30th of September 2015 in Syria: And so it begins… Exactly 2 years ago, Russian Su-24s flew 20 sorties against 8 targets in the Syrian provinces of Homs, Hama and Latakia, marking the beginning of the Russian intervention in favour of its only Middle Eastern ally. In March 2016, we reported that the Russian air force had flown an average of 53 sorties per day from its Hmeimim airbase during its first year of operation in Syria. On some occasions, the sorties peaked at up to 75 sorties per day. Impressive considering it was all done with 44 planes and 26 helicopters. The average sorties for the second year has been around 25 to 30 sorties a day. Russia reduced its aerial footprint in Syria after 13 months of operations, downsizing the size of its airwing there. A move partly compensated by the arrival of the Kuznetsov airwing 2 months later (in November 2016) which consisted of 32 platforms.
In short, in its first year in Syria, Russia consistently flew more sorties per day than the Western Coalition did in a typical month. The ministry of defence of the Russian federation claims 30,660 sorties were operated in total between the 30th of September 2015 and the 30th of September 2017. A figure that agrees with previously released statistics.
Want to see our previous article about the Russians in Syria ? click here:
If you want to learn more about the Hmeimim airbase, go here:
If you’re interested in finding out more about the Kuznetsov airwing, click this:
The Russian intervention in Syria has been full spectrum and multi-faceted. On the military front, the Russians have provided the Syrian troops with robust air support. Their footprint on the ground growing gradually. Russian sappers/engineers, Russian SF and Russian artillery units have all been seen in action in the past 2 years. They have also provided intelligence, repaired the Syrian’s communication facilities, provided their allies with training, maintenance, equipment and weaponry as well as advice and expertise.
Furthermore, they have provided humanitarian support with aid to civilian populations, a temporary police force in liberated areas while new Syrian police officers were being trained and did a big job on the IED, UXO and mine clearance front wherever needed. Finally, Russia has thrown its full diplomatic weight in the battle, supporting their Syrian ally and seeking opportunities to knit new alliances in the region and an outcome in the conflict that would satisfy their own interests as well as their allies’.
When Russian intervened in Syria on the 30th of September 2015, the SAA was losing badly and barely controlled a sliver of land along its coastal area. Damascus, the capital city, was not secure anymore and Al Assad was certainly on the phone to travel agencies trying to find a suitable spot for a potential exile. Two years later, the situation on the ground and in the diplomatic spheres have changed drastically.
How have they done it ? Well, the first thing Russia did was shore up the SAA and consolidate it. The Russian air force engaged targets all along the M5 highway which runs from Damascus to Aleppo. Once the highway was secured, they worked with the Syrian army to expand and secure that coastal zone. It was hard gruelling work and the results, while important, were not spectacular or media worthy.
The first big victory for the Russian-Syrian tandem was the lifting of the siege of the Kweires airbase in November 2015 (http://www.defensionem.com/kweires-airbase-siege-lifted-in-northern-syria/). That Syrian base had been besieged for over 2 years, initially by Al-Nusra, then by ISIS. The fact that a siege imposed by ISIS was broken with the help of the Russian air force contradicted the Western rhetoric that Russia was not engaging ISIS at all, focusing instead on moderate rebels. It also gave hope to the SAA and established a Syrian military foothold East of Aleppo.
All the while, in the North-Western province of Latakia, the fighting raged on against a melting pot of moderate rebels (FSA) , Turkmen militias and Al-Nusra jihadis until most of the province was liberated. The government grip on Homs was also secured and expanded.
In March 2016, Palmyra was liberated from ISIS’ control. The next big battle saw Aleppo, second Syrian city and economic powerhouse of the country, being liberated from Al-Nusra and other Jihadi militias’ occupation in December 2016.
The SAA then went on to push Eastwards toward the Euphrates, clashing with ISIS all the way. That headlong push was a race against time as both the US supported Kurds and the SAA wanted to reach Raqqa first. That is a race the SAA lost, but it nevertheless enabled the Syrians to free huge swathe of territory from ISIS and reach the Euphrates for the first time in years. It also demonstrated the SAA was fast learning, showing off some skills in a war of movement in open terrain and a better cooperation between its ground troops, artillery and air force.
Then came the second liberation of Palmyra in March 2017 which saw the SAA execute a flanking movement around the city that led to the capture of the strategic heights overlooking Palmyra and its subsequent successful liberation from ISIS troops. March 2017 also saw government forces secure Hama.
Since then, fighting has been raging on in Daraa, along the Jordanian border, in Damascus, where the remaining rebels only control a few city blocs and in the Southern desert where the SAA and allied militias have been steadily regaining the control of the Syrian border with Iraq. There, they effectively flanked then surrounded the American outpost of Al-Tanf, making it redundant in its role of supporting rebels along the Jordanian border or as a springboard for an offensive Eastward toward Deir Ezzor.
Finally, in September 2017, came the liberation of the city of Deir Ezzor, which had seen a small garrison and up to 90,000 civilians being besieged by ISIS for over 3 years.
Since September 2015 and the arrival of the Russian expeditionary force in Syria, The Syrian government has quadrupled the surface it controls in the country while most large cities are also under its control.
How Russia helped
Throughout the past 2 years, Russia has supplied the Syrian army with everything it needed:
- Technical support to repair infrastructure, tanks, helicopters and planes.
- Russia trained Syrian sappers, snipers, infantrymen and tank crews.
