U.S. Strikes and Russian PMC Casualties in Syria – Fact vs Fiction

It’s become common knowledge that a U.S. strike took out an advancing column of Syrian forces on February 7th in defense of SDF positions east of Deir ez-Zor, and more likely to protect U.S. SOF embedded with them. Since then the story of Russian casualties among supporting PMCs (mercenaries belonging to private military companies) has proliferated across the internet and newspaper articles, with many of the facts and figures inaccurate. I’ve seen 100 dead, 200 dead, 600 dead, dozens, hundreds, scores of dead, and so on and so forth. Unfortunately Russian casualties, troops participating in military exercises, or similar such events have a large “applied internet multiplier” whereby they increase several fold depending on the source. By current figures many of those involved in the fighting February 7-8 were killed at least twice, if not multiple times.

Due to a lack of credible information serious newspapers are citing some Russian businessman, a Syrian commander, and all sorts of other conflicting sources. The contradictory stories are reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa’s famous film Rashomon, where every character has their own often self-serving narrative about the same event. After a journalist called this morning to inquire whether it is true that U.S. airpower took out 20% of Russian ground forces in Syria it seems time for something sensible to be written on the matter. I’m updating this a bit as better information comes out.

Actual casualties among PMCs in this episode are likely somewhere on the order of 13-15 dead and a relatively equal number wounded. Initial reporting seemed closer to a dozen than dozens. The casualties  from this strike are spread between a Syrian unit known as ISIS Hunters (~20 KIA) and the bulk among SAA units which seemed to include some percentage of local fighters from the area (these numbers might be around 40 or more). There is word of a Syrian brigadier killed as well along with the SAA soldiers. More than likely this was an unit from Syria’s 5th Assault Corps supported by PMCs. The 13-15 PMC casualties are also not all necessarily Russian, but thus far all the confirmed dead are. A good number seem to be Cossacks, and many are fighters who previously were part of separatist formations in the Donbas, either directly on behalf of DNR or under contract as mercs.

Feb 16: Updating after more information and some additions from fighting February 10th. The better number increasingly looks like ~40 dead and 70 wounded as in MK article. I’m more inclined towards MK numbers in this graphic than any of the other figures. Those are figures for combined casualties, referencing 3 companies of Wagner involved in support of Syrian forces. Of these the number of PMCs killed and wounded is probably more than a dozen but doubtfully exceeds 30-40.

MK article here: http://www.mk.ru/politics/2018/02/13/pogibli-40-raneny-72-istochnik-v-chvk-vagnera-utochnil-poteri.html

A good source comparison chart to figure out where all these numbers are coming from can be found here: https://chervonec-001.livejournal.com/2227259.html

This is a photo of ISIS Hunters holding a funeral following the strike

ISIS Hunters funeral

The KIA count may go up depending on the fate of the wounded. There is a general assumption based on the evidence that the few PMCs killed belong to Wagner ChVK, as Wagner is the principal mercenary group fighting in support of SAA in Syria. As is often the case, facts point to a much less exciting and sensational story behind the headlines.

Judging from their twitter they are definitely unhappy

ISIS hunters twitter

According to DoD statements, and those by SecDef Mattis, the attacking force approximated ‘300 pro-regime forces’ in a surprise push towards SDF positions on February 7. Thus, the fantastic figures of hundreds dead, including Igor Girkin’s 644, can be safely thrown out the window. Somewhere on the order of 200 dead is also highly improbable unless the numbers for those attacking were much higher than being reported by the American side. The U.S. would have to kill literally everyone involved, and that seems quite a reach for typical rules of engagement.

Later on, DoD statements elaborated that the attack came evening of Feb 7th, and it included a ‘dismounted battalion sized element’ which was turned back. So this is somewhere on the order of 300-500 attacking but they only had contact with a part of the force. The difference in the numbers between Mattis’ initial 300 and LTG Harrigan’s battalion is in the leading half of the battalion, which dismounted (200-300), that U.S. forces struck and most of the casualties were among this element.

Since LTG Harrigan indicated the attack was not unexpected, and they observed the buildup for some time (https://www.defense.gov/News/Transcripts/Transcript-View/Article/1441080/department-of-defense-press-briefing-by-lieutenant-general-harrigian-via-teleco/), it explains better how so many assets were involved in beating back the assault – MQ-9, F-15E, F-22, even B-52 and AC-130. B-52 in particular would take some time to arrive on station. This suggests the U.S. knew the attack was coming, and they told the Russians they knew, and the action went forward anyway.

This episode appears to have taken place around Al-Tabiyeh east of Deir ez-Zor. Syrian forces began an attack on SDF positions, with armor and artillery. Then U.S. forces made contact with Russian MoD to deconflict, and after being told there were no Russian soldiers there, which by all accounts there were not, they struck the advancing units. Total casualties are probably less than 100 with a approximately 40 SAA, 20 ISIS Hunters, and 13-15 PMC split (although unclear if SAA losses include ISIS Hunters losses in which case it might even more conservative).

The exact reason for why this episode took place is naturally unclear, but it may be connected to the overall friction between Syrian forces wanting to seize energy infrastructure, gas and oil, from SDF forces. The latter took it from ISIS, and of course need the resources, just as the Syrian regime needs the money to sustain a rump state. There are also Russian interests there looming in the background, among people interested in contracts handling Syrian energy extraction post-conflict, and hoping that PMCs can secure potential energy cash cows. This episode may be due to poor coordination, deliberate probing, or as often happens in war – a confluence of events yields compound risk as mistakes and misjudgments stack.

From higher altitude, the U.S. has a strategy to maintain presence in Syria via SDF, and Russia has a strategy to make the regime as viable as possible financially, while pushing U.S. proxies further east. Astride the war between Turkey and Kurds playing out in Afrin, the war between Israel and U.S. vs Iranian presence in the south, this is technically Syria’s war #3 which involves Russian forces backing SAA to retake more of Idlib and gain ground east of Deir ez-Zor.

P.S. Behind this tale is another looming story about some Syrian T-72 that was taken out by a U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drone in defense of SDF positions and embedded U.S. advisers (internet can’t decide if its Russian or Soviet made). Actually on the video available it first looked more like a T-90, supplied by Russia to Syria’s 5th Assault Corps. There is an object right of the gun that looks like a Shtora system than IR illuminator from T-72BA – but this was not the case. https://www.military.com/daily-news/2018/02/13/us-mq-9-reaper-takes-out-russian-t-72-tank-syria.html (I got this photo from the same article)

Looking at it some more later the V barrier on the front seems to point to T-72M, which is the more probable answer. This is is from Feb 10 fighting.

DoD video shows a U.S Air Force Reaper strike on a Russia-made T-72 tank. (Screen shot of DoD video)

We stand by to find out from the internet whether this particular tank was filled with hundreds of Russian PMCs or personally driven by Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu.

