Why is Russia in Syria? Part 2 Escalation of Russian Involvement in Syria

by omouggos

Read Part 1 Here.

Up until recently, Russian assistance to Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while being significant, was limited and in a sense covert. As of this September the situation has radically changed. Russian assistance has now transformed into overt intervention. Russian warplanes are directly and publicly bombing Syrian rebel targets, and reportedly Russian ground forces have already engaged rebels units in combat. It seems reasonable to assume that with Assad’s faltering situation–Jabat al-Nusra advancing in Idlib province, ISIL making inroads into Damascus, and the limited man power and flagging morale of the Syrian Army–Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized that inaction and vacillation on his part could lead to the overthrow of Assad. To maintain his ally in power, Putin decided that immediate and forceful action was needed.

At first there were reports that Russia was increasing its shipments of supplies to Syria, including Russian warplanes, and that it was building a new military base in Latakiah to house the Russian marines that had been sent to Syria.[1] Initially these reports were unsubstantiated, with Russian analysts arguing that they were most likely American propaganda.[2] But these skeptics were wrong. It was not American hot air flying through the skies, but Russian warplanes and AN-124 Condors, loaded with supplies, traversing Iran and northern Iraq to reach Syria.[3]

By the middle of September it had been reported that Russia had deployed tanks, marines, Spetsnaz, and a variety of warplanes. According to DEBKAfile, on September 24 an attack was lauched on the ISIL held Kweiris airbase near Aleppo by Syrian army and Hezbollah forces along with Russian marines.[4] There is also photo evidence, dated to around the beginning of September, showing Russian troops together with Syrian forces, and in some instances apparently engaged in combat.[5] This evidence is contrary to the claims of Russian officials that their forces will not, as of yet, engage in ground combat. Even Putin has said that “We are not planning on doing this (conducting a ground operation).[6]

Then on Wednesday September 30 the Russian bombing campaign in Syria commenced, with rebel targets in Hama and Homs being struck.[7] Since then Russia’s bombing campaign, unofficially called Operation Hmeymim, has continued and intensified. Within a week 100 air raids had struck 80 targets.[8] Then on October 13, 88 sorties were flown striking 86 targets.[9] In total the most recent Russian report stated that 600 sorties have struck 380 ISIL targets.[10] In addition to air strikes the Russians have launched 26 cruise missiles from ships in the Caspian Sea, which struck 11 targets within Syria.[11] In addition to targeting ISIL, other rebel groups such as Jabat al-Nusra, Jaish al-Fatah and Jaish al-Haramoun are in Russia’s crosshairs. Targets include command posts, training camps, munition and fuel stores and munition factories.

Russian airstrikes are not being conducted in isolation, they are increasingly being coordinated with the movements of Syrian Army forces. Putin has said that Russian efforts “will be synchronized with the actions of the Syrian army on the ground and the actions of our air force will effectively support the offensive operation of the Syrian army.[12] This tactic of coupling Russian air power, intelligence and organization, with Syrian, Iranian and Hezbollah ground forces appears to already be yielding results. Syrian forces backed with Russian air power have captured villages in Aleppo, Hama and Latakia provinces, and are making inroads in the hills surrounding Damascus.[13]

Beyond the initial advances of the Syrian Army, Russia’s nascent bombing campaign has, according to Russian and Syrian sources, been very effective. Reportedly rebel groups such as ISIL, Jabat al-Nusra and the FSA are in disarray and hundreds of their fighters have taken to flight.[14] Supporting the claimed effectiveness of Russian air strikes is the FSA announcing that they are “ready for dialogue with Russia.[15] Furthermore, the Russian Defense Ministry tweeted that they have already destroyed the “majority” of ISIL’s munition stores and heavy vehicles, while a spokesman said that rebel militants are experiencing a shortage of ammunition in Hama and Homs provinces.[16]

One hopes that the picture Russian officials are presenting to us is true. Russia will have done a great service to humanity if it destroys ISIL and even ‘more moderate’ groups like Jabat al-Nusra. But, a little skepticism and cynicism are in order, as it seems too good to be true that within a few weeks of limited bombings that the evil ISIL is on the verge of being vanquished. Since Russian air strikes have started at least three senior Iranian commanders, including Hossein Hamedani, were killed near Aleppo presumably in operations against ISIL.[17] During this time, while being bombarded by Russian aircraft, ISIL has gained territory in Aleppo and has cutoff an important Syrian supply route linking Aleppo to Homs.[18] There have also been reports that three Russians, possibly ‘volunteers,’ were killed by artillery fire, presumably by rebels, in Latakia.[19] Of course Russian officials denied this saying “here have been no casualties among soldiers from Russia’s armed forces in Syria,” yet this explanation does not deny the deaths of Russian volunteers just Russian soldiers.[20]

Regardless of the damage done to ISIL and other rebel groups, they are still able to effectively wage war. We must realize that it is in Russia’s interest to exaggerate the successfulness of Operation Hmeymim and Putin, being a former head of the FSB, is not unacquainted with, nor above deception and propaganda.

