One Month of Russian Airstrikes in Syria: Situation Update
So, on the 30th of September 2015, Moscow projected military power far beyond its borders for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union. One month of Russian airstrikes in Syria, here’s a detailed situation update.
Military Situation Prior To The 30th of September 2015
Russia intervened as the Assad regime seemed on the verge of collapsing. There were entire blocks controlled by rebels in every Syrian towns including the capital Damascus. As for Aleppo, the country’s second biggest city, it seemed on the verge of being lost.
The FSA controlled most of the border with Jordan in the South while Al-Nusra and Ahrar ash-Sham (Army of conquest), the two Al-Quaeda franchises in Syria seemed able to control most of the North-West of the country. As for ISIS, its Caliphate straddled Western Iraq and Eastern and central Syria. ISIS had managed to capture Palmyra, and several pockets near Homs and Hama, getting dangerously close to Damascus.
A basic map of Syria showcasing its major cities.
Even the Latakia province, the Alawite redoubt was not safe anymore. The Kurds still hung to their Northern territories alongside the Turkish border, with one big pocket to the East and a smaller one to the West, unable to close the gap. It is through that gap, via Turkey that most Sunni insurgent groups receive the volunteers joining them as well as the help sent to them by their local backers (Qatar, Bahrain, Turkey, Saudi Arabia).
The last pre-war official statistic concerning the SAA dates to 2010. Back then, the Syrian Arab Army comprised 220,000 regular soldiers, with another 100,000 personnel versed into the logistic, navy or aviation branches of the Syrian Armed Forces. On top of that came 290,000 reservists. As of April 2015, the official figures showed 125,000 soldiers and 125,000 reservists left in active service. The SAA had been bled dry by 4 years of conflict.
On top of the usual war attrition comprising the MIAs, KIAs and wounded, a portion of the army had deserted, either to avoid fighting altogether or to join the Sunni insurgency. As of September 2015, some sources estimate the SAA total strength including reservists as low as between 150,000 and 200,000 men.
Strategy Used By Both Sides (Pro and Anti-Assad) During The 4 Years Of War
It started as a counter insurgency style conflict with pockets of insurrection appearing all over Syria and the army running from one side of the country to the other trying to quell them and exhausting itself in the process.
Pockets grew and it was clear that the army could not protect the whole country; It therefore retreated from several sectors, trying to focus on the “Useful” Syria.
This strategy exposed their supply lines and in some cases, the roles were inverted as in the town of Deir Ezzor or at the Kweires airport which is in the SAA hands but has been besieged and cut off since December 2012, isolated in hostile (ISIS) territory.
As ISIS, FSA and Al-Nusra gained in power and filled the voids left by the retreating Syrian army and the SAA witnessed its own power waning away, the conflict took on a more conventional makeup with marked moving frontlines.
When the Syrian army was able to retake a village because the rebels retreated or when the SAA was able to repulse an attack, it was hailed as a victory despite the enemy living to fight another day.
Russian Strategy And Change Of Strategy Within SAA Due To Russian Influence & Advices
Russia showed it could project a small but effective expeditionary force far from its borders pretty quickly, bringing in 32 different aircrafts, 20 odd helicopters, several transport planes, building a base catering for 2000 personnel, resurfacing the landing strips of the Hmeymim Air Base in Lattakia and decking it with everything from jammers to mobile control towers, and short to medium to long range AA systems.
As stated in my previous article on the subject, the main weapon systems of the Russian expeditionary force brought to Lattakia were twelve Su-25SM, twelve Su-24M2, four Su-30SM, four Su-34 alongside twelve Mi-24P and an unknown number of Mi-8.
The Russian airstrikes in Syria started on the 30th of September 2015 and the Russian-Syrian plan became pretty clear pretty quickly: The Russians would secure their own positions near Tartus and Latakia and then help the SAA and its allies clear Damascus, and fan Northward alongside the international M5 highway, help clear Homs, then Hama all the way to Aleppo.
Raqqa , the de-facto capital of the ISIS Caliphate was only bombed from the second week of the Russian intervention in Syria onward but ISIS positions are now bombed almost daily as Moscow refuses to differentiate between any armed rebel groups operating on the ground.
Watch the Video Of The First Russian Airstrikes in Syria
The Russians bombed various targets during their first week of airstrike but totally ignored the command bunkers and reinforced communication centres near Homs.
The SAA launched its assault on Homs on the second week of the Russian intervention and it is the moment the Russians picked up to target those rebel command posts and communication centres with bunker buster smart missiles. As they had never been targeted, the rebels never evacuated them.
So when the Russian bombs fell on them, they were full and the rebels lost several commanders and communication broke down. The Russians seem to have privileged dumb bombs for the first two weeks of their operations, only using TV guided and Glonass/GPS guided smart ammunition when it was required.
The Russian strategy is clear. Su-24M2 Fencers and drones conduct reconnaissance missions; They also receive around 400 to 800 call a day for air strikes by the Syrian army and its network of informants.
All the data are analysed in the joint command centre in Baghdad where Iraqis, Iranians, Syrians and Russians exchange information about the situation on the ground and decide of a common strategy together.