Figures compiled from a few news sources like Novaya Gazeta, Meduza, etc. some blog sources that are ‘pro-Russian’ but fairly well informed on the situation in Syria, work put out by CIT, other journalists/experts currently working the issue)

https://www.novayagazeta.ru/articles/2018/02/13/75496-oshibka-ili-predatelstvo

https://www.novayagazeta.ru/news/2018/02/12/139439-cit-uznala-imena-pogibshih-v-sirii-boytsov-chvk-vagnera

MK might have the best sources: http://www.mk.ru/politics/2018/02/13/pogibli-40-raneny-72-istochnik-v-chvk-vagnera-utochnil-poteri.html

Oryx probably took number of dead and did standard 3x wounded multiplier, which makes sense.

Col Cassad is useful in giving the likely numbers of Syrians killed in all of this although should be read understanding the politics of his blog

https://colonelcassad.livejournal.com/3996122.html

https://colonelcassad.livejournal.com/3990824.html

What Kind of Victory for Russia in Syria?

Reposting an article that just came out on the Russian campaign in Syria, co-authored with my good colleague and friend, Matthew Rojansky, who directs the Kennan Institute. This piece was published in the Military Review, Army University Press. Below we delve into the origins of Russia’s intervention in Syria, the course of the campaign, Russian strategy, and assess Moscow achieved its political objectives.

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The war in Syria has ground on for more than half a decade. Hundreds of thousands have died, entire cities and towns have been destroyed, and billions of dollars in infrastructure have been decimated. Millions of refugees have flooded into neighboring Middle Eastern states that can ill afford to house them, while others have sought safety as far away as Europe and North America, exacerbating divisive battles over immigration, jobs, and cultural identity in Western democracies.

Syria has tested every world leader individually and collectively, and has laid bare the failure of international institutions to deal effectively with the problems those institutions were designed to manage and prevent. Despite a prolonged commitment of U.S. military and diplomatic resources to the conflict, a peaceful settlement remains remote, and the bloody-handed Assad regime remains firmly in control of population centers along the Mediterranean coast. The impending battlefield defeat of the Islamic State (IS) in the desert interior of Syria and Iraq is qualified by the fact that its fighters have joined and inspired more elusive terror cells outside the region.

Meanwhile, the Russian-led coalition, including Syrian forces, Iran, and numerous allied militias, appears to be closing in on its own military and political objectives. The Syrian conflict will likely enter a new phase in 2018, as both IS and the Syrian opposition cease to be relevant forces, and the two coalitions seek to negotiate a postconflict settlement. While it is far from assured that any settlement acceptable to the principle domestic and international players can be struck, for now the main outcome of this war is that President Bashar al-Assad will stay, but the Syria that existed before the war is gone.

Russia has only been directly involved in this conflict since September 2015, but its intervention has radically changed the war’s outcome. The natural question is whether Russia has, in fact, won a victory. The answer to that question depends first on what Moscow intended to achieve—in other words, how did and does Russia define victory in Syria, what are its continuing interests there, and have those interests been secured or advanced?

While the Russian campaign might be judged a qualified success from the standpoint of the Kremlin’s own objectives, Russia’s actual performance in both military and political terms bears closer examination. How did the Russians achieve their successes, both on the battlefield and on the wider diplomatic and political stage? Finally, armed with a better awareness of how Russia’s Syria campaign measured up in terms of Russian objectives and capabilities, what lessons should Americans take away for future U.S. engagement in Syria, the Middle East, and beyond?

Origins of the Russian Intervention

That American and Russian military power came to meet on the ground and in the skies over Syria in 2015 is a kind of historical accident. The country was hardly the centerpiece of either state’s global strategy, or even their respective regional policies.

Russian-Syrian relations draw on a Cold War legacy, since Moscow first began to support Syria after the 1956 Suez Crisis. However, Syria did not become a true client state of the Soviet Union until 1971.The Soviet Union gained a well situated naval base in Tartus, on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, to support its Fifth Eskadra—an operational naval squadron—along with intelligence-gathering facilities ashore.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Soviet fleets departed the Mediterranean, and the importance of Syrian bases rapidly declined. Moscow had far less cash available to sustain its patronage network of client states; relations with Syria became decidedly transactional, as Russia sought payment for continued arms sales. Russian ships continued exploiting the port of Tartus as a minor resupply point, but with little military significance. Tartus was, in any case, ill equipped for Russian ships to dock, and for a lengthy period, there was little Russian naval activity to even merit its use. That changed in the wake of the 2015 Russian intervention. The expanded Tartus port is now much more capable of supporting operations and resupplying the Russian Mediterranean squadron, which was stood up in 2013 for the purpose of supporting Syria.

In general, Russia did not seek bases in Syria; it had to establish them and expand existing infrastructure to save the Syrian regime. Buoyed by perceived success, and looking to stay, in 2017 Russia signed a forty-nine-year lease on Tartus, which is still in the process of being upgraded into a serviceable naval base. What the Syrian relationship truly offered for post-Soviet Russia was a position in the Middle East, which helped confer great power status in international politics. A confluence of events led to what would become Moscow’s most significant military foray beyond the immediate post-Soviet space in over a quarter century.

Although Russia had lingering interests in Syria, the changing context of U.S.-Russia relations beginning in 2011 was a more influential factor in how Moscow would come to view this conflict. Russia’s response to the U.S.-led intervention in Libya in that year was categorically negative, and Moscow sought to draw a line in the sand in Syria, opposing U.S. use of force to advance what it viewed as a “regime change” agenda. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov applied the Libya logic to Syria directly in May 2011, when he said, “The calculation is that foreign players will get imbued with this problem and will not only condemn the violence there, but subsequently repeat the Libyan scenario, including the use of force.”1

The cornerstone of Russian policy in Syria became preventing the United States from carrying out a Libya-like intervention to overthrow Assad. Lavrov warned, “Some leaders of the coalition forces, and later the NATO secretary-general, called the Libyan operation a ‘model’ for the future. As for Russia, we will not allow anything like this to happen again in the future.”2 The fear of yet another U.S. military intervention, this time much closer to Russia itself, and targeting its only remaining client in the Middle East, was seemingly vindicated when President Barack Obama called for Assad to step aside.3 Russia was determined to check U.S. interventionism, initially by supplying the Syrian regime with arms and equipment, and by blocking efforts to pressure the regime in the UN Security Council.

