Sending ripples across the region and the world, the Russian operation in Syria has become a major international military and political event, especially amid the conflict in Ukraine and the dramatic deterioration in relations with the West. Now that the military campaign is underway and in order to assess its further progress, it is important to understand the regional context of Russia’s “Syrian gambit” and the key military and political aspects.
THE REGIONAL CONTEXT AND POLITICAL PREREQUISITES
The Assad regime suffered a disastrous blow in the spring of 2015 after loosing the city of Idlib in northern Syria and several other regions. Those developments were probably a key factor that expedited Russia’s decision to get involved in the Syrian conflict. Military failures had not only demoralized the Syrian army and irregular groups of loyalists, but had also fueled concerns among top officers in Syria’s numerous and competing security services. The fall of Palmyra to Islamic State militants and the demonstrative destruction of the city’s ancient monuments symbolized the victory of Islamic fundamentalist forces over Syrian government troops and law enforcers, who are increasingly losing morale.
The need for preemptive action had become obvious by September 2015. Russia needed to act before the international coalition and its regional allies, primarily Turkey, created a no-fly zone over Syria. Russia believed that even a limited no-fly zone would sooner or later have resulted in air strikes with a predictable outcome similar to that in Iraq and Libya.
The Turkish factor played an important role in the escalation of the Syrian conflict; Turkey is one of Assad’s irreconcilable opponents, the border between the two countries is the main supply route to the Syrian moderate opposition, and oil smuggling at dumping prices via Turkey is a key source of income for the Islamic State. Turkey began its own Air Force operation in Syria in July 2015, officially to fight terrorists, while in reality to attack Kurdish rebels.
When Russia stepped in it became clear that Turkey’s ambitions and neo-Ottoman illusions in the Syrian conflict did not quite match its actual possibilities. Russia tried to establish some coordination with the Turks, but to no avail. As a result, Turkey had to bite the bullet when Russian ships sailed through the Black Sea straits to deliver weapons and military equipment to Syria under the Montreux Convention, and give up the idea of a no-fly zone in Syria. Turkey’s reaction was even more nervous when Russian jet fighters strayed into its territory during their mission in northern Syria. In frustration, Turkey responded in early October 2015 with an “accidental” incursion of its military helicopters into Armenia, whose borders are guarded by Russian troops.
Without an agreement with Turkey, Russia had to form an ad hoc regional alliance with Iran and Iraq. Prior to the operation in Syria, a quadripartite coordination center was created in Iraq to gather and analyze current military information and presumably conduct joint operational planning. Given the central Iraqi government’s obvious dependence on the United States, Iraqi participation was essential for Russia.
A symbolic confirmation of joint intentions was Russian 3M14 Kalibr cruise missile strikes in the north of Iraq and Syria, launched on October 7, 2015 by the Caspian Flotilla. The political meaning of this operation, during which Russian versions of American Tomahawks flew across Iran and Iraq, was to demonstrate common goals shared by these countries and Russia. Another indirect result of their launch from the southwestern section of the Caspian Sea was a clear warning against further escalation of the military and political situation in the region, including the Caucasus.
Israel, another key military and political player in the region, is faced with two bad choices: either the Assad regime, supported by Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, survives, or radical Islamist fighters gain the upper hand. Russia seems to have succeeded in securing Israel’s relative neutrality. While Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke in Moscow with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the chiefs of their General Staffs met to discuss military coordination. One of Israel’s main conditions is that modern Russian weapons must not fall into the hands of the militant Shiite Hezbollah group. Apparently, Russia provided such guarantees.
Unlike Israel, the U.S., its European allies, and Arab monarchies will clearly disapprove of any steps to rescue the Assad regime. The success of the Russian operation may challenge U.S. positions in the Middle East, but the Americans are taking the time to assess the scale and consequences of Russia’s unexpected endeavor. The U.S. sincerely hopes that its “strategic patience” will result in Russia getting bogged down in Syria and sustaining increasing losses.
However, Arab monarchies (just like Turkey) cannot ignore Russian activities even briefly. They can step up support to the Syrian opposition and even supply modern weapons that can change the situation on the ground.
THE CIVIL WAR IN SYRIA AND THE INTERNATIONAL COALITION
Syria has been gripped by civil war for several years. The political and humanitarian results are catastrophic for the country, its statehood, and people.
