What Russia Gained From Its Military Intervention in Syria

It has been three years now since Russia first took part in the Syrian conflict, alongside Damas and Tehran. During that period, its operational activities have varied considerably according to the battlefield goals it has set for itself. Today, while the crisis is far from settled, Moscow may already lay claim to a number of successes.

Vladimir Putin’s visit to the Russian airbase of Khmeimim, near Latakia.
en.kremlin.ru, 11 December 2017

First of all, Russia has demonstrated its capacity to project an expeditionary force of modest proportions beyond the confines of the former Soviet Union, which no one expected it could do. Moreover, the Syrian battlefield has provided the Russian army with actual operational conditions, not only for testing new equipment in view of its being added to the Russian arsenal or sold for export, it has also been a wonderful practice ground for the different personnel involved. And finally, in view of the stabilisation of Syria which Moscow wants to achieve, Russia is relying on the connections established in recent months with various leaders of rebel localities with whom it has been necessary to negotiate a surrender or an exchange of prisoners in order to be accepted as a credible interlocutor, even if certain local players denied its legitimacy.

In the coming months, the Russians will probably be concentrating their efforts on the consolidation of the Syrian regime. In this respect, Moscow will rely on incorporating into the regular Syrian army paramilitary units which it has equipped and trained with an eye to making them its spearhead. The experience and fighting spirit acquired by these loyalist forces during the war years under Russian command and with Russian equipment may be of benefit to Moscow in terms of image and influence well beyond Syria.

A Deluge of Fire

One of the tools to which the Russian army has resorted massively is their firepower delivered by air, from the sea and by artillery deployed on the ground in Syria. From 30 September 2015, the Russian airforce flew nearly 39,000 sorties.1 During the first months of the Russian intervention, these strikes were very intensive, then began to taper off when the situation on the ground had been permanently reversed in favour of the loyalists.

During what is known as the “active phase” of operations immediately following Russia’s entry into war and which lasted until the beginning of 2016, Russian planes flew up to 100 sorties every day, or an average of 3 to 4 sorties per aircraft. A peak of 139 sorties was reached on 20 November 2015. The Russian naval detachment took part in these operations with the firepower of its Kalibr missiles, around a hundred of which have been launched to this day from the Caspian Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean. The land-based artillery systems made their contribution as well, while specialists repaired or restored to working order more than 4,700 armoured units (tanks, BMP personnel carriers, light transport vehicles, etc.) for the Syrian army.

This deluge of fire was a formidable weapon in more ways than one. The first few months of the Russian intervention served to show Moscow’s determination to resort to massive strikes, often imprecise and sometimes indiscriminate, despite the waves of international protests and indignation. This first phase turned out to be decisive, insofar as it set a lasting precedent at the same time as it revealed the range of means which Moscow had at its disposal. The presence of vectors rapidly deployable from the Hmeimim air base and capable of delivering such firepower at relatively short notice poses a permanent threat to the enemies of the Russian and loyalist forces.

The deliberate decision to refrain from using this firepower involves a dimension of conventional deterrent which limits the adversary’s options. The decision to use it, but in a scalable manner and for a limited time period is a way of sending a message of warning. Trapped on the one hand between the vacillations of their Western, Turkish and Gulf Arab backers, with whom Moscow maintains diplomatic relations, and the threat of the Russian deluge of fire on the other, the designated enemy had no choice but to negotiate their surrender, throw away their weapons or join forces with the loyalists.

The psychological consequences of the battle for East Alep were to play a decisive role. The other pockets of resistance in Syria, soon to be under siege, now knew they could not expect any outside help capable of opposing Russian determination and superiority on the battlefield, knew too that they ran the risk of coming under the Russian deluge of fire. The operations conducted this summer at Deraa were a confirmation of this logic: the rebel groups were “turned around” one after the other, almost without a fight.