Equally important was the firm belief among Russian elites that Assad’s downfall would result in IS and al-Qaida affiliates taking over the country, spelling disaster for the region and creating a potential superhighway for Sunni extremists into Turkey and the Caucasus. This concern was somewhat vindicated as the ongoing civil war combined with the displacement of civilians due to the rise of IS resulted in a massive refugee flow into Turkey, neighboring countries, and central Europe, causing uncertainty and threatening regional stability (see figure 1). Unlike distant Libya, a complete implosion of Syria was not only too close for Russia’s comfort, but thousands of Russian citizens and thousands more Russian-speakers from the wider region had already joined militant extremist groups fighting there.4 Moscow feared that in the event of an IS victory, some of those fighters would enter Russia and join insurgencies in the North Caucasus or plot attacks against the Russian heartland. Accordingly, some Russians described entering the fray in Syria as launching a preventive war against terrorism.

Figure 1. Syrians in Neighboring Countries and Europe

Figure 1. Syrians in Neighboring Countries and Europe (Graphic courtesy of the BBC.; latest figures up to 3 March 2016. Source: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees)

Russian interests and objectives in the Syrian intervention also stem from the collapse in Russia-West ties following Moscow’s invasion of eastern Ukraine and annexation of Crimea in 2014. In this sense, U.S. and European sanctions and diplomatic pressure catalyzed the Russian decision to intervene in Syria. Rather than giving in to Western pressure and offering concessions on Ukraine, Moscow looked to Syria to broaden the confrontation on terms more favorable to itself. Eventually, Russia hoped its Syrian intervention could force Washington and its European allies to abandon Ukraine-related sanctions and diplomatic isolation in the interests of achieving a negotiated settlement with Russia over Syria.

Russian domestic political considerations were also a factor, though their role should not be overstated. Russia’s military dealt Ukraine a blow at the battle of Debaltseve in February 2015, leading to the second Minsk ceasefire agreement, which appeared to be a political victory for Moscow. The agreement quickly broke down, however, and Western sanctions remained in full effect, taxing the Russian economy at a time of persistently low energy prices. Struggling to stabilize the economic situation at home, and with policy in Ukraine increasingly adrift, there was little prospect for Russian leadership to gain further victories either at home or in Russia’s near abroad. Although Moscow hardly saw entering a bloody civil war in the Middle East as a path to easy gains, Russia’s tolerance for the risks attendant on intervention grew dramatically in the face of these domestic and international pressures.

A limited Syrian intervention, calibrated to reduce political risk at home, became the less perilous proposition. By mid-2015, Moscow had few alternatives to use of force if it hoped to shore up the Assad regime, its ally in Damascus. In April, the situation for Assad’s forces was dire. Al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, had assembled a coalition of fighters into the “Army of Conquest,” which drove back regime forces in the northwest and threatened major population centers further south. At the same time, IS was pushing westward, and had captured the historic city of Palmyra. Assad’s forces were being squeezed, and they were falling back on almost all fronts. That summer, the head of Iran’s Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, together with senior Syrian officials, made several trips to Moscow in an effort to coordinate a military intervention.5 By August that year, there were clear indicators that Russia was preparing to intervene, and when Russian tactical aviation began arriving at Hmeimim Air Base in September 2015, the die was cast. Figure 2 depicts the approximate Syrian situation in terms of territorial control exercised by particiapnts in the conflict near the outset of Russian operations initiated in support of the Assad regime.

Framing the Russian Intervention

Although hemmed in by tactical necessities, Moscow’s entry into the Syrian fray was also strategically ambitious. A successful intervention could offer victory on three fronts: preventing U.S.-backed regime change in Syria, breaking out of political isolation and forcing Washington to deal with Russia as an equal, and demonstrating at home that Russia is a great power on the main stage of international politics. Moscow hoped Syria would offer a new and more favorable front, where the United States could be outmaneuvered in the broader confrontation, which up to 2015 centered almost entirely on Russian actions in Ukraine.

Figure 2. Syrian Civil War: Territorial Control Map as of November 2015

Figure 2. Syrian Civil War: Territorial Control Map as of November 2015 (Graphic by edmaps.com; Twitter, edmaps.com; © 2017 Cristian Ionita)

Once military operations began, as is often the case with military campaigns, the intervention would take on additional objectives, reflecting secondary or tertiary vested interests. “Ambition creep” is a common illness afflicting most great powers when they deploy military forces. Russia may not have come to Syria with hopes of regaining power and status in the Middle East at the top of its agenda, but regional aspirations grew with each success on the battlefield. As a consequence, Russia has become a potential powerbroker, and perhaps a balancer against U.S. influence, even if it did not embark on the Syrian campaign with those goals in mind.

Whatever Russian expectations of success may have been—and there are indications that the Syrian leadership misled Moscow early on as to the true state of its forces (historically not an uncommon practice for Damascus)—Moscow pursued a campaign with both political and military objectives in fairly close alignment. These efforts were mutually reinforcing, but a path to victory had to overcome steep challenges.

On the ground, Russian forces had to find a way to quickly and dramatically alter the balance in Assad’s favor by destroying the opposition’s capacity to continue the fight, while working under severe resource constraints. In parallel, Russia had to change the calculus and policy of its principal opponents in this conflict, including Turkey, the United States, and Saudi Arabia, while entering into arrangements with other potential actors in the region. Otherwise, military gains would quickly disappear in the sand, and a political victory would be elusive. Russia also needed a political process running concurrently to lock in military gains on the ground, since as Mao Zedong wrote, political power would “grow from the barrel of a gun.”

Relations with allies like Iran, cobelligerents in the form of local militias, or potential spoilers such as Israel had to be carefully managed. The compound risk of conflicting political incentives and operational objectives among these parties made for a complex battle space. The risks of escalation to direct conflict between the intervening powers were considerable, as underscored by Syria’s use of chemical weapons in March 2017, resulting in a prompt retaliatory U.S. cruise missile strike, or the Turkish shoot down of a Russian Su-24M2 in November 2016. Russia led the coalition, but never controlled it; thus, it had to be comfortable with uncertainty and the associated risk of having the likes of Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah on its team.

Syrian soldiers who have defected to join the Free Syrian Army secure a street 27 January 2012 in Saqba

Syrian soldiers who have defected to join the Free Syrian Army secure a street 27 January 2012 in Saqba, just east of Damascus, Syria. The diverse groups loosely associated under the Free Syrian Army designation became the initial primary targets of Russian operations in Syria since they most directly and immediately threatened the authority of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. (Photo courtesy of Freedom House, Flickr)

Success for Russia entailed securing a commitment from the other parties to pursue a political settlement largely on its terms. This meant convincing Saudi Arabia and Turkey that their respective proxies had no chance of victory in the war, and pushing the United States to abandon its policy favoring regime change. Over time, Moscow achieved success on both the military and political fronts, coercing adversaries and negotiating changes to their positions one by one, though the pathway to this outcome was hardly a smooth or straightforward one. Russia’s success is not unqualified, but at the time of this writing, it appears that if the campaign in Syria is not a victory for Russia, it is certainly a defeat for those who opposed the Russian-led coalition.

