Despite the reported success of Russia’s first airstrikes against ISIS and the morale boost for the Syrian army, it remains to be seen how long the Russian campaign in Syria will be viable.
A soldier of the Syrian Arab Army on the position in the mountains of Latakia province. Photo: TASS
Russia’s aerial operation in Syria, ongoing since Sept. 30, has thus far been a triumph for the Russian military. The actions of Russia’s pilots, the unexpected use of pinpoint cruise missiles, and the coordination with Syrian ground forces are all contrasted in the Russian press with the protracted and ineffective campaign waged by Western allies against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS).
The West is up in arms, so to speak, over Russia's intervention, and is reluctant to agree to even a minimal level of cooperation. Moreover, since the early days of Russia’s military involvement in the Syrian civil conflict, both Moscow and the West have been engaged in a major information war.
While the Kremlin tries to demonstrate the combat readiness of its troops, most Western politicians and media continue to question Russia’s involvement and chances of success. In any event, it is still too early to judge whether Russia will be able to restore stability in Syria and dislodge ISIS.
In the meantime, the contours of the parallel information war are emerging, and the seemingly illogical actions of Western and Middle Eastern politicians can also be mentioned. At the same time, the tactics of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his allies in Tehran and Moscow have become clear.
The reasons behind the timing of Russia’s Syria campaign
For Moscow, direct intervention in the Syrian conflict was a forced measure. Having lost control of his country’s oilfields, and without external support, Assad was doomed. Even substantial military aid from Russia and Iran was not enough to reverse the situation in which he found himself.
Even though infighting broke out among his opponents, it did not help his army regain control of many key regions. Syrian government troops suffered heavy losses and saw their territory shrink.
Although all eyes are on the flood of migrants into Europe, it should not be forgotten that even more Syrians are internally displaced in their own country, and that the Assad government has to feed about 3.5 million victims of the humanitarian catastrophe. Victory for the Syrian government will help to return at least some of them to their homes.
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Why Russia’s campaign in Syria is deemed a success so far
Whenever the Russian Defense Ministry reports a success in Syria, the question arises as to how such a relatively small force can achieve this. Why was the West unable to do the same in Iraq and Syria?
The answer is simple: the West is not operating on friendly soil. In Syria, NATO has no real support. And Iraq, driven by internal strife after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, is a poor ally even when it comes to liberating its own territory.
Meanwhile, it is clear that the Russian military operation in Syria is based on data received from the intelligence agencies of Damascus and Tehran, which is also actively involved in supporting Assad militarily. In the past few months, Syrian and Iranian intelligence have gathered a vast amount of information on ISIS strongholds as well as bases and industrial enterprises under Islamist control.
What’s more, Russia’s allies have had time to coordinate the ground operation. Thus, in contrast to the demoralized Iraqi army, both the Syrian military and their Iranian allies from the Revolutionary Guard Corps (Tehran officially denies the latter’s involvement) know precisely what (and why) they are fighting.
After several weeks of powerful air support and engagement of Russian attack aircraft in the ground operation, forces loyal to Assad are now regaining control of their country.
Another reason for Russia’s aerial success is its superbly trained pilots and modern weaponry, particularly air-to-ground missiles.
The planes themselves, however, are not Russia’s best. The SU-34 and the SU-30SM, whose initial involvement in the operation was not foreseen, belong to the generation of aircraft that began to be developed during the Soviet era.
For the SU-34, which is set to replace the SU-24 in the medium term, Syria is a showroom environment, since unlike other pieces of Russian aerial hardware, it has been engaged in combat only once before.
Russian Air Forces Mi-24 helicopter flying over the Hmeimim airbase. Photo: RIA
Thus, the quality of pilot training and high-precision weaponry is one of the reasons behind the successful operation. At the same time, Russia has had an opportunity to test upgraded versions of various high-precision missiles in combat conditions and demonstrate their effectiveness to the world.
With that in mind, most experts believe that the launch of a long-range SS-N-30A Kalibr missile from the Caspian Sea was intended to show that Russian projectiles are in no way inferior to the U.S. Tomahawk, and, more importantly, to demonstrate the ability to coordinate the flight path of multiple missiles on route to a single target.