The Syrian war and the U.S.-led coalition’s air campaign against the Islamic State may at first seem very similar to previous conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. But there are two distinctions.
The first one is the increasingly clear and growing signs of a proxy war, as in classic Cold War-era regional conflicts. The scale of confrontation and the participants are similar to those in the Ukrainian crisis.
The second distinction is the large amount of combat equipment and number of troops involved, both government and opposition. Government troops and the supporting irregular groups have used hundreds, if not thousands, of armored vehicles and artillery systems, as well as dozens of aircraft and helicopter gunships.
By the fall of 2015, tens of thousands of Syrian opposition members and radical Islamic fighters had acquired hundreds of light-duty pickup trucks and off-road vehicles armed with machine guns, small-caliber guns, and mortars, as well as modern antitank missiles. Some opposition and ISIS units had a small number of armored vehicles and even heavy artillery systems captured during the war. The fighting between pro-government troops and insurgents had never reached such a scale either in Libya or even in post-Saddam Iraq (before 2013).
Before its civil war, Syria had one of the largest arsenals of tanks not only in the Middle East, but also in the world. The Syrian arsenal included about 1,700-1,800 T-72 tanks of different modifications, which the Syrian army used for the first time in the Bekaa Valley conflict in 1982. The overall number of tanks, including T54/55s and previous versions of the T-62 in stock, was close to 4,500. Additionally, there were thousands of armored personnel carriers, fighting and other light-duty armored vehicles, and thousands of tube artillery pieces, including hundreds of 122-mm 2S1 and 152-mm 2S3 self-propelled howitzers. Syria also had a considerable stock of Soviet-made tactical and short-range attack missiles or their clones made in Iran and North Korea. Indeed, Syria could claim the status of a regional military superpower in terms of combat capability. Although the presence of Scud short-range attack missiles and Tochka-U tactical missiles in army arsenals could no longer surprise anyone in the Middle East at the end of the twentieth century, Syria did not only have a large number of launchers, but also missiles to fire.
But all of that is history now. A considerable part of its tanks, armored vehicles, and artillery guns have been lost in war, are out of service, or are operating at the breaking point. Air defense units and the Air Force have sustained heavy losses too, but not from ISIS or the opposition’s air power, which is non-existent, or from ineffective air defense systems (consisting mainly of MANPADS and car-mounted 23-mm ZU-23 automatic cannons). Most losses were the result of seizures of air bases in northern and eastern regions of Syria, as well as of intensified mortar attacks on runways and aircraft parking areas and the use of man-portable air defense missile systems against planes and helicopters during takeoff or landing. Overall losses in tanks and light-duty armored vehicles alone have reached 60-70 percent of the pre-war level.
The Syrian army did not have much of a chance to replace military hardware during the civil war. New supplies included mostly firearms, light weapons, ammunition, spare parts, and some amount of obsolete weapons from Russian stocks, with the exception of modern anti-ship missiles and Pantsir anti-aircraft missile and gun systems, which are believed to have downed the Turkish RF-4E Phantom reconnaissance plane over Latakia in June 2012. Russia resumed active arms supplies (which included modern weapons) to Syria shortly before its operation began in the fall of 2015.
The Syrian army has sustained heavy losses in the fighting. According to various estimates, Syria’s military strength is now less than half of what it was before the war. With the loss of large territories (Assad’s troops controlled less than a quarter of the country in September 2015), the army and law enforcement agencies could no longer effectively replenish their ranks. The growing “sectorization” of the conflict hindered mobilization and the increasingly fierce fighting between the Sunni majority and the Alawite minority also hurt the government’s positions. The constant shortage of recruits is one of the most serious problems facing the Assad regime. Having run out of manpower at home, it has to resort to external sources (Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shiite militias in Iraq, Iranian “volunteers,” and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps fighters, as well as Shiite groups arriving from Afghanistan and Pakistan, with Iran’s support).
However, the medieval brutality demonstrated by ISIS extremists has caused small paramilitary groups thrown together by members of ethnic and religious minorities to side with the regime. These include Armenian militias in Aleppo and Kessab, and the Druze from southern regions bordering on Israel and Lebanon, who until recently had tried to maintain relative neutrality in the struggle between predominantly Alawite-Baathist forces, on the one hand, and Salafi-jihadists and moderate Islamists, on the other. They play no serious role in the armed standoff inside Syria, but they can solve some local military tasks and maintain stability on the ground.