Russian Strategy in Syria

To achieve this success, Russia had to secure some leverage in Syria, which in turn rested on being able to destroy the Syrian opposition and compel opponents to change their policies, forcing them and their proxies in the conflict to the negotiating table on terms favorable to Russia’s coalition. Moscow also sought the opportunity to reframe itself as a positive force in the battle against terrorism, and press the United States into military cooperation. Russian leaders hoped this would ultimately fracture Western cohesion on punitive measures imposed over Ukraine, and grant Russian President Vladimir Putin recognition as a prominent player in international affairs.

These were the desired ends, yet the Russian strategy was not deliberate. If anything, Russia pursued an “emergent,” or “lean,” strategy. This was an approach characterized by the “fail fast, fail cheap” ethos of startup business, with iterative adjustments to the operation. The centerpiece of this strategy was flexibility, with a preference for adaptation over more structured strategy. In emergent strategy, success begets success, while failure is never final or disqualifying. Several vectors are pursued simultaneously, and at times, they may even appear to be contradictory. Resources are added in favor of the approach that shows the most progress, while others are discarded without regard to “sunk costs.”6

Militant Islamist fighters parade 30 June 2014 in the streets of northern Raqqa Province, Syria

Militant Islamist fighters parade 30 June 2014 in the streets of northern Raqqa Province, Syria, to celebrate their declaration of an Islamic “caliphate” after the group captured territory in neighbouring Iraq. The Islamic State (IS) posted pictures similar to this one online of people waving black flags from cars and holding guns in the air, and Russian forces, after supporting Assad’s defeat of Free Syrian Army forces holding the northern city of Aleppo, turned their primary attention to defeating IS. (Photo by Reuters stringer)

To be successful in implementing a lean strategy, leadership must be agile, politically unconstrained, and uncommitted to any particular approach in the battle space, i.e. willing to improvise and adjust course. In Russia’s case, it actually helped being an authoritarian system, and having relatively few allies or other geopolitical constraints on decision-making. But Russia also had few other options. Given resource constraints and high uncertainty, including poor information about the reality on the ground from its allies, Russia was not in a position to pursue a more deliberate strategy. That limitation ultimately played to Russia’s advantage relative to other powers, which expended considerably more blood and treasure via structured and deliberate, but ultimately less successful approaches in the region. Russia’s lean strategy worked, because when flawed assumptions were proven wrong in the conflict, it could quickly pivot and adapt.

Still, the limitations of the Russian armed forces imposed hard constraints on Russia’s overall operation. The Russian military had almost no experience with expeditionary operations after withdrawing from Afghanistan in 1989, Syria itself had limited capacity to host a major military footprint, Russia’s long-range supply and support capabilities were weak, and the Russian military was in the midst of major reforms and modernization. Coordinating with Iran and its associated Shia militias like Hezbollah was an added complexity on an already crowded battlefield, while Russian commanders had a generally low opinion of Syrian forces’ combat performance. In short, it was far from clear how the forces Russia could deploy would make the impact needed to turn the conflict around. Early on, outside observers doubted the prospects for Russia’s intervention, especially given recent Western experiences in expeditionary operations in the Middle East.

The campaign Russia envisioned would be based on a small footprint to keep its exposure low, reducing the chances of being steadily dragged into a conflict where local actors increasingly gain leverage over a stronger international benefactor. Russian leadership instead sought room to maneuver, retaining flexibility and the option of quick withdrawal should things go badly. In the early days of Russia’s intervention, physical constraints limited its presence. Tartus was not a real naval base, Hmeimim Air Base lacked apron space for a large contingent of Russian aircraft, other Syrian bases were exposed, surrounded, or ill equipped, and Russian logistical support would have limited throughput.

In short, reality helped dictate a more conservative and ultimately smarter approach to the battle space. It was not Moscow’s skill or experience, but the absence of abundance and limited options that made the Russian armed forces savvier in how they approached the conflict. That said, even after expanding the Syrian air base and making major investments in the naval facility, Russia’s General Staff continued to calibrate presence down to the bare minimum necessary. By 2017, it became clear that despite increased local capacity to host Russian forces, and improved infrastructure, Moscow was reluctant to use it. The opportunity to expand the means applied to this conflict was there, but Russia did not want it, judging that Syria would not be won with a means-based approach, the all too familiar “more is more” school of thought.

The Russian strategy was about Syrian, Iranian, and Shia militias doing the fighting and Russian forces providing support, not the other way around. Syria continued to reveal the general Russian preference to use local forces first, mercenaries and other Russian proxies second, and its own forces last, only for decisive effect on the battlefield. Russian military power would pulse, peaking when necessary in support of offensives and withdrawing when judged unneeded.

Russian Combat Operations in Syria

When Russian forces first arrived in Syria in September 2015, they inherently introduced a new dynamic, compelling what became a dialogue on “deconfliction” arrangements with the United States. Several Su-30SM heavy multirole fighters were shown on the runway at Hmeimim Air Base as Su-24M2 bombers began to deploy. Leveraging an upcoming UN Security Council General Assembly summit, Moscow pressed for a high-level bilateral meeting between Putin and Obama—a break from what had been more than a year of U.S.-imposed diplomatic “isolation” of Russia in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

A Russian Sukhoi Su-34 fighter-bomber aircraft drops a KAB-500S, a 560 kg satellite-guided bomb

A Russian Sukhoi Su-34 fighter-bomber aircraft drops a KAB-500S, a 560 kg satellite-guided bomb, on an enemy position 9 October 2015 in the Aleppo or Racca region of Syria. (Photo courtesy of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation)

Though the Obama administration rankled at the appearance that it had been coerced into restoring military dialogue, the risk of a military incident between the two big nuclear powers in the skies over Syria trumped other considerations.7 In a ninety-minute discussion, the two sides agreed to continue efforts to “deconflict” operations. Within days, Russia had achieved its first political gains from the intervention, which had yet to conduct a single sortie.

Still, it was clear that there was no agreement on the political way forward in Syria, and early Russian targeting in the air campaign, which launched on 30 September 2015, revealed that Russia’s air wing would focus on the “moderate” Syrian opposition under the rubric of a counterterrorism fight. Moscow’s rules of engagement were relatively simple: there was little to no distinction between the various nongovernment armed groups in Syria, as all except for Kurds and pro-regime militias would be considered “terrorists.” Putin declared at the UN assembly, “We think it is an enormous mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian government and its armed forces, who are valiantly fighting terrorism face to face. We should finally acknowledge that no one but President Assad’s armed forces and Kurdish militias are truly fighting the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations in Syria.”8

This was not just a matter of convenience for the sake of establishing a free-fire zone. Indeed, from Russia’s perspective, there was no such thing as a “moderate” opposition in Syria, and the entire term was a misguided Western invention aimed at legitimizing extremists opposed to Assad. The Russian political strategy at home and abroad was to frame the conflict as binary—only Assad’s regime had legitimacy, and all others were de facto terrorist groups of varying stripes allied with IS or Jabhat al-Nusra.9 Over time, Russia would also seek to create a systemic opposition, cobbling together forces that would be amenable to sharing power with the Assad regime.

