Russia’s military in Syria has had only limited success in reclaiming territory lost to ISIS. More importantly, the costly campaign still has not led to the West’s desire to cooperate with Moscow in either the Middle East or Ukraine.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visits Hmeymim air base in Syria, June 18, 2016. Photo: Reuters
Russia continues to tout its military success in Syria, even as clear signs of this become harder to find. On July 15, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu said that the operations of Russian Air and Space Forces (ASF) in Syria have “turned the tide in favor of the legitimate government of Syria.”
“As a result of Russian air activity, the supplies coming to the terrorists have been interrupted, and in some places completely blocked,” said Shoigu. The minister also said that during operations in Syria, the Russian ASF eliminated more than 2,000 émigré-terrorists from Russia, including 17 field commanders. Moreover, with the support of the Air and Space Forces, more than 12,000 square kilometers (4,633 square miles) and 150 cities have been liberated in Syria.
Despite the fact that the withdrawal of Russian troops from Syria officially began four months ago, Moscow continues to incur losses in the region. Thus, on July 8 the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) shot down a helicopter near Palmyra, killing two Russian pilots. Thirteen Russian soldiers dead is now the official price of the Kremlin’s Syrian adventure.
Spectacular bombings and a “contactless” war have not achieved the desired goals. Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime has moved from a near-death condition to a “serious but stable” condition. It now even tries going on the offensive, sometimes achieving tactical successes, but a radical breakthrough seems far away.
The “contactless war” had ceased to be so, less than one month after it started. The first victim became a Russian aircraft mechanic who allegedly committed suicide last October at the Khmeimim Airbase. Since then, the list of those killed has grown, almost monthly, to include officers, pilots, security guards and contract soldiers.
All this points to the fact that the Russian military is quite active both in the air and on the ground. As the list of losses keeps growing, so does the death toll.
The Russian military presence in Syria is a fact. It is the sole source of strength keeping the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) from disintegration, and the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad from falling. As Stanislav Byshok, a political analyst at the international monitoring organization CIS-EMO argues, back in September, “The central government in Syria had, according to different estimates, around two weeks left to exist.” By summer 2016 Damascus had shifted from agony to a “serious but stable” condition. However, “there are still no chances for Assad to survive without foreign help,” states military expert Aleksandr Khomchikhin.
Yet, the SAA in 2016 and in 2010 are two completely different entities. In six years, a relatively well-armed and centralized 250,000-strong army has been cut in half, to just 125,000, as a result of losses and defections of Sunnis. Moreover, 30 percent of its armor has been destroyed. Just a few elite units are actually able to advance today – the Tigers, the Desert Falcons, a marine brigade and some of the old mechanized brigades. They act as fire brigades and shock troops.
Damascus has a limited mobile reserve, including marines from the Latakia Mountains, who were transferred from hundreds of kilometers away in June to attack Palmyra, and then to Al-Raqqah, together with the Falcons. In the spring, the Tigers from Aleppo were sent to the breach near Palmyra, as well as to Al-Raqqah. The Hezbollah are fighting really well (some of which were withdrawn after the limited ceasefire was announced), as are the Iraqi and Iranian units in the alliance. The militias and the less-motivated SAA units that remain are assigned to hold the front and protect cities.
This amalgamation of military units is hard to manage, and they often enter into conflict with each other and the center. The Russian military units active in Syria have been trying to organize this mess since October 2015, and not always successfully. According to some reports, the weak combat capability of the SAA often leads to conflicts between the Russian “facilitators” and the Iranians and officers of the SAA.
Also read: "The invisible Russian military presence in Syria"
The Russians not only work in the headquarters and train the Syrians to carry out air strikes, but also work with them on the ground to service conventional and rocket artillery, and even armored vehicles. Meanwhile, new weapon systems and military vehicles – including howitzers and tanks - continue to be spotted. In a segment that aired on Russia Today featuring Vladimir Putin's meeting with the Ministry of Defense leadership in November 2015, the military map of the city of Mahin included the 5th Howitzer Battery of the 120th Guards Artillery Brigade.
Entire units, rather than individual “advisers,” are being sent to Syria. Starting in the winter of 2015-2016, reports came out about Russian T-90 tanks near Aleppo. On the Internet, it’s possible to find photos of Russian military equipment, including armored trucks, jeeps, and new weapons systems. Across the social networks, there are careless postings of photos of Russian soldiers and officers against the background of Syrian troops, equipment and scenery, making it easier to geo-locate them.
The successes of the SAA and its allies in September were tactical only; geographically, they are insignificant. Any gains are fleeting at best, according to Yakov Freedman, an Israeli expert on the Middle East. Sergey Balmasov, expert of the Middle East Institute at the Russian International Affairs Council, echoes his view: “For now, we are seeing only local successes.” In Aleppo, the unblocking of the Kweiris Airbase and the joining (with the help of Hezbollah and Russian tank commanders) of the Shiite enclaves of Nabbul and Zahra and the Kurdish canton of Afrin, closed the most convenient supply line of the rebels coming from Turkey to the province of Idlib.
In Latakia, troops almost reached the Turkish border, but their progress was stalled. After that, since an uneasy ceasefire in March was announced, the SAA has focused on fighting against ISIS. In April, Palmyra was liberated, as was the Christian city of Al-Qaryatayn, standing in the middle of the Damascus-Palmyra road.