Civil confrontation in Syria is not limited to armed activities conducted by Assad’s loyalists against ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and an assortment of other radical and moderate opposition groups. The fighting in the Kurdish-populated city of Kobani (also known as Ayn al-Arab) on the Syrian-Turkish border from September 2014 to February 2015 was one of the most dramatic and bloodiest episodes in the war. Islamist militants seized a large part of the city after a series of attacks, and the Kurds could only free it and the outskirts with active air support from the allies. Syrian Kurds have ample fighting experience and U.S. support, which angers Turkey. Reports appeared in mid-October 2015 stating that Kurdish people’s defense units (YPG) could form an alliance with the pro-Western opposition for an offensive against the Islamic State’s “capital” of Raqqah, with the support of the U.S. and its allies. Clearly, a proxy war with elements of a hybrid war is increasing in scale.
As the civil conflict spread, the opposition and the Islamic State built up their military potential in different ways. At times, there were small groups of several hundred or even a dozen fighters armed mainly with light weapons and firearms, mortars, portable multiple rocket launchers, small-caliber automatic cannons, and machine guns mounted on light-duty pickup trucks and jeeps, and controlling one or two small towns or even a couple of blocks in Aleppo. These groups could merge to form larger alliances, often supported by outside sponsors or driven by a new military and political situation, but then easily split up again.
For example, in 2011-2012 many non-Islamist groups emerged under the banners of the decentralized Free Syrian Army, but as the conflict spread and new groups appeared, opposition forces became more fragmented and divided. Various radical Sunni and jihadist groups (which had no political or institutional representation in Syria before the war, were marginalized, and operated deep underground) cropped up and became active, seeking not only to remove Assad but also to establish an Islamist regime. Those included Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, Liwa al-Tawhid, and Suqour al-Sham. The number of foreign militants had also increased.
If a group had the support of external players (the U.S., Turkey, Jordan, or Arab monarchies in the Persian Gulf), it could receive not only military hardware captured during the war, but also newer weapons made in the West or China and provided by Turkey or Arab countries. For example, some groups had American TOW-2 antitank guided missile launchers, Chinese H-9 antitank assault weapons, and FN-5 shoulder-held surface-to-air missiles, as well as modern communication equipment.
As the conflict unfolded, the opposition and ISIS also changed their tactics. Initially, jihadists and foreign militants from Iraq had much influence and taught Syrians to use suicide bombers, blow up buildings and cars, and use homemade explosive devices. According to Jabhat al-Nusra, its fighters had borrowed the experience of suicide bombing from Iraqi jihadists. Gradually, they moved from purely terrorist activities to guerrilla and semi-regular warfare tactics. Militants began to conduct integrated operations, adding tracked armored vehicles, and tube and rocket artillery systems to the light armored vehicles armed with large-caliber machine guns and automatic cannons on pickup trucks. Some groups of several dozen men brought together by regional, family, or tribal ties grew into multi-thousand-strong forces which also used volunteers from different Muslim countries and had well established communication, control, supply, and recruitment systems.
By the fall of 2015, ISIS had created ramified structures manned, by various estimates, with tens of thousands of fighters who had not only light weapons and firearms, but also mortars and grenade launchers. After a blitz offensive on Mosul alone, extremists captured about 2,300 armored vehicles and a large amount of light weapons and firearms, and tanks. From the Iraqi army they seized American М1А1М Abrams tanks (yet there is no confirmed information on their use by Islamist fighters. The tanks were most likely destroyed later by U.S. and coalition air strikes), let alone dozens of Soviet T-54 and T-55 tanks and their Chinese analogues. Artillery systems included mostly light multiple rocket launchers (mainly Chinese 107-mm and Turkish clones of the Soviet 16-barrel RPU-14 rocket launcher), but there were also several 122-mm Grad multiple rocket launchers seized from the regular army. In addition, Islamist militants used captured heavy artillery systems, such as American 155-mm M198 howitzers, to storm Erbil, and they were the first targets attacked by U.S. military aircraft during Operation Inherent Resolve.