Taking advantage of the momentum in 2015, Russia set up an intelligence sharing and coordination center in Baghdad, which included Syria, Iran, Iraq, and Israel. The center’s purpose was to deconflict Russian air operations with neighboring countries. Moscow also hoped to create the public sense that it was leading a coalition of countries in a counterterrorism effort no less legitimate than the U.S.-led coalition against IS. Russia’s leadership sought to parlay this posture and the U.S.-Russian deconfliction dialogue into more formal recognition of U.S.-Russia cooperation in Syria. Indeed, Moscow repeatedly asked for Washington’s acknowledgement of the Russian-led coalition as a legitimate partner in the Syrian war, which would have amounted to a recognition of Russia as Washington’s geopolitical “equal,” at least in this context.

Initial Russian combat operations were intended to change the momentum on the battlefield, providing a substantial morale boost to the Syrian forces and allied militias. Russia also hoped the United States would cede the battle space, at least by default, by focusing on its own combat operations against IS in Northern Iraq, and Kurdish allies in Syria. This would mean a rapid abandonment of the moderate opposition and other proxies seeking Assad’s overthrow, who would be powerless to deal with Russian airpower and increasingly isolated on the battlefield. In many respects, this goal was accomplished, as Russia and the United States established a de facto division of labor in Syria and complementary campaigns.

The first Russian deployment to Syria consisted of thirty-three aircraft and seventeen helicopters. These included twelve Su-24M2 bombers, twelve Su-25SM/UB attack aircraft, four Su-34 bombers, four Su-30SM heavy multirole fighters and one Il-20M1 reconnaissance plane. The helicopter contingent consisted of twelve Mi-24P attack helicopters and five Mi-8AMTSh transports.10 Later in 2015, this number would grow with four more Su-34 bombers and four additional Su-35S air superiority fighters. Mi-35M attack helicopters and Mi-8 transports arrived in the following months. A Mediterranean squadron led by the Black Sea Fleet would support the operations from the sea, though the Russian navy mostly concerned itself with providing logistical supplies to the intervention via landing ship tanks in what was dubbed the “Syrian Express.” In order to supplement limited transport capacity at sea, and equipment brought in by air via Ruslan An-124 cargo planes, Russia purchased eight Turkish cargo vessels and pressed four of them into service.

Initial Russian objectives focused on regaining access to key roads, linking infrastructure, breaking isolated Syrian bases out of encirclement, and softening up opposing forces by destroying as much hardware as possible—much of it captured earlier from the Syrian Army. Although in the early months Russia had supposedly only helped Syria regain control of 2 percent of its territory, by February 2016, it was clear the air campaign was having an effect in shaping the battlefield, and with it, the political fortunes of the Syrian opposition. The opposition’s momentum stunted, Syrian morale began to recover.

A screenshot of a YouTube video shows cruise missiles being launched 17 November 2015 from a Russian fleet in the Caspian Sea

A screenshot of a YouTube video shows cruise missiles being launched 17 November 2015 from a Russian fleet in the Caspian Sea. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu reported launching eighteen cruise missiles in the salvo, hitting seven terrorist targets in Syria. (Screenshot of RT YouTube video)

Territorial control in Syria was always elusive, as local leaders would sign up with whoever was winning. Thus, “control” could swing rapidly towards the side that had the clear momentum, and Russian forces oversaw numerous “ceasefire agreements” between Syrian forces and village leaders. In reality, Assad’s forces had control over much of the population of Syria, while large tracts of opposition or extremist held territory were depopulated from the fighting. Thus, it would take less than two years for the Russian-led coalition to make the leap from gaining only 2 percent of territory to appearing to be the victor in the conflict.

Russian aircrews flew sorties at a high rate, averaging perhaps forty to fifty per day, but spiking to one hundred during peak combat times, such as January 2016. Two crews per airframe were needed to sustain the intensity of operations, along with a small village of defense contractors to support the newer platforms being fielded in Syria. Russian airpower in Syria never exceeded thirty-to-fifty combat aircraft and sixteen-to-forty helicopters of various types, a deployment many times smaller than the combat aviation group the Soviet Union fielded in Afghanistan.11 The rate of mechanical failure or combat loss was also magnitudes less than previous Russian or Soviet air operations.

During the conflict, Russian aerospace forces would be supported by around 3,000 ground troops, with perhaps 1,500 based at Hmeimim alone. These would include Naval Infantry from the 810th brigade based in Crimea, elements from the 7th Airborne Assault Division, armored companies fielding T-90A tanks, MSTA-B towed artillery, and a host of air defense units including Buk-M2, Pantsir-S1 and S-400 units. Sophisticated electronic warfare equipment was deployed as well, alongside Russia’s Special Operations Command. After the capture of Palmyra in the spring and of Aleppo in the fall of 2016, Russia also introduced demining units and specialized military police units from the North Caucasus.

Russia’s special operations command featured prominently throughout the conflict, conducting diversionary operations, targeted killings, and reconnaissance. Another two thousand or so private military contractors (PMCs), the largest of which is known as Wagner Group, bolstered Syrian forces and absorbed most of the casualties on the battlefield. With Russian air power in support, veterans-turned-PMCs made a difference amidst the poorly trained militias, taking the risk for $4,000–$5,000 per month.

On the whole, Moscow sought to keep its presence small. The initial force did not field long-range air defenses or dedicated air superiority fighters; rather, their arrival was prompted by an unexpected incident with Turkey, when Russia’s Su-24M2 was shot down by a Turkish F-16 in November of 2015. The Russian bomber had been attacking Turkmen militias in Syria, and had strayed through Turkish airspace. Indeed, Russia’s air force repeatedly violated Turkish airspace in an effort to coerce Turkey to change its policy in Syria and reach a modus vivendi with the Russian-led coalition. The crisis between Russia and Turkey was arguably the most dangerous moment of the entire intervention, and likely the closest a NATO country had been to military conflict with Russia in decades.

A Syrian man carries his two girls to safety 7 September 2015 across the rubble caused by a barrel bomb attack on the rebel-held neighborhood of al-Kalasa

A Syrian man carries his two girls to safety 7 September 2015 across the rubble caused by a barrel bomb attack on the rebel-held neighborhood of al-Kalasa in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. Once Syria’s economic powerhouse, Aleppo was ravaged by fighting after the rebels seized the eastern part of the city in 2012, confining government forces to the west. As a result of widespread civilian deaths due to such bombings, Russia and Syria received global condemnation for air attacks against Aleppo and other urban targets. (Photo by Karam al-Masri, Agence France-Presse)

The Russian reaction to the incident was to impose harsh economic and political sanctions on Turkey, while showing on the battlefield that Turkish-backed forces had little hope of achieving victory over Assad. By the summer of 2016, Ankara gave in, issuing a quasi-apology in order to restore normal relations with Moscow. One by one, Russia would seek to change the positions of the major parties backing anti-Assad forces in Syria. First, Moscow pushed Washington to concede that a policy of regime change was not only unrealistic, but that its support for the Syrian opposition had no chance of success, all the while dangling the prospect of a ceasefire and humanitarian relief for civilians in the conflict. The United States did inch towards tacit acceptance of the Russian intervention, and of Assad’s de facto victory over the radicals as well as the U.S.-backed opposition.