Losses will not stop the Kremlin
Despite the risks, any losses (downed aircraft or captured Russian pilots) are unlikely to halt Russia at this stage. For the time being, the operation appears to be going according to plan. The Syrian army has retaken Mansura and Lahai, is displacing militants from the suburbs of Damascus, and is preparing to storm Aleppo.
Clearly, Russia’s ultimate goal is to allow Assad to regain control over at least some of Syria’s oilfields and to expand the government-controlled section of the Syrian-Turkish border. That will enable Damascus to start selling oil again, something it has long been unable to do.
It should be noted that ISIS currently controls not only oil rigs, but also numerous refineries built under Assad’s father. The militants sell oil products at below-market prices, exporting them by road through Turkey and other countries.
Russia’s military campaign in Syria undoubtedly puts this lucrative business in jeopardy, which was even reflected in a rise in oil prices in the first half of October. However, as long as there is a chance of returning the oil facilities to Damascus, the option of bombing them is not on the table.
In any case, an attack on ISIS-held oil facilities would provoke a wave of indignation in the West, which would immediately blame Russia for causing an ecological disaster and killing civilians forced to work for ISIS to feed their families.
But the Russian military might hear such accusations anyway. After all, the Islamists would not give up their oil installations without a fight, and if forced to retreat they would surely try to blow them up. That could be followed by claims that the Russian Air Force had destroyed the infrastructure at huge cost to the environment, paving the way for the army of the "dictator Assad."
The implications of Russia’s Syria campaign on the refugee crisis
One of the most serious problems for Moscow in its effort to assist Damascus is the lack of support its faces not only in the West, but also in Syria’s neighbors, although one might have expected the latter to welcome any concrete steps to stabilize the situation in the region.
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As noted above, not all refugees are streaming into Europe. That is a distant and expensive destination. Most have settled in Turkey, which is now home to more than 1.8 million, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Damascus, Riyadh, Ankara and Amman have all had to provide the necessities of life for millions of people.
A successful offensive by government troops in Syria could solve the main task of restoring supply lines and returning at least some of the migrants home, which would significantly relieve the burden on the Assad regime and the economies of its neighbors.
Moreover, if sending Europe-bound refugees back proves problematic, at least some of those currently in refugee camps near the Syrian border will, perhaps, be able to return home of their own accord.
According to Middle East expert and assistant professor of St. Petersburg State University Alexander Sotnichenko, in the context of the refugee crisis the position of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems odd, since he had previously supported the moderate Islamists in Syria, hoping to reel Damascus into Ankara’s sphere of influence.
All the political groups with which Turkey has so far collaborated have effectively departed the political scene in Syria. Radical Islamists, who have already bombed Turkish cities and pose a risk to the country’s wider stability, now threaten Turkey’s borders. That being the case, Ankara’s condemnation of Moscow and threats to freeze economic ties with Russia sound very strange, says Sotnichenko.
Russia’s operation entails significant economic costs
For all that, Russia’s operation is no panacea. Even if one assumes that with Moscow’s support Assad can regain control over the country by military and diplomatic means within the next 12-18 months, Syria has already lost much of its industrial infrastructure, and no one knows how much more will be destroyed as the fighting goes on. Estimates of the damage done to the Syrian economy vary significantly. The Assad government tends to downplay the losses, while the opposition prefers to overstate them.
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Meanwhile, the World Bank’s damage assessment comes to around $170 billion. In any event, the fight to regain control of Syria will entail enormous devastation, including the destruction of refining and agricultural infrastructure.
Assad will hardly be able to restore the economy without outside assistance, primarily from Moscow and Tehran. At best, the Russian operation will restore some degree of order and stability in the war-torn areas of Syria.
It will take many years before Syrians can once again live and work in peace. Probably no more than half, if that, of those who have fled the country will go back. Most likely they will become a burden to Europe’s social security system. The problem, however, is that Russia will now share the blame with Western countries for the rise in the number of refugees, regardless of its success in stabilizing the situation in Syria.
Anticipating such an outcome, Moscow was never counting on the support of Brussels and Washington anyway. Regrettably, the wellbeing of millions of Syrians, which would be much easier to ensure through cooperation, has been sacrificed on the altar of political ambitions on both sides.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.