The Russian planes provide CAS for the SAA, be it when the Syrian army is on the offensive or on the defensive.
That job is often taken by the Su-25SM and Su-24M2. Infrastructure, depots, storage places, warehouses , command centres, training camps and factories are attacked by Su-34, Su-24M2 and Su-25SM depending on availability.
The ubiquitous Mi-24 Hind has appeared on the Syrian battlefield also. The Russians seem to unleash them on the rebels every times they try to break away from the front and retreat, taking them in the open, adding a psychological element to the conflict.
After having taken up heavy losses on the first week of their counter-offensive, the SAA has also adopted a new set of tactics they never used before: Rather than just push back against the rebels, they now try to surround them in pockets and kill or trap a maximum of them rather than allow them to retreat.
They also seem to privilege flanking moves and pincer movements now rather than frontal assaults. This is certainly due to Russian or Iranian advice.
Forces at work
On the ground, the SAA bears the brunt of the Syrian counter-offensive.
Officially, the National Defence Forces (reservists) and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards follow up behind, mopping up pockets of resistance and guarding the flanks but due to the lack of manpower within the SAA and accounting for the several casualties announced amongst the 3000 members of the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution officially present in Syria, it seems both organisations are also involved in frontline operations.
The Syrian Arab Army can also count on the support of the Lebanese Hezbollah (Shia organisation) and the Iraqi Hezbollah (Shia). It can also count on the support of battalions of volunteers raised and manned by Maronite Christians, Syriac Orthodox, Alawites (Shia sect) and Druzes, and even some traditional Sunni tribes, all united against the Wahhabism influenced Sunni insurrection groups.
Note On Hardware Used
Between the 30th of September and the 30th of October, the 32 Russian planes based in Latakia have flown a total of 1391 missions. That’s 46 missions a day on average, meaning that several of those planes fly several missions a day. Foreign observers are surprised not to say impressed that ageing planes such as the Su-24 and Su-25 can absorb that kind of rhythm.
The Su-25 was designed from the start to be a sturdy low maintenance aircraft and the SM variants have had their airframes and engines overhauled to extend their service life, but that does not make them spring chickens.
The case of the Su-24M2 is even more impressive as the M2 variant had improved avionics, weapons and weapon delivery systems installed but the airframes and engines were left untouched as they are slowly replaced by the Su-34 Fullback.
In any case, a French officer was quoted recently as saying that if the Russians wanted to keep on flying missions at that type of tempo, they would have to rotate those planes and bring in “fresh” ones within 4 to 6 weeks as the ones used now would be in need of an overhaul.
The Russians don’t seem to slow down the said tempo as 131 sorties were operated by their planes between the 1st and the 2nd of November which brings it to an average of 2 missions per plane per day.
On a side note, it is interesting to note the launch of 26 Kalibr missiles from 4 small Russian ships of their Caspian Sea Flotilla on the 7th of October. While this is not a game changer for the Syrian conflict, it is a game changer on a global stage as Russia enters the very small club of countries capable of launching very long range cruise missiles from surface ships.
It is also worth noting the use by Syrian or Russian forces of BM-30 Smerch firing sub-munitions in a massive barrage on the 13th of October and the delivery by Russia to Syria of several TOS-1 Buratino service that were put to use by the SAA almost immediately.
That is a classic and it started even before the Russian intervention in Syria.
The Western political leaders and their media have accused Russia of favouring the combat against “moderate” rebel groups while not engaging ISIS and to be in Syria only to support Assad.
There have been accusations of Russian bombing blunders (several hospitals and mosques would have been hit) and some of the Kalibr missile launched from the Caspian Sea may have crashed on their way to Syria.
Russia’s leaders and its press have accused the West of supporting actively or tacitly the Sunni insurgency groups and privileging the fall of Assad rather than the fight against terrorism. They have also accused the US of not respecting international laws and treaties in Syria.
The press and mainstream media on both sides seem to have lost all sense of neutrality and it is becoming a cacophony and a propaganda war. The lack of proper journalism on the part of the media has given a field day to smaller outlets spreading all sorts of conspiracy theories and hatred online.
Results On The Ground
The Russians claim to have destroyed 1623 “terrorist” objectives in their first month of operation, including amongst others 249 command and communication centres; 51 terrorist training camps; 786 field camps / bases and 131 ammunition depots.
It is also interesting to note they bombed a bridge at Deir ez-Zor on the 23rd of October. This bridge crossing the Euphrates was important to ISIS as it was used to transfer supplies and men between Iraq and Syria. This may help the Iraqis as well as the Syrians.
The front has moved, definitively. Damascus’ forces in the course of the last 3 weeks have retrieved 350 square kilometres of land mainly from Al-Nusra and the FSA. 50 inhabited areas, city blocks and villages have been liberated by the SAA. Homs and Hama are now almost entirely back into Assad’s control and Aleppo is slowly being surrounded. The Kweires base siege could also soon be lifted as loyalist forces are now only 5 kilometres from the airport.
But for all their progress, the Syrian forces loyalist to Assad and their allies are seriously lacking in men and have problems securing their Eastern flanks and supply line.
