The Russian Military Campaign in Syria: The Balance of Forces and Possible Risks

21 october 2015

Ruslan Pukhov is Director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST), Member of the Public Council under the Russian Defense Ministry.

Resume: The Russian military campaign in Syria is a political landmark comparable to Crimea’s reunification with Russia or the conflict in Donbass.

The Russian military campaign in Syria is a political landmark comparable to Crimea’s reunification with Russia or the conflict in Donbass.

The Ukrainian conflict demonstrated Russia’s readiness to confront the West and to use military force to protect its interests. In Syria, Russia for the first time joined a military conflict to support an ally beyond the post-Soviet borders. Russia has demonstrated its ability for effective power projection in other regions and the enhanced combat standards of its air force and navy.

Russia joined the fighting in Syria for a complex array of reasons, only some of which have any relation to Syria. One of them is concern over the losses that Bashar al-Assad’s army sustained in the summer of 2015. The Russian authorities believe that the defeat of the ruling Syrian government would result in the massacre of ethnic and religious minorities and a transition of control in the country to ISIS and other radical Sunni groups, which are almost indistinguishable from each other, according to Russia.

All of these groups are hostile to Russia, to one degree or another, and many of them include fighters from the former Soviet Union who are focused on continuing the jihad in Central Asia and the Caucasus. ISIS has become more active in Afghanistan, where it was joined by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which has demonstrated an ability to infiltrate Central Asian law enforcement agencies, as evidenced by the case of Gulmurod Khalimov, a senior Tajik police commander who defected to ISIS. The downfall of al-Assad and the victory of ISIS and other ideologically allied groups could undermine Russia’s position in the Middle East and hence directly threaten its national security.

Russia’s concerns were fuelled by the Western proposal for establishing a no-fly zone over Syria to support the opposition forces. The Libyan experience has shown that the establishment of no-fly zones for humanitarian concerns by the United States and its allies invariably develops into full-scale air fighting to directly support rebel forces. Judging by recent data, the Western countries nearly coordinated a decision to invade Syria when Russia launched an air force operation there.

The Russian military campaign in Syria, which it is waging in close coordination with Iran, has the following objectives:

  • to remove the threat of intervention by the West and its allies. This goal has already been achieved by the deployment of Russian forces and the launch of Russian air raids;

  • to stabilize and strengthen the government of Bashar al-Assad by liquidating the most dangerous opposition-controlled pockets in the rear of the Syrian army and by helping it take better defense positions;

  • to put limited military pressure on ISIS in order to force it to concentrate its financial and personnel resources on defense, and hence scale down its activity in Central Asia;

  • to the extent possible, to destroy the foreign ISIS recruits, primarily from the CIS countries, who represent one of the most capable combat ready terrorist groups that directly threaten Russia’s security.

The achievement of these objectives would remove threats to the Syrian government for the near future, with the war drawn out for an indefinite period and with an unpredictable outcome. This is unacceptable to the supporters of the so-called moderate Islamic opposition, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, where internal instability has been growing against the backdrop of the Syrian war. Neither is this acceptable to the European Union, which has been swamped by refugees, nor the United States, which has to react to the concerns of its allies and partners.

This has created the environment for talks on an end to the military conflict, post-war development of Syria and joint action to rout ISIS. The talks will most likely take the form of discussions of federalization scenarios and the gradual removal of President Bashar al-Assad.

Russia and Iran have very strong negotiating positions, as they have the only effective military force capable of waging offensive operations against ISIS and al-Qaeda in Syria. In the event of success, Russia will achieve its main military goals, that is, to guarantee a post-war Syrian regime that would suit Russia and reduce the threat of Sunni radicals to Russia.

A secondary goal is to create more opportunities in relations with the United States. The resumption of top-level Russian-American contacts at the UN General Assembly and the launch of cooperation between the Russian and US armies and intelligence services are evidence that this goal can be achieved.

The Russian Defense Ministry has used new methods of working with the public during the Syrian campaign, such as broadcasting footage of Russian air strikes and missile launches, extended reports from Russian military bases and broad use of social media. However, this large-scale propaganda campaign should not eclipse the fact that Russia only has a limited air force group in Syria, which has not been very active so far. The Russian Aerospace Forces have 30 strike aircraft at its base in Latakia, including 12 Su-24M, 12 Su-25 and six Su-34 bombers, and four Su-30SM jets with air defense capability.

The Western coalition used mostly precision air munitions, while the Russian group also makes heavy use of gravity bombs. The US-led group has more effective reconnaissance, target acquisition and weapon guidance systems, including the broad use of suspension units that none of the Russian aircraft have, as well as 25 years of deployment and combat experience in the region and tried-and-tested air force interoperability and combat operation techniques.

As regards its effect on ISIS’ military capability, Russia’s advantages include access to al-Assad’s considerable HUMINT sources. Some of its strikes are delivered specifically on groups of Central Asian or North Caucasus terrorists. The Russian military campaign is having a predominantly political and moral effect, but only a limited military effect, on ISIS. On the other hand, Russia’s actions in Syria could greatly influence the Syrian Army’s fight against other rebel groups, including the “moderate” opposition supported by the West and radical Islamist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra.