The urgent task for Damascus is the offensive from Palmyra towards the city of Deir ez-Zor, which has been struggling to defend itself for more than a year after being surrounded by ISIS. On the way to this city are the rich natural gas fields that were seized from the government by Islamists in the spring and summer of 2015. By June 13, loyalists, with the support of Russian planes, helicopters and advisors, reached the Arak Field and the T-3 Airbase, 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) from Palmyra, but then were pushed back.
At the same time, on May 5, ISIS seized one of the last government-controlled gas fields to the northwest of Palmyra – Shaer. On July 12 Tu-22M3 bombers were heavily bombing the T-3 Airbase and Arak and this means that an offensive is about to begin towards the east. This is also a sign that Russia is for now ready to support Assad from its own territory if necessary. At the moment, sides are clashing in counterstrikes – both are trying to carry out offensives. The fact that it was there that the Russian pilots were killed, speaks about the intensity of the fighting there. The SAA also needs to take into account the unfortunate experience of their counterparts to the north, which did not succeed on the path to Al-Raqqah, even with Russian air support.
The offensive against the Al-Tabqa Airbase, which is 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) from the “capital” of the caliphate, ended in an ignominious defeat. By June 19, the loyalists were 7 kilometers (4.3 miles) from the target, and seemed to be quickly seizing the initiative from the pro-American Arab-Kurdish coalition in possession of Al-Raqqah.
However, the offensive, although accompanied by the support of Russian military advisers, Mi-28 and Ka-52 attack helicopters and air strikes, carelessly moved along the highway, leaving its flanks exposed. When loyalists advanced far enough, they were cut off from the “mainland” and were destroyed by combined attacks of suicide bombers and mobile groups with armored vehicles and pickups armed with guns. The Desert Falcons fled from their positions, the chief of staff of the 10th Mechanized Division was killed, and ISIS published photos allegedly showing Russian troops killed in the battle and the remains of an artillery tractor. By June 22, after losing as many as 100 people, the SAA had retreated to a position held six months before – the town of Atreya. The initially dashing offensive that turned out to be a defeat was witnessed by Russian military journalist Roman Saponkov, who himself nearly found himself in the encirclement of forces. A new offensive against Al-Raqqah is excluded in the near future. On the contrary, as military expert Vladimir Prokhatilov thinks, there is a re-emergence of the threat on the only road to Aleppo.
The latest ongoing offensive of the SAA is an attempt to cut the only supply path of opponents of Assad in Damascus – the Al-Castello Road. Thanks to the transfer of the Tigers, Russian aircraft and armored vehicles, they succeeded – the road had finally been cut.
However, there were some negative developments. In April, in the area of Al-Mallah (the “bottleneck”), the militants of the Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki, an independent insurgent group friendly to Al-Nusra, during the first, unsuccessful attempt, captured the latest Russian T-90A tank, which was abandoned by its crew. In May it was sold to Al-Nusra for $500,000. The Russian ASF has been currently unsuccessfully trying to find and destroy it.
A second attempt to cut the route is taking place right now – the block station on the road was captured, passing under the control of the SAA. The eastern areas are in fact already in a blockade and the possibility of a humanitarian crisis emerging is growing, says Rami Abdul Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. However, loyalists cannot yet celebrate their victory: the wedge that cut the rebels from the supply route can itself turn into a trap. The SAA is trying to take a further step into the city and in the direction of Anadan Valley, where all the neighboring cities are located. If they are taken, the rebels’ days in the former economic capital of Syria will be over. For now, the success near the Al-Castello Road is operational, rather than tactical.
However, the optimistic reports of recent offensives should not mislead anyone. Spectacular bombings are reminiscent of the old “shock and awe” tactics of Western military interventions in the Middle East. However, these bombings cost a lot of money, and at least two soldier deaths per month outside of Russia. According to Denis Volkov of the Levada Moscow Center, notwithstanding the media’s glorification of those who lost their lives in Syria, members of the public in Russia “do not prefer such kind of heroism.” This is not to mention the losses suffered by Russian private military companies (PMCs). According to some sources, they have lost tens or even hundreds of men. Officially, however, these contract soldiers simply do not exist in a country where “mercenaries” are illegal. Recent unfortunate episodes involving these paramilitary formations are still fresh in the minds of many, and there is obviously little desire to open up fresh wounds that date back to the Ukraine crisis.
The costly Syrian adventure has not yet achieved any of its stated goals, despite assurances from Kremlin’s experts and propagandists. Russians still have not understood the motives behind it. The military campaign has not helped Moscow when it comes to reconciliation and cooperation with the West. There is no cooperation, and if it is offered, it will be in exchange for Assad’s departure. Thus, when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry recently arrived in Moscow with a proposal to coordinate fighting against ISIS and Al-Nusra, it most likely included a provision for Assad to depart the scene.
The SAA is advancing in one place and retreating in another. Cities that are painstakingly liberated are later surrendered. The front is unstable at best and success is fleeting. In the coming months, if Damascus does not achieve strategic successes in Aleppo, Palmyra and Al-Raqqah, the Kremlin’s attitude to providing support to Assad may change, even to the point of shutting off support entirely. However, how and when this assistance will end, depends on just one person.