The network-like structure of jihadist groups, primarily the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, and decentralized command make any effort to fight them significantly more difficult and indefinitely long. Losses sustained by one group do not prevent others from continuing active and effective attacks. Launched more than a year ago, Operation Inherent Resolve has become an important element of the civil war in Syria and Iraq. It has helped Iraqi government troops and Kurdish Peshmerga forces weaken the Islamists’ offensive strength in Iraq. However, coalition air strikes failed to break the Islamic State’s offensive thrust, and its forces captured most of the Anbar Province and its administrative capital Ramadi in May 2015. Supported by Kurdish and Shiite militias, and Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps units, Iraqi government troops continued to fight fiercely for Ramadi and other towns in northern Iraq after the beginning of the Russian military operation in Syria.
According to the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), the international coalition’s aircraft had destroyed 13,781 ISIS targets by October 8, 2015, including 126 tanks, 354 armored vehicles, 561 base camps, 4,000 buildings and firing positions, and 232 oil infrastructure facilities. But intensive air strikes did not significantly affect the extremists’ combat activities, even though the Iraqi army and Kurdish Peshmerga forces had generally stabilized the front in Iraq by the summer of 2015. The coalition’s air support was particularly crucial when Iraqi and Kurdish forces fought Islamist militants in Erbil, Kirkuk, and Kobani.
The Iraqi Air Force stepped up operations in the summer of 2014, using modern aircraft and helicopters (well known to Iraqi pilots from operating their earlier versions) provided by Russia. Up to 15 Su-25 attack planes and 12 Mi-35M attack helicopters were supplied, and as many as 40 of the newest Mi-28NE attack helicopters are yet to be delivered. Russia is also supplying Su-30 multirole fighters, TOS-1A Solntsepek heavy flamethrowers, Pantsir anti-aircraft missile and gun systems, Igla shoulder-fired SAMs, and other weapons and military equipment under contracts worth up to $4.2 billion. Russian arms supplies, along with international coalition air strikes and Iran’s assistance, have helped to stabilize the front after heavy losses sustained between the summer of 2014 and the spring of 2015, thus creating favorable conditions for Iraq’s military and political cooperation with Russia.
DISTINCTIVE FEATURES OF RUSSIA’S OPERATION IN SYRIA
The Russian operation in Syria is unique both in scale and technical methods used. This raises doubts about the operation’s success and ability to achieve the declared (or intended) goals.
It is generally believed that this is Russia’s first military campaign outside of the post-Soviet space since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Setting aside conflicts in former Soviet republics, Russia’s military activities outside its borders in the past twenty-five years have been rather limited and focused, ranging from peacekeeping to fighting piracy at sea. Russia’s operation in Syria has so far been confined to the use of combat aircraft and helicopters. The last time Soviet/Russian pilots participated in combat activities in the Middle East was in the early 1970s during the War of Attrition between Israel and Egypt, when they were deployed to the Suez Canal to help Egypt repel Israeli air strikes (Operation Caucasus).
The presence of Soviet military specialists and troops in Syria during the Bekaa Valley conflict in 1982 was limited, with only military advisers and mainly air defense officers involved. In 1983-1984, two Soviet regiments armed with long-range S-200 air-defense missile systems were redeployed to Syria as part of Operation Caucasus-2. But they only guarded Syria’s skies after Israel destroyed Syria’s air defenses in the summer of 1982.
Thus the current operation in Syria is the first combined (naval and air) projection of Russia’s military strength thousands of kilometers from its borders over the last forty years. Although initially media attention was riveted mostly on the Russian Air Force (which began combat activities and continued them for quite some time), the Russian Navy has also played a significant role in the Syrian operation.
In the beginning, the so-called Syrian Express envisaged massive supplies of military equipment, munitions, fuel, and troops from Black Sea ports to Syria, using both Black Sea Fleet ships (including landing ships, tankers, and auxiliary vessels) and support ships from the Northern and Baltic Fleets. However two weeks after the operation began in mid-October, the volume of supplies increased, and Russia had to engage commercial ships, even former Turkish bulk carriers chartered by Russian companies.
Warships from the Russian Navy Task Force in the Mediterranean supported the transportation of military cargoes via Black Sea straits under Turkey’s close observation. Led by the Black Sea Fleet flagship Moskva, the convoy arrived in Latakia, where air, support, and security units were being deployed. Armed with S-300F Reef anti-aircraft missile systems, the Moskva can provide for the air defense of Latakia and the Hmeimim air base where Russia’s “expeditionary corps” is currently stationed in Syria. To demonstrate their intentions, the warships conducted firing exercises after the beginning of the air operation, launching anti-aircraft missiles simultaneously with Russian air defense units on the shore. This clearly signaled the creation by Russia of a no-fly zone for third party warplanes over Syria’s western coast.