Projection of the Coastal War

The role of the Russian naval detachment in the Mediterranean has proven essential. For it safeguards the only logistical axis between Russia and Syria on which Moscow can rely independently. Freedom of movement on the sea route between the Syrian ports of Tartus and Latakia will be guaranteed so long as the Montreux Convention (1936)2 is respected by Turkey in the straits of the Bosporus and Dardanelles and NATO does not claim the right to interfere with this freedom of the seas, which it could easily do.

The other logistical axis is by air, over Iran and Iraq, while Turkey regularly authorises Russian military flights through its airspace. Nonetheless, in the past, Moscow has come up against long-term airspace closures (Turkey) or short-lived problems (with Iran in August 2016). At the end of August 2018, a Russian warplane, a Tupolev Tu-154M, was refused entry into Iraqi airspace and was obliged to reroute over Iran before it was finally able to reach its destination in Syria.

Besides this key logistical role, the Russian navy was able to demonstrate its capacity to project coastal warfare into a maritime space relatively far from Russian waters. The vessels equipped with Kalibr cruise missiles deployed in the Mediterranean squadron—frigates, missile-launching corvettes and classical attack submarines—are for the most part recent vessels designed to operate in or near coastal waters. Under the protection of powerful anti-surface (coastal defence missile system Bastion) and anti-aircraft defence systems (S-300, S-400) based on Syrian soil, they constitute a credible tool for impeding the freedom of movement of NATO fleets and airforces by creating a “ defensive curtain” along the Syrian coastline.

This Russian strategy regarding NATO, known as “the pebble in the shoe,” has so far been successful. The Russians know full well they are incapable of going up against an American air and naval combat unit head on, but they also know that the implementation of a no-fly, no-cruise zone would oblige its NATO and Israeli adversaries to keep in touch with Russian forces in order to avoid an accident. This, however, did not prevent the destruction of a Russian reconnaissance and intelligence plane, an Il-20 on last 17 September, off the Syrian coast. The aircraft was shot down by Syrian anti-aircraft batteries which were targeting the Israeli F-16s which had just attacked the Latakia region. Exasperated by the repeated Israeli bombings in Syria, the Russians laid the blame for that accident squarely on the Jewish State. Nevertheless, Moscow and Tel Aviv agree that Syria must not become an Iranian garrison and that for this reason, they must keep on talking.

In other words, the Russian navy was implementing in Syria a defensive pattern, the lockdown of a zone and coastal approaches using mainly small or medium-sized vessels along with a few more formidable ships of Soviet origin to consolidate the operation. The Russian navy is experienced in this type of arrangement which it deploys in its own coastal waters (Kola Peninsula, Kaliningrad, Crimea. . .), except that in the case of Syria it is far from its comfort zone in Russian waters and has extended its lifeline all the way from the Black Sea to the Levant.

This deployment has recently been reinforced by two regiments equipped with S-300 systems which Moscow delivered to Damas in response to the destruction of its Ilyushin Il-20. Their activation will contribute to inhibiting the freedom of action of the Israeli and NATO airforces and will densify the network of anti-aircraft facilities along the Syrian and Lebanese coastal waters, whence most of the strikes against the Syrian regime and the Iranian targets on its soil have originated.

A Valuable Experience

While Russia has refrained from sending in ground troops to take part in the fighting with the exception of its special forces and the auxiliaries provided by private military companies, it has, on the other hand, deployed units of military police. Easily recognisable by their red berets, these men generally come from brigades stationed in the Muslim republics of Russia (Chechnya, Ingushetia. . .). Besides being in charge of security in and around the de-escalation zones, these units have also been used to deliver humanitarian assistance in nearly 2000 missions of varying dimensions since 2015—and have participated in the surrender negotiations of various localities or the organisation of prisoner exchanges. These activities are little known and often viewed with condescension by observers from NATO countries, yet this patient, fastidious work coordinated by the Center for Reconciliation in Syria has nonetheless made it possible for 230 gang leaders or heads of armed resistance groups to negotiate their surrender and for the loyalist troops to recapture over 2,500 localities without a shot being fired.

