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Assessment of Russian Capabilities and Strategy in Syria

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Russia has been engaged in combat operations in Syria for four weeks now, which allows us to draw a number of conclusions and insights into the strategy employed.

Air operations only, no ground forces have been engaged. The Russians have deployed substantial ground forces to provide local area security:

  • A naval infantry detachment of 200 marines is stationed in the port of Latakia where Russian military transport ships dock to offload their cargo;
  • A Motor Rifle battalion is garrisoning the Bashem al Assad airfield, with infrastructure in place to support up to a regiment of troops.

This ground force component has played a purely defensive, though critical role. They are providing security to a sensitive area in the Alawite heartland and thus freeing other Syrian government units for frontline duty. There are certainly Russian forward observers mated to Syrian formations providing target information and coordination with the air units; and there have been reports of small units of Russian soldiers involved in offensive operations, perhaps Spetznaz operating with al Assad’s forces.

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Russia has shown impressive transport and logistical capabilities. The ability to move heavy equipment by sea and air to a foreign combat zone, mate them with combat formations and bring in combat aircraft while simultaneously undertaking major upgrades to facilities and providing security should not be taken for granted. There are not many nations that can accomplish this feat; much less maintain a significant degree of operational security and complete the task in around two weeks without noticeable set-backs.

This capability should surprise no one. Not only has Vladimir Putin invested heavily in outlays for new equipment and upgrades of existing stock, the Armed Forces have slimmed down their bloated officer corps and moved the enlisted ranks towards a professional, volunteer force. They are not there yet, but the gains in efficiency are already great. Realistic and continuous training exercises have also become a much higher priority; whereas in the Yeltsin era, Russian army units might not enter a training cycle in a whole year, the new Russian Army has progressed from regular small unit field exercises to multi-divisional ones that stress coordination with all branches, especially the Air Force. Consequently, the capability gap with the West has narrowed significantly.

Russia has achieved a high sortie rate with their aircraft. It would not be accurate to compare the sortie rate of the Russian aircraft with those of the Coalition forces under the Combined Joint Task Force. Coalition aircraft are, as a rule, operating from more distant airfields; while many of the Russian targets are within 100 miles of their base. Nevertheless, this sortie rate indicates that at least these aircraft are in a high state of maintenance with capable crews, something that cannot be said for some Western air forces. The Luftwaffe was recently embarrassed[1] by having to cannibalize parts from other squadrons in order to meet their Eurofighter contribution to the NATO air patrols over the Baltic States and the estimated deployable rate[2] of the German fighter fleet is an abysmal 39%.

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It is worthwhile to reflect on Russia’s motivations and objectives in putting boots on the ground in Syria. The mainstream media – Russian and Western – has been effusive in describing the energetic decisiveness of Mr. Putin with either adulation or fear, depending on the nationality of the editorial. This is not a complete exaggeration: as described above, the deployment was difficult and executed smoothly, with boldness. The contrast with Mr. Obama is often made, despite the very different objectives of the two powers. However, it is a very great stretch to say that these moves were entirely calculated as part of some geopolitical chess game being played out by Grand Master Putin. On the contrary, the Russians have often been taken by surprise and reacted defensively, such as their occupation of Crimea to forestall any threat to the Black Sea Fleet.

Russia benefits from a far less complex strategic problem in Syria than the United States. They have one ally: Bashar al Assad. They have one objective: prevent his downfall. Compare this with the difficulty of the American position:

  • The US is working together or in conjunction with various allies and partners, most of whom despise each other, and in some cases, are shooting at each other or each other’s proxies;
  • The Turks and Kurds have restarted their civil war in Anatolia; we are allied with the Iraqi government, who are supporting Shiite Hashed militias, who are in turn supported by Iran, who is the mortal enemy of our principal Sunni ally, Saudi Arabia;
  • We appear to be committed to the downfall of al Assad (though we’re not really doing anything to speed it along), but we can’t possibly accept the two most powerful groups who would be likely to succeed him, ISIL and Al Nusra. There are no Sunni Arabs in Syria we can honestly support except perhaps the Free Syrian Army, and they’re no longer in the major leagues;
  • We are committed to destroying the Islamic State, but can’t be seen as anti-Sunni or anti-Arab, even though most of our allies are Turks, Kurds and Shiites;
  • And even though we are allied with Turks, Kurds and Shiites in our efforts against the Islamic State, we can’t actually help them finish the job. If the Kurds grew too strong, the Turks and Iraqis would object; if the Shia grew too strong, the Turks and Saudis would object; if the Turks grew too strong, everyone else would object.