While they have been seriously weakened by Russian strikes in Syria and the SAA’s counter attack, the jihadist groups are not defeated yet. They have lost the ability to operate as an army as any troop concentration in the open is pounded by the RuAF. Rebel have tried to drive in convoys at night but are tracked by drones and engaged whenever detected also. They have therefore reverted to counter-insurgency tactics, acting in small groups.
ISIS managed to cut the M5 near Hama last week and hold a stretch of this highway for 24-48 hours, forcing troops designated to fight in Aleppo to turn back and fight to reopen it. On the 1st of November, ISIS did it again, but slightly South, near Homs, recapturing a village and cutting off the M5 highway once again.
It took 24 hours for the regime to retake the area thanks to the RuAF bringing in National Defence Force men by helicopters in the vicinity. This delayed the planned advance toward the besieged Kweires airport.
A village in the Latakia province was captured by Al-Nusra on the 3rd of November.
Those may be pin pricks on the part of the Jihadist groups, but it is an effective means of fighting the Syrian Arab Army, diverting its meagre resources in several places, trying to rob it of its momentum and initiative.
The last city blocks in Homs and Hama and especially Aleppo will be very hard to retake as the rebels there have had months if not years to booby trap everything and fortify their positions. Pictures emerged yesterday (2nd of November) of Alawite women in cages used as human shields by FSA rebels in Southern Damascus, to avoid being attacked by the SAA or bombed by the RuAF.
And for as long as Aleppo stands in the hands of the rebels, it means they control that stretch of Turkish border through which countless volunteers and supplies send by Al Nusra and ISIS sponsors go through.
In some areas of Syria, different rebel groups have started to fight each others as control of territories signifies control of supply routes and levies of taxes on the population. However, other rebel groups have allied with each other to face the treble threat of the Russian bombing, the SAA advancing and ISIS attacking westward.
There are also reports or desertion amongst rebel groups and public executions of said deserters to deter other volunteers from fleeing, so morale might be flagging within several of those rebel groups.
Being objective, if the SAA manages to retake Aleppo and close the Northern border with Turkey, it would be a tremendous achievement for the forces loyal to Assad.
But there are serious doubts about their capacity to then move westward and defeat ISIS. They cruelly lack manpower and all the Russian hardware in the world cannot change that fact.
Political And Diplomatic Changes
The USA has decided to abandon its half billion dollars program to arm the FSA or create a moderate rebel army as it has been a complete failure. However, they have decided to try and fight ISIS through supporting the Kurds, taking the risk while doing so to anger Ankara. Turkey’s president Erdogan has already declared that “he would not allow the Kurdish terrorists to take over Northern Syria”.
The USA have also dropped 50 tons of ammunitions and weapons to “known moderate rebel groups” inside Syria on the 12th of September, angering Moscow in the process. The new American strategy, alongside working closer with Kurdish forces seems to privilege known rebel commanders on the ground. Officially, anti ISIS commanders, The Russians accuse them to be anti-Assad groups instead.
Finally, President Obama has announced American SF would go inside Syria, on the ground to help rebel groups fight ISIS. Once again, Moscow accused the US “to try and impose no fly zones and safe havens for rebels inside the Syrian territory by all means”.
John Kerry, the US secretary of state, has announced he was not against cooperating with anybody willing to fight ISIS (hinting at Russia) while Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign minister said Russia was willing to work with any party willing to fight terrorism (hinting at America).
So those two may not agree on everything, Russia is pretty much still on Assad and the Shia side of the Middle East and the US is still pretty much on the Sunni side of the region but they are communicating which is good.
Russia has established a “Red Telephone” in its joint command centre in Baghdad with the American embassy. They communicate twice a day routinely, sometimes more if needed as Russian and US planes have come as close to each other as 20 km in the past month and Russian fighter jets have at least once closed in on an American drone for visual ID.
There is also an emergency line installed between the Russian command centre and Israel and one with Jordan as some of the Russian airstrikes in Syria are very close to the borders of those two countries.
There have been collateral talks between Iraq and Russia as several members of the Iraqi government would like to formally request air support from Russia over the Iraqi territory. The fact ISIS transfers troops from Iraq to Syria may be an opportunity for Iraq to counter attack and try to regain lost ground but the last two Iraqi encounters with ISIS resulted in spectacular victories for the vastly outnumbered ISIS militants… There have also been collateral talks between Saudi Arabia and Russia.
On the 30th of October, a “peace conference” was organised in Vienna where several parties involved in the conflict met. It was more of a preliminary meeting which still managed to last about 8 hours. Several Syrian opposition groups as well as Assad representatives were not present.
However, Iranian diplomats were sitting next to their Russian colleagues signifying a return to international affairs for Iran after decades of isolation. The fact Iran and Saudi Arabia were present at the same table is a huge progress in itself but results and a quick outcome in Syria, be it diplomatic or military is not to be expected. The parties involved are still squabbling about Assad’s future.The intervention of the Russian forces in Syria will have permitted one thing at least: Communication as it seems (almost) everyone is willing to talk to each other in the region right now.