Russian ambitions were also well served by competition among U.S. allies in the region, who frequently and vocally disagreed with Washington’s approach. Turkey was more hostile towards Kurdish fighters in Syria than towards Assad or IS, yet the Kurds were Washington’s chief ally against IS on the ground. Washington also had no interest in supporting Sunni extremist groups favored by the Saudis and other Arab states, nor were extremists seen as a viable alternative to the bloody Syrian regime. Eventually, after crushing Turkish-backed proxies in Syria, Russia got the cooperation it sought with Ankara. Saudi Arabia, too, began to show flexibility, and in October 2017, the Saudi king visited Russia for the first time in recognition of Moscow’s growing significance in the Middle East.

Russia also saw Syria as a testing ground for new weapons and platforms, giving as much of its military an opportunity to participate in the conflict as possible. This included rotating countless crews through the theater of operations, giving ships and bombers the opportunity to fire cruise missiles, and fielding a small ground force as well. After a period of military reforms from 2008 to 2012 and a large modernization program begun in 2011, Moscow wanted to bloody its air force in conflict.

Syria has had a profound impact on the Russian armed forces, as countless officers have been rotated through the campaign on three month stints to gain combat experience. According to Russia’s Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov, the commanders of military districts, combined arms armies, air force and air defense armies along with many of the divisional commanders have gained experience in Syria.12 Promotions in 2017 further advanced those who served in Syria. The experience will shape Russian military thinking and personnel decisions for years to come.

Russian military engineers clear approach routes of mines 2 April 2016 in the ancient city of Palmyra, Syria

Russian military engineers clear approach routes of mines 2 April 2016 in the ancient city of Palmyra, Syria. Russia deployed few ground troops to Syria in order to keep the Russian “footprint” small. Instead, it relied on Syrian army forces, Shiite militias, and Iranian “volunteeers” to serve as the primary ground forces for combined operations primarily planned by the Russians. (Photo by Valery Sharifulin, TASS)

Alongside these training objectives, Russia also used combat operations in Syria as a technology demonstration for arms sales abroad, showing off the latest generation of Russian tech alongside older Soviet workhorses that did most of the fighting.

Starting with an initial strike on 7 October 2015, over the course of the conflict, Russian ships and submarines fired numerous Kalibr land-attack cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea and Eastern Mediterranean. Similarly, Russia’s long-range aviation joined the fray in November 2015, and since then, Tu-95MS and Tu-160 strategic bombers have flown a substantial number of sorties deploying Kh-555 and newer Kh-101 air launched cruise missiles against targets in Syria.13 The Tu-22M3 medium bomber force supplemented combat sorties from Hmeimim Air Base, though these aircraft exclusively dropped FAB unguided bombs from medium to high altitude. Later Moscow would also field Iskander-M short-range ballistic missile systems, Bastion-P antiship missiles, and other advanced weapons in an effort to demonstrate their capability.

Although the precision-guided weapons involved in the conflict represented a tiny portion of the actual mixture of weapons used, perhaps less than 5 percent, Russia demonstrated the capacity to employ long-range guided weapons from various platforms. Syria showcased both the advances Russian airpower forces had made since their dismal performance in the Russia–Georgia War of 2008 as well as the remaining limitations of Russia’s armed forces. Much of the bombing was done by older Su-24M2 and Su-25SM aircraft, and almost all of it with unguided area-of-effect munitions. With the exception of systems on the Su-34, which was used to employ the KAB-500S satellite-guided bomb, among other precision weapons, Russian fixed-wing aircraft as a whole lacked targeting pods to effectively employ precision-guided munitions.14

Russian naval aviation was not impressive. The carrier strike-group sortie to Syria ferried by Russia’s vintage Kuznetsov heavy-aviation-carrying cruiser in 2016 was a publicity disaster, losing a Su-33 and Mig-29K to equipment failures. Otherwise, remarkably few Russian aircraft were lost, with most of the casualties among helicopter crews. Russian technicians kept both old- and newer-generation aircraft in the sky, with only one Su-24M2 lost to technical failure.

Russian air strikes were certainly effective, but incredibly costly in civilian casualties and collateral damage inflicted, some of which appeared intentional. Much of the ordinance used was for area of effect, and much too large in payload for targets in Syria. The Russian Aerospace Forces as a whole are still confined to an early 1990s form of fighting (though still a generational leap from where they were in 2008), but relying almost entirely on unguided weapons and, more importantly, lacking in the ISR assets necessary to conduct information-driven combat operations. Russia’s Aerospace Forces also lack the means to engage small moving targets with guided precision, relying on unguided weapons and munitions that are truly overkill.15 Just as the Soviet Union before it, the Russian military is a brutal mauler in close quarters, but continues to struggle in finding and seeing its target.

Russian military engineers clear approach routes of mines 2 April 2016 in the ancient city of Palmyra, Syria

Citizens of Aleppo display portraits of fallen Russian servicemen killed while fighting in Syria during a 22 December 2017 parade in Aleppo, Syria. The Syrians were expressing appreciation for the Russian Federation’s contributions during the first anniversary celebration of the capture of Aleppo. (Photo courtesy of the Russian Embassy’s Twitter account, @EmbassyofRussia)

Russia made heavy use of drones to supplement its manned air campaign, conducting battle damage assessment and reconnaissance. Russian drones are rumored to have flown more sorties than manned aviation over Syria. The best Russian drones were licensed production variants of Israeli models—a product of Russian-Israeli defense cooperation. Despite substantial spending on development, Russia still has no armed unmanned aircraft systems, and thus lacks a real time recon-strike option for its drone platforms. Syria highlighted the need for Russian armed forces to invest further in the development of unmanned strike systems, and develop a larger repertoire of guided weapons for the Aerospace Forces, particularly for tactical employment.

Those limitations aside, Moscow did use the Syrian campaign effectively as part of a broader diplomatic and political engagement with the United States, demonstrating capability and resolve to use long-range guided weapons, many of which have nuclear-tipped variants. Syria did much for Russian coercive credibility, painting a clear picture about the resurgent capability and capacity of its armed forces to impose costs on NATO in a conventional conflict and its ability to reach out at long ranges to hold much of Europe at risk, if need be. Long-range strikes by strategic bombers, ships, and submarines should not be viewed simply as combat tests to gain experience; they were also intended as strategic messaging to boost Russian credibility writ large.