The US situation is so convoluted and full of contradictions, that it is a wonder we accomplish anything at all. Whatever else is it, it is clear that the US cannot act decisively with so many opposing interests to balance. What is at stake is more than just Syria; the US is attempting to set-up a regional balance of power that might lead to long-term stability. We’re not exactly doing a great job of it at that moment; but on the other hand, Russia faces none of those constraints. About the only truly decisive action the US could take would be to send in a sufficiently large ground force – perhaps 30,000 soldiers – to oust ISIL from Al Anbar and then garrison the region: acting as a guarantor of Sunni rights in Iraq. In other words, a repeat of the Anbar Awakening. But this implies a commitment to keep boots on the ground until the situation in Iraq stabilizes and the fractious ethnic and sectarian segments learn to live together peacefully without a strong man over them. That could take decades. Clearly there is no political will in America to support this.

In summary, the Russians have performed impressively and given notice of their power projection capabilities to the immediate neighborhood including those nations that do not share a land frontier with Russia. This is a clear message directed not only at places like the Baltic States and Finland, but also Sweden, Bulgaria, Azerbaijan and even Japan, with whom Russia still has frontier disputes. Ukraine and Georgia need no such demonstration, of course. This was undoubtedly an ancillary benefit to the deployment, but an important one that Mr. Putin will undoubtedly exploit to the full.

Much has also been written of the linkage between Syria and Ukraine that Russia wishes to establish. This linkage is accomplished by convincing the West that Mr. Assad will not be toppled by the rebel forces arrayed against him and by demonstrating that only Mr. Putin is in a position to broker a deal on both the Syrian and Ukrainian conflicts. Moscow certainly has a tremendous amount of leverage on both fronts, though it presupposes that the United States and Europe have the toppling of Mr. Assad as a strategic priority. That is not the case, whatever Western leaders may say. However, stopping the inflow of Syrian refugees is a European priority; this may be the fulcrum upon which the balance of interests turns.

Both of the previous points are important, but they’ve been important for a long time before Russia acted. I don’t believe either to be the principle drivers of the intervention. Russia’s hand was forced. They moved quickly because they had to in order to avoid a collapse of the Assad regime. They acted from a position of weakness, not of strength. Numerous facts support this assessment:

  • Islamic State forces had handed the Syrian Army a number of important defeats, including the capture of Palmyra, Al Quaryatayn and Tiyas AFB, then advanced to within 5 miles of the vital M5 supply highway linking Damascus with Al Qusayr and the north;
  • Al Baghdadi’s forces had captured the last government-held oil field at Jazal, depriving Assad of a vital supply of hard currency and fuel for his military, and had also expanded their foothold in the southern Qadam district of Damascus;
  • The Islamic State captured the strategic northern city of Al Hasakah, forcing the loyalist garrison to evacuate. The city was soon retaken with substantial Coalition air support, but the primary beneficiary was the Kurdish YPG, who took over 90% of the city;
  • Other rebel groups, especially the Al Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front, made critical gains in Idlib Governate, taking the Abu Al Duhur air base after a lengthy siege and the key mountain village of Jisr al-Shughour. This and the other villages of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains are the gateway into the Alawite heartland; from there you look down on the coastal plains all the way to the sea. If the Alawite heartland crumbles, al Assad’s position would collapse immediately;
  • The Syrian government and army has had to introduce numerous and ever more draconian measures against desertion and draft-dodging. Alawite mothers have been holding back their youngest son rather than having them go off to die a gruesome death at the hands of Nusra Front or ISIL. This indicates that the manpower situation is getting desperate and that the measures introduced have not proven particularly successful at reversing it.

