the Russian Aerospace Forces from the country. The first jets left Syria the next day.
However, it soon became clear that the Russian military continued to take an active part in the Syrian conflict. Moreover, the Russian armed forces in Syria started to suffer losses, including the loss of military personnel. In the four months after the decision to withdraw part of its military from Syria, Moscow lost eight servicemen (two non-combat losses). In contrast, during the “active stage” of the operation from September 30, 2015 to March 14, 2016 it lost only five (one non-combat loss).
What Russia accomplished in Syria before the withdrawal
The Russian campaign in Syria clearly demonstrated the strong military capabilities of the Russian Aerospace Forces and their ability to be rapidly deployed. No doubt, Moscow's fast reaction to the events in Syria in September 2015 rescued Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his government and even turned the tide of war.
Moreover, the Kremlin succeeded in reaching a fragile truce in the region between the Kurds, the secular opposition and Damascus. In this light, many were taken by surprise when the Russian president decided in March to withdraw a major part of the military from Syria and declared that, “The tasks the military had to implement were generally accomplished.”
However, if the Russian military continues to be actively involved in the Syrian conflict, then it is logical to ask: Why did the Kremlin need to declare a withdrawal of its forces? In hindsight, it looks especially strange given that the war was still ongoing, and the Syrian Army was not that successful on the battlefield.
Despite that, Russia indeed accomplished all the tasks it had in Syria during its first part of the military campaign.
First, the West had to de facto acknowledge Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and let his delegation sit at the negotiation table.
Second, the conflicting sides reached a truce that envisions some sort of coordination between the moderate opposition, the government and the Kurds.
Third, the Russian Aerospace Forces trained for operational deployment to Syrian air bases and, thus, now can easily be redeployed at short notice.
Fourth, by launching its state-of-the-art, high-precision Kalibr cruise missiles from the Mediterranean, Russia demonstrated its ability to support Damascus with strikes from its own territory.
And fifth, there was no better moment for Moscow to announce the successful accomplishment of its tasks in Syria than in March 2016. With Russian military support, the Syrian Army liberated Palmyra, a city with tremendous significance for the world’s heritage. This was a city that had been continuously destroyed by the radical Islamists. That victory was extensively covered by the Russian media and was meant to underline the effectiveness of Russian support to Assad for the international community.
At the same time, it became quite obvious that Russian military were still in Syria. Moreover, after two Russian helicopter pilots were killed near Palmyra on July 8, we know that some Russians are still operating Syrian machines on or near the battlefield. The incident with the downed MI-25 helicopter on July 8 still sparks discussions whether it belonged to the Russian or Syrian Air Forces.
Even before Putin’s announcement of a partial withdrawal from Syria, Western and Russian media started to speculate about Russia using ground troops there. It came despite the fact that Kremlin framed the Syria campaign as a purely aerial operation without the need for boots on the ground.
But we should not forget two very important factors. First, Putin declared that only the major part of the Aerospace Forces in Syria would be withdrawn – not the entire Russian military contingent that is located at the Hmeymim and Tartus bases.
Second, an agreement on military assistance between Russia and Syria suggests that Moscow can send a number of instructors and military advisors necessary for the Syrian military to learn how to operate new weapons and for training its personnel. In fact, that allows Russia to send its military to Syria in quite large numbers.
A long history of military advisors in Syria
Syria is no stranger to the use of military advisors. During the Cold War, a group of “Soviet military specialists” emerged in Syria as early as 1956. According to U.S. sources, at the beginning of the 1980s, this group amounted to as many as 8,000 people. The General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation admits that during the period from 1956-1991, 16,000 military men served in Syria and only 44 of them were killed or died from disease. In fact, these Soviet soldiers were involved in all kinds of activities, from training infantry units to maintaining Syrian aviation.
A large apparatus of military specialists remained in Syria after the breakup of the Soviet Union. It was only in 2013 – when the civil war in Syria was already going on – when Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs officially declared that there were no remaining Russian soldiers in the country.
Thus, Russia has an extensive experience of military cooperation with Syria. It is evident that once again, just as it was in the Soviet era, Russian advisors are training the Syrian army and consulting the officers serving Bashar al-Assad. This is being done within the framework of bilateral agreements in military-technical cooperation, not the Russian military operation in the country that is, however, still in progress.
In retaliation for the downing of Russian helicopters, six Tu-22M3 strategic bombers (known as “Backfire” bombers by NATO) flying from Russian territory hit the positions of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS). Even though, according to some expert assessments, this was first and foremost aimed to demonstrate Russia’s power (Russia’s tactical aviation that remained in Syria is able to address more specific tasks), it also showed that, if necessary, Moscow can provide the government in Syria with effective support from its own territory within hours.
The military conflict in Syria and Iraq has been in place for a long time. Without a doubt, it is not possible to resolve it quickly. Radical Islamists might lose battles and towns and retreat, but, unfortunately, their ideas are quite popular in the Middle East. Alas, the Assad regime, however unpopular in the West, still remains the only real alternative to a terrorist state and, as opposed to Brussels and Washington, Moscow thinks pragmatically of supporting the real political power, not the highly disconnected groups of the “moderate democratic opposition.”
Unfortunately, such support means paying with the lives of Russian soldiers. Specialists, instructors or advisors – all of them, in one way or another, are strengthening the effectiveness of Syrian pro-government forces and are likely to remain in the region for a long time. Islamic radicals see no difference between “combatants” and “non-combatants” and the fate of soldiers that fall into their hands will be unenviable in any case.
The number of military personnel sent to Syria is unlikely to decrease significantly, though their presence there will not be widely visible. The Russian Aerospace Forces will also continue their work in the country as the Syrian Army will continue to need them to carry out the offensive against the positions of the radical Islamic groups.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.