Essay: Russia’s Military Role in Syria

November 13, 2015 4:39 AM - Updated: November 12, 2015 7:33 PM
Screen grab from Syrian State Television
Screen grab from Syrian State Television

The deployment of a major Russian expeditionary force to Syria in late September resulted in a flurry of public attention and heated rumors.

Pro-Syrian regime sources spoke of a massive offensive against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL) that would put the long-frustrated U.S. and coalition effort to shame. Many worried that Russia would flood Syria with new interceptors, such as the Mikoyan MiG-31, or the latest generation of surface-to-air missile systems (Syria’s long-rumored order of MiG-31s remains unfilled, and the Buk and Pantsir surface-to-air missiles defending Russia’s base do not do much more than Syria’s own Buk and Pantsir systems to improve the regime’s air defense capabilities). Even rumors involving Russia’s sole Typhoon-class ballistic-missile submarine and aircraft carrier entered the mix.

Now that the pace and intensity of rumors about Russia’s involvement and Syria have cooled, it is easier to discern the intent and scope of Russia’s overt military intervention in the Syrian conflict. Amidst a highly publicized effort to demonstrate new capabilities of Russia’s aerospace and naval forces, Russia is attempting to restore the Syrian regime’s long-decayed air power and providing piecemeal support to its ground offensives to secure the regime against rebel forces enjoying unprecedented battlefield success. Although Russia’s Syrian expedition evokes the triumphant performance of a traditional great power role, its military success is beholden to the same grueling logic of guerrilla and civil war that has stymied so many technologically-advanced counterinsurgents in the past.

Reviving Regime Airpower

Russia’s highest profile contribution is its deployment of fixed-wing aircraft primarily engaged in strikes on static positions and structures belonging to Syrian opposition forces. While Russia has strong political incentives to portray these strikes as being focused on ISIS, both in terms of legitimizing its intervention and shifting popular discourse about the intentions of Syrian opposition groups, only a small percentage of its airstrikes so far could be credibly interpreted as aimed at these organizations. The types of sorties these fixed-wing aircraft have conducted are not a revolutionary introduction to the battle between the Bashar al-Assad’s regime, its allies, and the Syrian opposition. The Syrian Arab Air Force frequently performed similar missions, often with similar airframes. SyAAF aircraft, however, have suffered from the inevitable fatigue from years of combat operations. The regime has lost much of its pre-war air power through the loss of aircraft to rebel anti-aircraft fire and mechanical failure. The cost of fuel, defection of aircrews, shortages of spare parts, and depletion of munitions stocks also limit the number of viable aircraft and rates of sortie generation available to the regime. On top of this, rebel forces and ISIS have seized multiple military airfields.

On balance, Russia’s aircraft are in better condition than Syrian counterparts and some, such as the Sukhoi Su-34 Fullback bomber, far surpass anything available in the Syrian arsenal. But the simple introduction of dozens of aircraft and aircrews untouched by years of fatiguing combat operations on its own reinvigorated the regime’s aerial capabilities after years of attrition. Although the Su-34s, Russian precision-guided munitions, and previously unseen weapons such as the Kalibir sea-launched cruise missile surpass regime capabilities, the presence of large numbers of Su-25 and Su-24 aircraft in the Russian expeditionary force suggests restoring old regime capabilities is as important to the operation as introducing new ones.

There is a fierce debate among military analysts as to whether or not Russia’s actions are meeting competitor expectations, one that inevitably confounds the broader international debate about the balance of power between Russia and the West and the merit and efficacy of their Syrian policies. In Russia’s initial airstrikes, many focused on the country’s clear demonstration of commitment to its preferred party in the conflict, while others focused on the shortcomings of Russia’s limited ability to employ precision-guided munitions. When Russia launched Kalibir cruise missiles, some emphasized the range of the missiles was a previously unseen capability, while others noted that the range of the launch from corvettes in the landlocked Caspian Sea was a necessity since none of Russia’s other ships could do so.

Although the comparisons between the Russian intervention and the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition are inevitable, it is important to highlight the fundamentally different circumstances shaping these operations. A comparison of their sortie rates in Syria is one crucial example. Many worry that Russia’s air force, conducting up to 96 sorties daily, is far outpacing the anti-ISIS coalition. Russia does enjoy some advantages in sortie generation relative to the coalition. Russia’s aircraft operate from within Syria itself, and the overwhelming majority of their targets are within 300 kilometers of the aircrafts’ takeoff points. The coalition, on the other hand, fly strike aircraft from airbases or carriers outside Iraq and Syria. Unlike ISIS, with a far-flung constellation of holdings between Iraq and Syria, the Syrian rebel groups are concentrated in the more densely populated corridor of western Syria. While coalition aircraft have always primarily been engaged in Iraq, Russia can focus the entirety of its operations in a relatively geographically constrained area. Because of how closely Russia works with regime ground forces and the regime’s disregard for civilian casualties, the availability of ISR and rules of engagement bear far differently on Russian strike sorties than on coalition ones.