Moreover, the Russian general staff has made it a point of projecting the largest possible amount of rotation contingents to Syria in order to give them operational experience. While the number of Russian soldiers permanently based in Syria over a three-year period could vary between 2,500 and 4,000 more than 63,000, including 25,700 officers, were sent there altogether. And nearly three quarters of the country’s air force pilots and crews saw fight duty in Syria (fighter craft, transport planes, strategic long-range aviation). The combat experience acquired in the Syrian campaign is meant to disseminate throughout the entire Russian armed forces, for example with the promotion of former commanders of the Syrian expeditionary corps. A good example is general Andrei Kartapolov, head of operations in Syria from December 2016 to March 2017 and who, among other exploits took Palmyra back from the Islamic State (ISIS) for the second time. Returning to Russia, he was appointed commander-in-chief of the western military district, and last July he became vice-minister of defence. Another way of disseminating the Syrian experience has been the organisation of military exercises, the latest of which, “Vostok-2018” was held at the beginning of September in the Russian Far East and allowed for different Russian units to share their experiences, both among themselves and with the Chinese troops that came to participate in these manoeuvres.

Avoiding the Iraqi Scenario

Russia has also started setting up the hard core of the future Syrian army. Moscow wants to see the units it has trained and equipped gradually incorporated into the regular Syrian forces, as part of the Kremlin’s policy of consolidating the Syrian regime. This absorption of the various armed factions is not to the liking of Iran which would prefer to keep control of the Shiite paramilitary militia, financed by Tehran but equipped by Russia.

Russia is relying on the historical and cultural proximity between Syrian and Russian military circles, on the one hand, and its diplomatic ascendancy over Tehran, on the other, to achieve this overhaul of the Syrian army. Thus, at the beginning of September, eight young Syrians were enrolled in the officers’ training program at the Military Academy of Material and Technical Support (Saint Petersburg).

This new partnership, aimed at young teenagers, is part of a Russo-Syrian program designed to ultimately provide the Syrian army with Russian-trained cadres.3

On the ground, other results are also visible. The unit known as the “Desert Eagles,” originally a private formation composed of Syrian veterans, was taken over and equipped by the Russians. This unit, which has turned out to be a formidable weapon in the struggle against the jihadists—especially in a desert context—was incorporated into the Syrian army in January 2017. Another example is the “Desert Tigers” commanded by General Souheil Al-Hassan, current head of Quwat Al-Nimr, the Syrian special forces. This is another formation which is well loved by the Russians who are relying on an army model which is compact but experienced and battle-hardened to deal with any jihadist resurgence from desert areas or in an urban environment. Seen from Moscow, the model to be avoided is the Iraqi army which, though lavishly equipped by Washington, simply collapsed in the face of the lightening ISIS offensive in June 2014 and again in 2015.

After conquering a territory, it is indeed necessary to hold on it. A serious warning already came from the desert, from the region of Palmyra. ISIS was driven out of the city at the beginning of 2016, but managed to capture it again while the regime was busy taking Alep at the end of that same year. It took the Russian and loyalist forces three months to take the oasis back from the jihadists in March 2017. While the war is not yet over, the future of the Syrian army lies in the outcome of an ongoing tussle between two models: Russian centralisation and coordination, and a Lebanese-type “militiacization” which has the favour of Tehran.

1Figures provided by the Russian Defense Ministry in a 22 August 2018 press briefing.

2EDITOR’S NOTE. The so-called “Montreux convention”, officially “Convention regarding the Regime of the Straits” is an international multilateral agreement signed on 20 July 1936 in the Swiss city of Montreux and still in effect. It determines the conditions of free access to the Straits of the Dardanelles and the Bosporus, as well as the Black Sea.

3“Syrian adolescents have begun their training in the cadet class at the Military Academy of Material and Technical Support” (in Russian), TV Zvesda, 1 September 2018.