Russia intervened in Syria at a time when the situation was stabilizing in favor of Bashar al-Assad. Indicatively, Russia did not intervene in July or early August 2015, when the Syrian Army was sustaining heavy losses, primarily from Islamic radicals. By September, al-Assad restored the frontline’s integrity, while the Islamists’ offensive fizzled out. Since then, the pro-Assad forces have accumulated reserves, including through the redeployment of Iranian units to Syria and large-scale Iranian and Russian arms deliveries. The Syrian Army predictably launched a large-scale offensive the other day. It’s not the number of targets the Russian aircraft hit, but the success or failure of the Syrian offensive that will determine the overall success of Russia’s Syrian strategy.

The main headache for the pro-Assad forces consists of the large Islamist pockets in the government-controlled territory, primarily in Homs and Rastan, which have tied up considerable Syrian Army forces. These opposition forces are part of the Army of Conquest (Jaish al-Fatah), a loose alliance of armed rebel groups that are fighting the forces of President al-Assad, and that are supported by the Sunni monarchies of the Persian Gulf and Turkey and also include Jabhat al-Nusra, the local branch of al-Qaeda.

Al-Assad’s priority goal is to liquidate these pockets, which have apparently become the target of some of Russia’s air strikes. If these combined strikes lead to the elimination of these anti-Assad pockets, the Syrian Army’s next task will be to clean up the Aleppo area, stabilize the situation in southern Syria and, if possible, recapture Palmyra, which is a major communication hub, and drive ISIS into the desert. The achievement of these goals would greatly improve al-Assad’s military and political standing, as good as assuring its survival.

At the same time, the “moderate” and Islamist opposition groups are building up their forces. The United States and its allies have been sending weapons to the “moderate” opposition, and the Russian intervention has only accelerated this process. Opposition forces of all stripes could launch a large-scale offensive in the key areas in December or January. Repelling this offensive will be a crucial task for the Syrian Army and the Russian aerospace group. The Russian group could be a major factor in postponing the offensive until January, which would suit the government forces. Active hostilities could stop during the period of sandstorms caused by a strong wind called khamsin, which lasts from February through April.

Under a best-case scenario for Damascus, Tehran and Moscow, conditions could develop by the spring of 2016 when talks on Syria’s future will involve al-Assad’s government, the “moderate” opposition and their sponsors and possibly even the moderate segment of the Islamist forces. The next issue on the agenda would be to join forces against ISIS.

The United States is planning to redouble its efforts against ISIS, including by launching an offensive by Kurds and the “moderate” opposition against the ISIS “capital,” Raqqa, but the chances of success are slim. Washington’s largest flaw is the absence of large, at least minimally effective and politically loyal pro-American forces on the ground. The systemic US failures at military development in other countries, including Afghanistan, point to the existence of major institutional problems.

In our opinion, the caliphate can be routed quickly and resolutely only through a large-scale military intervention by the US-led Western land forces. But this operation is made impossible by the internal political situation in the United States and the EU. The alternative is a long-term ground campaign against ISIS simultaneously on several fronts, including by the regular Iraqi army, various Iraqi militia groups, Iranian forces, al-Assad’s army, Kurdish militias and possibly moderate Syrian Islamists. The main driving force of this motley group would be the Syrian Army, reinforced by Russian air support and Russian weapons, which would give Moscow and Tehran additional trump cards at talks.

In the next few months, when Russia’s efforts will be directed against the Islamist groups of the Army of Conquest and the Islamist enclaves, its relations with Iran, on the one hand, and with Turkey, the Gulf monarchies and the United States on the other hand, will inevitably deteriorate. In light of this, the worst possible scenario for Russia would be an inability of al-Assad’s forces to dramatically improve the situation even with Russian air support, which is quite likely. This could further increase tensions between Russia and the West, encourage the United States and its allies to attempts to introduce no-fly zones over Syria to protect the opposition and fan military tensions between Russia and NATO.

But an even worse scenario would be Moscow’s desire to up the stakes or to bring about a radical change in the Syrian conflict by launching a ground operation. This would involve Russia in a hopeless and unwinnable war beyond its national borders, which can only increase tensions in its relations with the West, which would try to bleed out the Russian forces in Syria by providing large-sale support to the opposition and Islamist forces under the Afghan scenario. Judging by recent statements, the Russian authorities are fully aware of this danger and will preclude the use of the Russian army in hostilities in Syria.

When assessing the Russian military operation in Syria, we should compare the risks of action to the risks of inaction, both of which are very high. Inaction would most likely result in al-Assad’s defeat, the large-scale slaughter of his supporters and the division of control in the country between ISIS and the Army of Conquest, which would ultimately fight each other. As a solid and better organized structure, ISIS would most likely win that future war. The United States would be unable to effectively influence the situation due to the lack of conditions for ground operations. As for the Gulf monarchies, the conflict in Yemen has shown that their military capability is very low, regardless of the amount of cutting-edge military equipment they buy. As a result, ISIS would further expand throughout the world, strengthening its potential for military operations in geographically remote regions.

Valdai International Discussion Club

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