Making It Count On The Ground?

Russian troops arm a strike fighter. Russian Military Photo
Russian troops arm a strike fighter. Russian Military Photo

Amid all the emphasis on Russian military performance relative to the West and its technical capabilities, the effect of these actions on the ground war remains the ultimate metric for their efficacy. As with many other interventions by a technologically superior force against an insurgent foe, some accounts focus on alleged leadership attrition among rebel ranks. Of course, as observers know from the grueling U.S. targeted-killing campaign in Afghanistan and Pakistan, decapitation is no surefire guarantee of incapacitating an organization or success on the battlefield. The increasing use of coalition models multiplies the scope of a decapitation campaign. Not only that, but neither Russia nor its allies have the kind of persistent information, surveillance and reconnaissance capability or precision-guided munitions stocks sufficient to engage in a prolonged attempt to destroy rebel leadership.

Despite the employment of a few advanced systems such as the Su-34 and its satellite-guided bombs or the sea-launched cruise missiles, a modicum of 21st-century precision systems cannot avoid the inescapable reality of conventional air power’s limited effects against insurgents in a civil war. The primary burden of seizing and denying territory to rebel groups still falls to the regime and its allies ground forces. The Syrian Arab Army and supporting militias launched several major offensives, focused on pushing back rebel lines in Hama and Idlib and capturing rebel positions in and around Aleppo. Whatever effect Russian airstrikes had, it was not enough to sever rebel lines of communication or degrade their access to munitions.

Launches of TOW antitank missiles, covertly provided to U.S.-vetted groups, have been orders of magnitude more frequent since the Russian intervention. While Russian support may have increased the confidence of the SAA and its partners, it has not inculcated more sophisticated planning or doctrine. Consequently, the Hama offensive’s limited gains came at a cost of dozens of armored vehicles, and the regime even lost territory in some areas.

In Aleppo, ISIS demonstrated that the relative sprinkling of Russian sorties directed against it would not blunt its ability to raid, harass, and seize territory, as ISIS destroyed regime positions defending the Khanasser-Ithriya highway, the regime’s route into the city, in addition to opportunistically seizing territory from rebel groups northeast of the city. While the Syrian regime reportedly pushed out ISIS a week later, the vulnerability of the highway and the impermanence of regime gains elsewhere suggests the regime could face too many diversionary challenges elsewhere to consolidate recaptured territory.

The most unambiguous regime gain since the beginning of Russian airstrikes has been the regime and its allies’ relief of the embattled defenders of Kweris airbase in Aleppo. ISIS besieged the base for roughly two years, but in recent days thousands of regime regulars and Iranian-backed militias, with Russian air support, managed to open a ground line of communication. After the trouble holding territory elsewhere in Aleppo, the seizure of the base is a much-needed propaganda win. But, just as ISIS was able to use pressure on embattled Iraqi holdouts like the force at Bayji Oil Refinery to divert Iraqi troops from other targets, ISIS may be able to go on the offensive or better protect its gains elsewhere by diverting troops to clear Kweris. Despite the role of Russia in relieving the base, protecting the regime’s corridor to Kweris and its immediate environs ultimately depends on the combat effectiveness and manpower on the ground.

Russia has shown interest in providing assets to support regime ground forces beyond the telegenic fixed-wing airstrikes. Low-flying Mil Mi-24 Hind gunships frequently appear alongside regime offensives, and it appears the newest Russian deployment to the T4 (or Tiyas) airbase will be to operate attack helicopters in a part of central Syria increasingly dominated by ISIS. Russian crews operated indirect fire weapons from the ground, including BM-30 Smerch multiple launch rocket systems. The OTR-21 Tochka, a surface-to-surface ballistic missile, has reappeared in the regime’s arsenal for the first time in years. Many Russian weapons not previously seen in Assad’s arsenal at all have appeared on the front lines. As OryxBlog found, a Russian-made UR-77 mine-clearing vehicle never before seen in Syria, appeared in a Damascus suburb last October, using its linear explosive charges to attack buildings in a tactic lifted from Russian operations in Chechnya. The same site also broke the footage of Russian-speaking personnel operating BTR-82A armored personnel carriers in Latakia. Due to the risk of these rotary-wing and ground operations, they are far less likely to headline in Russian propaganda, but have more direct potential to fill key gaps in local capabilities when the regime attempts ground offensives.