Not Home by Christmas

Upon entering the conflict, Russian armed forces quickly discovered that the intervention would take considerably more time than initially expected or desired. Syria’s army had degenerated into armed militias that were formally unified under the Assad banner but that no longer represented a coherent fighting force. Russian leadership was aghast at the large amount of Syrian and Iraqi hardware captured by the opposition and various militant groups while the Assad regime held barely 10 percent of territory. Some Syrian units were still capable of action, but Russian officers would have to embed across these units to conduct military operations and start rebuilding the Syrian army’s fighting potential.

Despite an influx of Iranian and Hezbollah troops in October 2015, it was clear that the warring sides were all leveraging proxies on a battlefield with a low density of forces. Their combat effectiveness was poor, and Syrian forces would continually call in Russian air strikes, make small gains, and retreat at the first sight of counteroffensives by well-motivated Jabhat al-Nusra or other fighting groups.

Over time Russia would train up lower ranking Syrian officers, and establish the 5th Volunteer Assault Corps, led by Russian commanders and equipped with more advanced Russian equipment. The 5th has been Syria’s primary assault force for the past year. Combining Syrian fighters, PMCs, and Russian leadership to put together offenses has yielded battlefield victories at minimal cost.

Russian operational objectives were suited to its strategy: make decisive gains where possible, fragment the Syrian opposition, and seek to parlay victories in Syria into broader political objectives with the United States. To this end, the Russian General Staff sought to avoid exhaustive battles over population centers, especially given that Syrian forces lacked the manpower to hold anything they took. Such an approach would, and eventually did, result in having to retake the same terrain multiple times, as in the case of Palmyra. Russia also genuinely wanted to turn the fight eastward towards IS in an effort to glue together its effort at cooperation with the United States. Syria and Iran were not interested, instead seeking near total victory over the opposition and the recapture of all the major population centers in the west.

While Russia retained the image of a powerbroker and leader of the coalition, in reality, it did not have buy-in for such a strategy from its allies and cobelligerents; nor could Moscow compel them. In this regard, Russia suffered from the same deficit as the United States. Both were outside powers intervening in Syria without the necessary influence over local and regional allies to broker big deals. These differences came to the fore in March 2016, when Russia declared its withdrawal from Syria while turning the attention of its forces to Palmyra. In fact, Moscow had no intention of withdrawing, simply deleveraging and settling in for a longer fight, while Assad was focused on retaking Aleppo.

With its March declaration, Russia sought to recast the intervention in Syria as a sustainable longer-term security presence in support of a political settlement, rather than combat per se. The idea was to normalize Russian operations in the eyes of Russia’s domestic audience and to declare victory in some form. Medals were handed out and a small contingent was rotated back home, but meanwhile, Russia prepared to turn the Syrian campaign into smaller “campaigns” to avoid the perception that the intervention could take years. The first segment was concluded with the Russian capture of Palmyra in March 2016. Syrian and Iranian forces then turned towards Aleppo, a battle that ultimately scuttled Russian attempts to negotiate a joint integration group with the United States. The second cut was made in January of 2017, after the seizure of Aleppo, and a third “victory” has been set at the closing of 2017 as Syrian forces capture Deir ez-Zor and IS appears on the verge of defeat.

igure 3. Syrian Civil War: Territorial Control Map as of November 2017

Figure 3. Syrian Civil War: Territorial Control Map as of November 2017(Graphic by edmaps.com; Twitter, @edmapscom; © 2017 Cristian Ionita)

This latest declaration of victory, ahead of the March 2018 presidential election, is fraught with risk since Russian forces are not just staying but further expanding the infrastructure at Tartus and Hmeimim. As Gerasimov said in a recent interview, “we’re not going anywhere.” Not long thereafter, a mortar attack on 31 December damaged several planes and killed a number of Russian soldiers at the airbase. The strike was followed by a drone attack from militant groups against both bases on 6 January. Both were a stark reminder that triumphalism is somewhat premature, and Russian forces in theater remain at risk. Figure 3 depicts the approximate Syrian situation as of November 2017 in terms of territorial control exercised by participants in the conflict near the official close of Russian operations initiated in support of the Assad regime. (See figure 1 for a comparison to the situation at the beginning of the campaign.)

Postconflict Settlement and Beyond

Now that the bulk of Syrian territory and population centers have been wrested from the hands of anti-regime opposition groups, Russia can turn its full attention toward the postconflict settlement. It is true that Assad has committed to retake “every inch” of Syrian territory, and that even if Russia does not support this ambition, it will have little choice but to back continued regime efforts to secure energy and water resources in the country’s north and south. However, the main focus of both the Russian military and political action will be around the diplomatic settlement and supportive conditions on the ground.

Most importantly, Russia has apparently gained Washington’s acceptance of its role as a key broker in Syria’s future. In their November summit meeting in Vietnam, Presidents Trump and Putin confirmed not only continuing U.S. and Russian deconfliction dialogue and support for “de-escalation zones,” a largely Russian initiative, but also underscored the centrality of the political process for negotiating a postconflict future for Syria. That process is shaping up in line with Russia’s main strategic interests.

First, Russia has broken the monopoly of the Geneva process, and of U.S. diplomatic leadership. It has successfully integrated both the Astana-based negotiations it launched in 2016 to the formal UN-backed international process, and has regularly convened meetings of various opposition groups in an attempt to foster the emergence of a common opposition grouping, which will be amenable to compromise with the Assad regime. Moscow’s progress on the political front is fitful, but at this writing it appears to be the only plausible path forward.

Second, Russia has managed to maintain productive ties with each of the other key regional players, ranging from Saudi Arabia on one end of the spectrum to Iran on the other. In fact, despite continuing disagreement with Saudi Arabia over the composition of the “legitimate” Syrian opposition to be represented at Geneva, and with Turkey over the role of the Kurdish self-defense forces, Russian diplomacy (backed by military force) has won recognition from both, a fact that is especially welcome in Moscow in the run-up to Russia’s March 2018 presidential election. Iran has proven a thorny ally for Russia; however, the relationship between the two countries remains largely stable, since the Iranians expect to be able to maintain their de facto dominance on the ground in much of Syria, solidifying their corridor of power from Iraq to Lebanon.

Finally, Russia will retain its ally in Damascus, because for the foreseeable future, the Assad regime appears back in control. In fact, Assad’s stock has risen so much since the Russian intervention two years ago that he is largely able to set the terms of his participation in the Geneva process. The opposition can howl in protest, but the regime has simply refused to engage in negotiations if the question of its own departure is on the agenda.