Keeping the ambiguity of the on the ground situation in Syria in mind, what is clear is that Russia is serious about targeting rebel groups in Syria, especially those that are threatening Assad’s regime. Russia’s strategy is to provide the firepower, coordination and intelligence gathering capability to backup Syrian, Iranian and Hezbollah ground forces who will do most of the dirty work in pushing back rebel forces. In addition Russian airstrikes will degrade the fighting ability of rebel groups. This is not to say that Russian forces will not be participating in combat with rebel fighters, contrary to the official Russian lines. It has been reported that the Russian marines deployed to Syria will be used to protect Russian bases and assets, while elite Spetsnaz units will offensively target rebel forces.[21] So at the moment this is what Russia’s escalated military intervention in Syria entails.

Read Part 3 Here.

O Mouggos


[1] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/11846382/Russia-is-building-military-base-in-Syria.html

[2] http://www.presstv.ir/Detail/2015/09/19/429840/us-russia

[3] http://www.debka.com/article/24875/Russia-eludes-US-ban-on-NATO-airspace-by-roundabout-route-to-Syria-via-Iraq-and-Iran-

[4] http://www.debka.com/article/24902/Russian-marines-join-Hizballah-in-first-Syrian-battle-%E2%80%93-a-danger-signal-for-US-Israel

[5] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/11840713/Russian-troops-fighting-alongside-Assads-army-against-Syrian-rebels.html , http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3226009/First-picture-proof-Russia-troops-ground-Syria-helping-dictator-Bashar-Al-Assad-ve-APRIL.html

[6] http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/middle-east/2015/10/11/Putin-Russia-does-not-want-to-get-involved-in-inter-religious-war-in-Syria-.html

[7] http://www.debka.com/article/24915/Russia-enters-Syrian-war-with-air-strikes-jolts-the-Mid-East-into-new-era

[8] http://orientalreview.org/2015/10/06/russian-operation-hmeymim-in-syria-fuzes-activated/

[9] http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/middle-east/2015/10/13/Putin-says-not-striving-for-leadership-over-Syria.html

[10] http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/middle-east/2015/10/16/Russia-claims-380-ISIS-targets-in-Syria-since-start-of-bombing-.html

[11] https://www.rt.com/news/317864-russian-warships-missiles-launch/

[12] http://www.presstv.ir/Detail/2015/10/07/432382/Russia-Syria-Putin-Shoigu-Daesh-ISIL

[13] http://www.presstv.ir/Detail/2015/10/12/433099/Syria-Russia-Hama-Kafr-Nabuda-Daesh , http://www.presstv.ir/Detail/2015/10/12/433046/Syria-army-Daesh-takfiri-Latakia-ISIL-alNusra-  , http://www.presstv.ir/Detail/2015/10/11/432909/Syrian-army-Hama-Idlib-Russia-airstrikes-Takfiri-militants- , http://www.presstv.ir/Detail/2015/10/24/434736/Syria-Aleppo-Hama-Homs-alNusra-Front-Daesh , http://www.presstv.ir/Detail/2015/10/17/433796/Syrian-army-Harasta-operation-Douma-Damascus-Eastern-Ghouta-Aleppo-Russian-airstrikes-Homs

[14] http://www.presstv.ir/Detail/2015/10/03/431844/Russia-airstrikes-Syria-Idlib-Raqqa-Daesh , http://www.almasdarnews.com/article/over-450-militants-surrender-to-the-syrian-security-forces-in-daraa-nusra-leader-killed-in-busra-al-sham/ , http://shoebat.com/2015/10/05/the-end-of-isis-is-near-russian-forces-are-terrifying-isis-so-much-so-that-3000-terrorists-are-fleeing-syria-headed-to-jordan/

[15] http://presstv.ir/Detail/2015/10/25/434936/Syria-FSA-Russia-Lavrov-Cairo-Fahad-alMasri

[16] http://www.presstv.ir/Detail/2015/10/13/433244/Daesh-Syria-Russia-Defense-Ministry

[17] http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/10/iranian-commanders-killed-syria-151013192529038.html

[18] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/islamic-state-advances-over-wide-swathes-of-aleppo-activists-report/2015/10/09/4ed462d2-6de9-11e5-91eb-27ad15c2b723_story.html , http://www.debka.com/newsupdatepopup/13320/ISIS-seizes-Syrian-army-supply-route-to-Aleppo-

[19] http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/middle-east/2015/10/20/Russian-air-strikes-kill-45-including-rebel-commander-monitor.html

[20] http://www.presstv.ir/Detail/2015/10/20/434272/Russia-Syria-Latakia-Daesh-ISIS-ISIL

[21] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3261560/Now-Russia-sends-special-forces-prop-Assad-Putin-s-fearsome-Spetsnaz-units-preparing-ground-assault-wipe-rebels-fighting-Syrian-President.html