Iran, which has a long-running program to support the regime, build up the NDF militias, and facilitate an influx of paramilitary volunteers from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries with Shiite populations, has paid a heavy cost in blood and treasure to shore up the regime’s ground capabilities. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) mainly relied on its elite Qods Force unit but appears to be increasingly in need of the more overt Ground Force regulars as attrition mounts. Iran has suffered losses in the IRGC’s officer ranks for virtually as long as its involvement in the war, but the increasing pace of these losses since new offensives bodes suggests the cost of stepping up the regime’s operations.

After the heavy casualties and laborious cover-up of its now-stalled ground offensive in Ukraine, Russia is well aware of the risk in this kind of ground intervention. While it might be more directly beneficial to the regime’s military operations than the aerial campaign, Iran’s involvement demonstrates that ground intervention is no panacea, and the casualties that would result could undermine Russian objectives. Even one publicly-declared death among the Russian expeditionary force has made headlines, and the prospect of more could seriously undercut the image of clean, decisive, modern warfare Russia projects in propaganda about its air campaign. As the size of Russia’s involvement grows, U.S. government sources assert combat casualties have already occurred. The openly declared nature of its Syrian expedition could make Russian casualties even more difficult to manage than those in Ukraine. So far, Russia has allayed fears of entering a Syrian quagmire through the limited nature of its ground commitment and high profile diplomatic ploys suggesting it might accept a negotiated solution on Moscow’s terms. For these purposes, symbolic gestures and information operations might suffice. But the more military resources Russia sinks in, especially in more vulnerable forms directly in support of regime ground operations, the more risky such a commitment becomes without the kind of decisive military effects on rebel forces the expeditionary force has so far been unable to produce.

Looking Forward

36cbea77ffa4ca6f5ca3cc6c1b49c40ab86ec9f4Third party interventions tend to increase the duration of civil wars, especially when they are met with counteracting interventions. Gulf Arab states quickly responded to news of increased Russian and Iranian activity by increasing their own arms shipments, suggesting the regime and its allies will continue to pay heavy costs against rebels with the right political connections and secure ground lines of communication. While the handful of Russian airstrikes against ISIS and the deployment of attack helicopters to T4 suggest some concern about ISIS, the regime’s immediate priorities suggest non-ISIS insurgents will remain the primary targets. While concerns about deconfliction may limit the pace and extent of coalition sorties in Syria, Russia and the regime have little incentive or ability to pick up their slack. Attrition to rebel and regime forces may offer ISIS more opportunities for expansion or raids to replenish stocks of military equipment. Russian emphasis on protecting areas critical to the regime in western Syria do have one silver lining for the Coalition—they are unlikely to interfere with Coalition operations to support the Syrian Kurds and Arab groups fighting ISIS in Raqqa and other parts of eastern Syria. Indeed, the YPG, never dogmatically opposed to the regime and, like many embattled insurgent groups, willing to hear out any potential backer, is not even rhetorically hostile to Russia. This should allay some concerns about U.S. Special Forces being targets for attack as they deploy to eastern Syria.

On the other hand, Russia will continue to target U.S.-vetted groups employing TOW missiles. Many have demanded the U.S. support these groups in the face of Russian airstrikes by sending man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) to Syria. Unfortunately for rebels, Russian pilots are likely well aware that MANPADS are present in Syria and have likely planned their operations accordingly, since many types of fixed-wing attack missions do not provide viable windows for MANPADS operators to engage, although Russian helicopters would be far easier targets. Although the U.S. may not want MANPADS proliferation in Syria, Gulf States and black market facilitators may have different ideas.

Ultimately, though Russia’s intervention has raised a multitude of questions, the most consequential ones for the future of Syria involve its ability to alter the military balance between the regime, rebel forces, and ISIS. Despite the propaganda blitz, Russian airpower’s counterinsurgency potential will face frustrations similar to those the United States is now well acquainted with. The key to regime success remains its ground forces, whether in the form of the embattled army or the panoply of militia units trying to make up for years of attrition to the formal security forces. But Russia’s limited expedition may be too little, too late for the regime to reverse recent losses. Without a major defeat to rebel forces or effective negotiations, Russia’s flashy exercise of great power might well have to face the underlying military logic in Syria; one where the fast, safe, or quick attempts to intervene give way to chaos or quagmire.

Daniel Trombly

Daniel Trombly

Daniel Trombly is an analyst and writer on international affairs and strategy. He blogs Slouching Toward Columbia.

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