Due to the obvious military-political logic, cruise missiles were subsequently fired from the Caspian Sea. On November 17, 2015, the Russian Navy for the first time in its history launched combat cruise missiles at targets in Raqqah from the Black Sea Fleet’s diesel-electric submarine Rostov-on-Don. In addition to this submarine, the 4th Separate Brigade of the Black Sea Fleet, created just recently, has two other Project 636.6 Varshavyanka-class (Kilo-class by Western classification) diesel-electric submarines. In the future, cruise missiles may as well be fired from surface ships or even nuclear submarines in the eastern Mediterranean.
Marines are also playing an important role (providing security so far) in Russia’s Syrian operation. They are assigned to a reinforced battalion-sized task force from the 810th Marine Brigade of the Black Sea Fleet, known from last year’s operation in Crimea. In the Soviet era the brigade repeatedly participated in naval maneuvers conducted by the Fifth Operational Squadron of the Soviet Navy in the Mediterranean and landed troops on the Syrian coast near Tartus. The brigade’s officers are thought to be well acquainted with the territory of their current assignment. With time, these troops will most likely be rotated and replaced with Marines from other fleets.
The Air Force operation in Syria includes two interrelated components: transport and combat. Transport planes (mainly Il-76 and An-124 Ruslan) delivered troops, weapons and military equipment, and other cargoes. They brought Mi-24P attack helicopters, multirole Mi-17 and Mi-8 helicopters, Pantsir anti-aircraft missile and gun systems (to defend the Hmeimim base, Latakia seaport, and the naval base being set up at Tartus), as well as unmanned aerial vehicles, which are actively used by Russia for intelligence gathering and targeting. Transport planes also airlifted land-based electronic warfare equipment, Smerch multiple rocket launchers, and other artillery rocket systems, which at the initial stage should protect air and naval bases and subsequently may be used to support government troops during their offensives. Transport planes flew to Syria over Iran and Iraq at high altitudes, remaining inaccessible for the militants’ anti-aircraft guns.
Combat aircraft and an Il-20 auxiliary plane, which conducts electronic surveillance, electronic combat, and target designation, had also arrived at the Hmeimim air base via Iran and Iraq by mid-September 2015. By the time the operation began, Russia’s Air Task Force, created on September 30, 2015, had 12 Su-24M bombers, 12 Su-25SM attack planes, six Su-34 bombers, and four Su-30SM heavy multirole fighters. It also has about 15 Mi-24P attack helicopters and Mi-17 and Mi-8 multirole helicopters (intended for finding, rescuing, and transporting downed pilots).
The land component of the Russian operation is limited to units that provide air defense, security, and support for combat aircraft and supply groups. Apart from the Marines, the operation involves the Seventh Air Assault (Alpine) Brigade stationed in Novorossiysk, special operations forces, and air defense and artillery rocket troops. However, the land component is likely to increase with the simultaneous establishment of naval, air, and land bases in Syria, even if Russia is not considering joining the operation on the ground, as Putin has stated.
An important distinction of the operation in Syria is that Russia deftly exploited strategic surprise and retained the global military and political initiative. This was the second time in the past two years (after the operation in Crimea and the beginning of the crisis in Ukraine) that Russia caught its counterparts in the U.S., Europe, and the Middle East off guard. Russia surprised them not so much technically (it is impossible to hide such massive troop movements from space and electronic surveillance systems), but more so in terms of strategic culture and decision-making.
Although this gave Russia a head start, some observers argue that such strategic surprise was nothing other than a reckless game similar to playing on the edge. Military and political developments will show whether the “Syrian gambit” will become a new Afghanistan for Russia or its hour of triumph that could lay the groundwork for resolving the Ukraine conflict and building new relations with the West. Political processes will accompany combat operations in Syria (by the Russian Aerospace Force and, equally important, by Assad’s advancing army on the ground), both impacting and influencing each other.
THE FIRST RESULTS AND SHORT-TERM PROSPECTS
Russia has tried to use in Syria as many post-Soviet achievements in the development of conventional arms as possible. Many weapons and pieces of military equipment are completely new or have been significantly upgraded.