Strategic reverses on the battlefield, a looming threat to the heartland and a deteriorating manpower situation: if Putin hadn’t intervened, Assad’s government might have collapsed with frightening suddenness and rapidity. As Syrian rebels began to attack into the coastal towns and villages in the north, Assad’s most loyal Alawite soldiers might have decided to abandon Damascus in order to defend their families and homes, leaving the capital unguarded. Into that vacuum steps the Islamic State and soon the black flag is hanging from the great Umayyad Mosque, built by al Walid in the 8th Century. At that point, all bets are off[3].

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This is a very different narrative. Far from being a master stroke, the Russians are gambling that their airstrikes and the commitment of Iranian forces will be enough to turn the tide and bring the rebels and the Americans to the bargaining table. It may do neither, however. The short-term results are likely to be positive as rebel forces are forced to disperse to avoid drawing attention, which will limit the possibility of offensive operations. Assad’s forces will undoubtedly make some gains and retake some disputed areas, but they are likely to become bogged down when they approach larger urban centers, where close combat renders Russian air support of much more limited value.

In the long run, it is doubtful if the current level of Russian military support will prove decisive. Assad’s manpower situation is unlikely to improve enough to become a decisive factor. The Syrian Army will suffer serious attrition in every town and city it attempts to recapture, if the experience of Tikrit and Ramadi are a guide. While the Syrians are bleeding men, the CIA estimates that as many as 30,000 foreign fighters joined the Islamic State in the past 12 months despite international efforts to cut-off the flow of volunteers[4]. The likely long-term reactions to Russia’s intervention are:

  1. Further radicalization of the conflict, leading to an increase in the number of volunteers for the Islamic State, both foreigners and among the Syrian-Iraqi Sunnis. Fifty-five dissident Saudi clerics, i.e. those who don’t hew to the official royal line, called for jihad against the Russians, Iranians and Assad soon after the air strikes started…so it begins…
  2. Increased funding and support for Syrian rebels from their Saudi and Gulf State patrons. The Saudis aren’t going to sit by idly and let the Russians and Iranians encircle them; that’s why they’re fighting in Yemen and support the rebels in the first place. I would not be surprised if Syrian rebels began to receive shipments of MANPADS, to make life unpleasant for Russian pilots. What to talk about linkage, Mr. Putin? How about Ukrainian Strela and Igla missiles, bought by the Saudis and shipped to Syria?
  3. If Russo-Alawite pressure on the rebels proved too successful, they might prefer swearing allegiance to the Islamic State rather than being wiped out on their own. That would be very bad news.

With the typical humor of the long-suffering Russian, the cynical joke is already going around: “Son, I don’t want you to go to Ukraine.” “Don’t worry, mom, I’m already in Syria.” Mr. Putin might find himself in a situation of unintended escalation, a position the United States would not necessarily be in a hurry to rescue him from. Whatever his current level of domestic support, Russian mothers aren’t going to keep quiet for long if their sons start coming home in a steady stream of pinewood boxes. Syria is not Afghanistan, but it is not strategically vital like Ukraine either: Russia’s tolerance for casualties in a peripheral theater is much lower today than it was in the Soviet Union.

Unless Mr. Putin can quickly convince the rebels, Turks, Saudis and the United States to come to the bargaining table, Russian military capabilities will not suffice to save Assad or leverage this window of opportunity. The strategic gamble will then have failed, and Putin will find himself embroiled in attrition warfare that he can neither escape nor overwhelm, with sanctions still in place and deteriorating support at home from the people and, more importantly, the elites that run the country. Failure would be taken as weakness and Russia would find itself in a far more dangerous and exposed position than it is in today.


Sources and Notes

[1] Sebastian Schulte and Nicholas de Larrinaga, “German Eurofighters facing serviceability issues,” IHS Jane’s 360, 06 October 2014

[2] The deployable ratio is the percentage of aircraft immediately available for missions. The availability ratio is the percentage of aircraft in operation, but with systems out of service for maintenance or repairs.

[3] Fernando Betancor, “Outside the Box: Is the Islamic State Close to Victory?” Common Sense, 03 September 2015

[4] Eric Schmitt and Somini Sengupta, “Thousands Enter Syria to Join ISIS Despite Global Efforts,” The New York Times, 26 September 2015

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CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 Assessment of Russian Capabilities and Strategy in Syria by Fernando Betancor is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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