- The Syrian high command alongside the Iranians and Russians cooperate together closely, they agree on objectives together and on how to reach them. Russia more often than not then defines the strategy and tactics needed to achieve it. The Syrian army is increasingly operating along the lines of Russian doctrines. More worryingly for Israel, the Hezbollah is also learning quickly.
- Russia supplied Syria with its own resources where the Syrians were lacking: Mainly Special Forces, artillery, ELINT/intelligence gathering and of course air power.
- Russia has also supplied the Syrian armed forces with everything from infantryman kits to radio and communication equipment, vehicles, armour, upgraded ammunition for its various weapon systems, and upgrade kits for helicopters and planes. It recently supplied crossing and bridging equipment so the SAA could ford the Euphrates in Deir Ezzor and establish a foothold on the Eastern bank.
- In November 2016, the Russian armed forces created the 5th assault corps which is attached to the SAA, is manned by Syrians, all volunteers, but which is equipped, trained and financed by Russia. Most importantly, it is commanded by a Russian officer which shows how integrated the Russian and Syrian army are in the country.
- Talking about Russo-Syrian integration and what influence and reach the Russian forces have in Syria, check this one out: In September 2017, a group of Russian Military Police Officers were attacked and surrounded by Al Nusra militants in the Idlib province. The Russian outfit defended its position with the help of a local Syrian militia. Moreover, the Russian command at the Hmeimim airbase organised a mixed Russian-Syrian task force to go to the rescue of its stranded police officers. The rescue mission was successful. Russian SF have been seen operating with regulars (SAA), reservists and volunteers (NDF), Lebanese Hezbollah and various local and foreign militias…
- Russia often speaks on behalf of Syria in the many diplomatic rounds concerning the middle eastern country in the global arena.
- Russia submitted the draft for a new Syrian constitution to the Syrian authorities. It may become the base from which all parts start negotiating when the future of Syria will be discussed.
So why has the Russian intervention been so successful ?
To make it short, Russian objectives were clearly defined and simple:
1) Save the Assad government.
2) Liberate as much land as possible from opposing militias and armed groups.
3) Engage any militias that opposed the Syrian army, by defeating them militarily or forcing them, with a blend of force and diplomacy, to accept relocation to the Idlib province or cease combat and accept an amnesty.
4) Kill today, in Syria, as many rebels originating from the Caucasus region as possible so that they do not have to fight them at home tomorrow.
To sum it up, the enemies and objectives were well defined and the rules of engagements crystal clear. The exact opposite of what the US led coalition has gone through…
The problem with the Western coalition is that it is made up of many different countries, some local, some not. All those countries have various levels of motivation or willingness to get engaged in a military adventure in Syria. Many of those countries also follow various objectives and agenda regarding the country and have often diverging interests in this endeavour. A clear objective was never defined, and therefore a clear strategy never developed. There is an estimated 1000 armed groups and militias operating in Syria, many with dubious motives, varying degrees of loyalty and foreign backers.
The stated American objective was to fight ISIS and at the same time to defeat Assad by arming, financing and training moderate rebels. That did not work when they realised the millions of tax payer dollars they invested in those moderate rebels invariably ended up in the hands of extremist militias.
The US also wanted the end of the Assad regime without being willing to confront the SAA directly… This contradiction led Washington to rely on proxies. As explained above, many of those proxies have proven unreliable at best. As the war went on, the US switched its support from Arab rebels to Kurdish militiamen. The bet paid off at first, but this option is slowly running out of steam: The Kurdish militias were more than happy to fight for Kurdish lands. They pushed on to Raqqa and are only slowly moving Southward toward the Deir Ezzor province. As they move further and further away from Kurdish territory, they are slowing down. Fighting for your home is one thing, being used as a proxy army toward an uncertain future is another… Let’s not forget that not all Kurds are nationalists who want independence and that Syrian troops and Kurdish militias have previously cooperated in Aleppo and along the contact line between Kurdish and Turkish militias. You also find Syrian Kurds within the Syrian Army which somehow managed against all odds to remain multi-ethnic and multi-confessional throughout the conflict.
The Western Coalition has also been impeded by its local allies:
Jordan is now considering slowly normalising relations with Damascus and possibly reopen its borders.
Turkey is obsessed with the Kurds and is vexed that Washington considers them an ally. It spends more time shooting at Kurdish militias than it does pursuing the Coalition’s aim of ousting Assad or fighting ISIS. A year ago, Turkey was more than happy to trade with ISIS in oil and stolen antiquities… Last week, Turkey sent its army into Syria yet again, in the Idlib province, in support of some of the (extremist) militias it backs against both the SAA and Al-Nusra… Worse, Turkey has been negotiating with Iran and Russia over the Astana Peace Process and is the guarantor of one of those demilitarised zone set up by the trio in Syria.
Alongside Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar have happily been financing and supporting a constellation of Jihadi militias in Syria… Said militias are often battling US trained rebels in the country or are too busy fighting one another to effectively fight ISIS or the SAA…
What now ?
ISIS still has bite and venom, make no mistakes. But unless the situation next door (Iraqi Kurdistan) degenerates to such an extend that ISIS is permitted to go back onto the offensive, its days as a rogue state and military formation are counted. It will soon have to go back underground, resorting back to insurgency and terror tactics or resurface in another country. The fight for Syrian soil, though, is heating up. Space between Russian, Syrian, Iranian and Western troops is shrinking by the day. Tough decisions are going to be made on all sides as all those players have different objectives and a different view of what a settlement of the conflict should look like… Can all players involved reach a compromise and find a satisfactory exit for themselves without losing face ?