For the first time Su-30SM heavy fighters have been used in combat to provide support to attack planes and bombers. Su-34 front-line bombers have been engaged for the first time, even though they were used before in the armed conflict with Georgia in 2008, but only to suppress Georgian air defenses and support Su-24 bombers and Su-25 attack planes. In Syria, Su-34 bombers have used new smart weapons, including KAB-500 satellite-guided aerial bombs (the Russian analogue of the American JDAM bombs), and guided Kh-25 and Kh-29 missiles. However, it was clear within two weeks that Russian aircraft were having problems with precision and guided weapons. Reports from Syria increasingly showed not only Su-24M and Su-25SM planes, but also advanced Su-34 fighter bombers going on missions armed not with guided, but with free-falling bombs (such as OFAB-250/500 or RBK-500) made, if not in the 1980s, then most likely in the 1990s.
In the first few weeks of the operation, Russian aircraft made a record number of flights, operating virtually at the limit of their capacity (partly because the targets were relatively close, just 100-200 km from the Hmeimim base). Nearly one thousand flights were performed in less than a month from September 30 to October 25, 2015. The pilots of combat aircraft and Mi-24P attack helicopters employed to assist troops on the ground showed high levels of proficiency. Despite the risks associated with the use of man-portable air defense and anti-aircraft artillery systems, Russian Su-25SM and Su-24M planes and attack helicopters actively operated at low altitudes from the very first days of their deployment to Syria. They sustained no losses in the first three weeks, not counting a couple of drones. And yet a Russian combat aircraft or helicopter can be shot down one day, and this will force the rest of the aircraft to fly at altitudes of over four kilometers to avoid attacks from modern anti-aircraft guns. The Syrian opposition is likely to obtain such weapons shortly, which will reduce the effectiveness of air support, especially since the Russian Air Task Force in Syria is quite small (basically a mixed air regiment).
Russia may have to reinforce its Air Task Force qualitatively and quantitatively quite soon. In fact, Western space intelligence data indicate that the Hmeimim base is rapidly expanding. Unconfirmed reports suggest that Russia’s newest Mi-28N attack helicopters have already arrived in Syria to provide more firepower. But stepped up air operations do not necessarily require aircraft to be stationed in Syria. On November 17, the day after the G20 Summit (similarly to cruise missile launches from the Caspian Sea and apparently attempting to lend more political and propagandistic weight to the Russian diplomatic efforts in the talks with Western partners), Russian strategic bombers, operating from their home bases, came into action to bomb Islamic extremists’ positions. As some military experts had expected, 12 Russian supersonic Tu-23M3bombers flew out of Mozdok, North Ossetia, to hit targets (most likely using free-falling bombs) in the Raqqah and Deir ez-Zor areas. Five Russian Tu-95MS long-range strategic bombers and six Tu-160 missile-carrying aircraft fired cruise missiles at their respective targets in Syria. Finally, Iranian air bases (and even the Russian base Erebuni in Armenia) can become a stopover point for extra Su-24M and Su-34 front-line bombers.
But the Russian Air Task Force is able to operate without any reinforcement and carry out a wide range of missions to destroy control centers, military depots, oil and gas infrastructure facilities, tanks, armored vehicles, and rocket artillery systems. Russian air strikes have split ISIS and opposition forces and complicated their troop and ammunition supply operations.
But the main battle will be fought on the ground by government troops and their allies. Although Iranians (Revolutionary Guard Corps/Quds forces and Shiite militias) have been increasingly active in land warfare lately, it is not clear yet whether Iran will decide to send its regular army to Syria. That would be too bold a step in the current geopolitical climate, especially since Iran, contrary to popular belief, does not have many military capabilities to project on the ground. In addition, Iranian domination not only in law enforcement services, but in many other government agencies has long been irksome to Assad’s high-ranking Alawite-Baathist supporters.
The offensive launched by Assad’s allies is not proceeding as expected. The Syrian army is biting too slowly into the positions of moderate opposition fighters and local Islamist militants, and is losing weapons and troops. The biggest losses come from modern antitank missiles fired by insurgents. Some experts say that their successful use in the desert, mountains, and cities could play the same role Stinger man-portable air-defense systems played in the Mujahedeen’s war against Soviet aircraft in Afghanistan. After Russia had begun its air strikes, Saudi Arabia decided to supply an additional 500 TOW-2 antitank assault weapons to the Syrian opposition, and this may soon affect the situation on the ground.
It is an axiom that air power alone cannot win a civil war or an asymmetric conflict. Any successful use of combat aircraft against rebels, irregular forces, or government troops over the last several decades was supported by ground warfare; examples include the Northern Alliance’s campaign in Afghanistan in 2001-2002, operations against Saddam Hussein conducted by the U.S. and its allies in 1991 and 2003, or the civil war in Libya in 2011. Considering the rather modest successes of the land offensive, it remains unclear whether Assad’s supporters will be able to conduct a full-scale operation in the air and on the ground.
If its land offensive fails, Russia will most likely have to wind down its operation in Syria (which is quite doubtful, given the political costs Russia will have to pay) or increase its involvement. In that case, reinforcement of the air contingent may not be enough, especially since the weather is likely to worsen in the coming months and complicate intensive bombing.
Russia may have to start using artillery rocket systems with Russian crews on the ground as the next step, while supplying more and more new weapons to the Syrian army (for example, pro-Assad troops have already been actively using TOS-1A Solntsepek heavy flamethrowers). These may also include heavy Smerch and Tornado multiple rocket launchers, Tochka-U short-range ballistic missile systems, Msta-S self-propelled howitzers, or other artillery rocket armaments. The number of military advisers will increase, and special operations forces, paratroopers, and Marines may go into action.
This will not yet be full-scale military engagement of the Russian army on the ground, but certainly a step towards it. Although such a possibility has been denied at the top level, it cannot be ruled out completely. When the U.S. began its Operation Rolling Thunder in North Vietnam in 1965, it obviously did not intend to send more than a 500,000 Marines and Army contingent to Indochina.
At any rate, even if the air-and-land operation succeeds, it can do no more than destroy several opposition-controlled enclaves and stabilize the front along the Quneitra-Damascus-Homs-Hama-Idlib-Aleppo line and father north towards the Turkish border and regions controlled by Syrian Kurds. Getting to the Turkish border is particularly crucial since this is where the extremists replenish their supplies. The army may also attempt to recapture several regions in the east, including Palmyra (an important hub in the Syrian Desert).
Another possibility is intensified and coordinated diplomatic efforts by all parties involved in the conflict, including political dialogue between the opposition sponsored by the U.S., Turkey, and Arab monarchies, on the one hand, and Assad, on the other, subsequently resulting in their joint struggle against the Islamic State. The U.S. and its allies have already tried to establish dialogue on this issue with Russia.
However no one really expects the Islamic State and Salafi-jihadist forces to be destroyed completely. The ethnic and religious causes of the conflict must not be concealed behind convenient ideological clichés. While avoiding simplifying the inter-sectoral nature of the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts, one must admit that the real reason for the emergence of the Islamic State is the deep frustration experienced by the Sunni population in Iraq and Syria over the past decades, just as the Taliban rose from among the “angry and dissatisfied” Pashtuns in Afghanistan. Therefore, armed struggle against radical Islamist forces without clear diplomatic plans for a costly and long-term post-conflict settlement will be futile not for years or even decades, but for an entire generation.
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If the Syrian army reaches the Aleppo-Damascus line and seals the border with Turkey, Russia will show, much to the dismay of the rest of the world, that it can project its military power beyond the post-Soviet space. Russia will create a permanent air and naval base in Syria to solidify its military presence in the region. In this case, as Russia apparently believes, no post-conflict settlement in Syria and Iraq will be possible without taking Russia’s interests into account.
However, if the “Syrian gambit” was not a goal in itself for the Russian leadership, but rather designed to distract attention from Ukraine (or make the West agree to a new format of relations with Russia), it may produce the opposite results. If the Syrian campaign proves successful despite all the military and political problems described above, it could increase the West’s discontent with Russia’s foreign policy and Vladimir Putin personally, and thus aggravate bilateral relations even further. If the Russian campaign in Syria drags on and fails, such aggravation may become unavoidable for a different reason. Many Russians fear that in this case the West will try to keep its strategic initiative and continue to exert pressure on post-Soviet countries and Russia.
Russia’s “Syrian gambit” could easily turn into a banal military-political “zugzwang.” This can be avoided only if Russia comes to agreement with the U.S. and its regional allies on a political settlement in Syria, thus allowing Assad to remain in power for a transitional period, followed by the formation of a new coalition government. Whether or not this is a realistic scenario will become clear from how the situation develops in Syria and the surrounding territory.