This is also clearly a victory for Russia, since Moscow has capitalized on its victories to secure long-term leases on its military facilities at Hmeimim and Tartus, as well as to position Russian firms to play potentially prominent and lucrative roles in Syrian reconstruction, especially in the energy and energy transit sectors. Russia not only needs these bases to continue supporting Syrian forces, but the conflict is now part of a larger bid for becoming a power broker in the Middle East, and a balancing option for those seeking to hedge against U.S. influence.

The main area in which Russia’s Syria campaign fell clearly short of initial objectives was in the effort to broaden the platform for diplomatic engagement with Europe and the United States in the wake of the Ukraine crisis and associated Western sanctions. Although Moscow did break through the Obama administration’s attempted isolation policy by forcing Washington to conduct deconfliction talks, those talks have not expanded into the full-fledged Russia-U.S. cooperation for which the Kremlin had hoped. Moreover, there has been zero willingness from Western capitals to think of Syria and Ukraine in quid pro quo terms. As much as Westerners may lament the death toll and flood of refugees from the Syrian civil war, the Ukraine conflict is simply much closer to home, and European governments have held firm in their support for sanctions tied to fulfillment of the Minsk agreements, while the United States has actually ratcheted sanctions dramatically upward in the wake of Russia’s apparent attempts to meddle in the 2016 U.S. election.

In sum, Russia appears to have won at least a partial victory in Syria, and done so with impressive efficiency, flexibility, and coordination between military and political action. On the one hand, Russia’s embrace of the Assad regime and its Iranian allies, its relative indifference to civilian casualties, and its blanket hostility to anti-regime opposition groups are fundamentally at odds with widely held U.S. views on Syria. On the other hand, Russia’s “lean” strategy, adaptable tactics, and coordination of military and diplomatic initiatives offer important lessons for the conduct of any military intervention in as complex and volatile an environment as the Middle East. More than a decade and a half into the U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, with ongoing fighting in Libya and Yemen, and countless other tinderboxes that could ignite wider regional conflict threatening U.S. interests, Washington should pay close attention to the Russian intervention and how Moscow achieved its objectives in Syria.

Michael Kofman is a senior research scientist at CNA Corporation, where he serves as director of the Russia Studies Program. He is also a Global Fellow at the Kennan Institute, Washington, D.C., and a nonresident Fellow at the Modern War Institute, West Point. Previously he served as program manager at National Defense University. His research focuses on security issues in Russia and the former Soviet Union, specializing in defense and military analysis. He holds a BA from Northeastern University and an MA from Georgetown University School of Foreign Service.

Matthew Rojansky is director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He holds an AB from Harvard College and a JD from Stanford Law School. Previously, he was deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He also served as an embassy policy specialist at the U.S. Embassy in Kiev, Ukraine, and as a visiting scholar in the Research Division at the NATO Defense College.

Notes

  1. Sergei Lavrov and Russian Media, “On Syria and Libya,” Monthly Review (website), 17 May 2011, accessed 15 December 2017, https://mronline.org/2011/05/17/on-syria-and-libya/. The text is an excerpt from “Transcript of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s Interview to Russian Media Following Attendance at Arctic Council Meeting, Nuuk, May 12, 2011,” published on the Russian Foreign Ministry website on 13 May 2011.
  2. “Sergey Lavrov’s Remarks and Answers to Media Questions at Joint Press Conference with UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah Al Nahyan,” The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation (website), 1 November 2011, accessed 10 January 2018, http://www.mid.ru/en/vistupleniya_ministra/-/asset_publisher/MCZ7HQuMdqBY/content/id/186758.
  3. Macon Phillips, “President Obama: The Future of Syria Must Be Determined by Its People, but President Bashar al-Assad Is Standing in Their Way,” White House Press Office (website), accessed 19 December 2017, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2011/08/18/president-obama-future-syria-must-be-determined-its-people-president-bashar-al-assad.
  4. Vladimir Frolov, “Signing In is Easier than Quitting,” Vedomosti (website), 29 September 2016, accessed 19 December 2017, https://www.vedomosti.ru/amp/a00ffd6a64/opinion/articles/2016/09/29/658952-voiti-legche-viiti.
  5. “Iran Quds Chief Visited Russia despite U.N. Travel Ban: Iran Official,” Reuters, 7 August 2015, accessed 19 December 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-iran-soleimani-idUSKCN0QC1KM20150807; Michael Kofman, “A Tale of Two Campaigns: U.S. and Russian Military Operations in Syria,” Pathways to Peace and Security1, no. 52 (2017): 163–70.
  6. Michael Kofman, “The Moscow School of Hard Knocks: Key Pillars of Russian Strategy,” War on the Rocks (website), 17 January 2017, accessed 19 December 2017, https://warontherocks.com/2017/01/the-moscow-school-of-hard-knocks-key-pillars-of-russian-strategy/.
  7. Teresa Welsh, “Obama, Putin Meet in New York,” S. News & World Report(website), 28 September 2015, accessed 19 December 2017, http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2015/09/28/obama-putin-meet-in-new-york.
  8. Washington PostStaff, “Read Putin’s U.N. General Assembly speech,” Washington Post (website), 28 September 2015, accessed 19 December 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/09/28/read-putins-u-n-general-assembly-speech/?utm_term=.48d2be2b7823.
  9. Nikolas K. Gvosdev, “Moscow’s War in the Air: Russia Sends a Message in Syria,” The National Interest(website), 1 October 2015, accessed 19 December 2017, http://nationalinterest.org/feature/moscows-war-the-air-russia-sends-message-syria-13983.
  10. Ruslan Pukhov, “Russian Military, Diplomatic and Humanitarian Assistance” in Syrian Frontier, ed. M. U. Shepovalenko, 2nd ed. (Moscow: Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, 2016), 105–107, accessed 9 January 2018, http://cast.ru/upload/iblock/686/6864bf9d4485b9cd83cc3614575e646a.pdf.
  11. Ruslan Pukhov, “The War that Russia Won,” Izvestia (website), 13 October 2017, accessed 10 January 2018, https://iz.ru/652856/ruslan-pukhov/voina-kotoruiu-rossiia-vyigrala.
  12. Valery Gerasimov, “We Broke the Back of Terrorists,” interview by Victor Baranets, Komsomolskaya Pravda (website), 26 December 2017, accessed 10 January 2018, https://www.kp.ru/daily/26775/3808693/.
  13. The initial employment of long-range aviation was in response to the terrorist bombing of Russia’s MetroJet flight out of Egypt.
  14. Pukhov, “The War that Russia Won.”
  15. Ruslan Pukhov, “Polygon Budushego,” Russia in Global Affairs (website), 8 March 2016, accessed 10 January 2018, http://www.globalaffairs.ru/number/Poligon-buduschego-18032.

 

U.S. Cruise Missile Strikes in Syria – Brief Analysis

I’m going to skip the policy analysis and work on the facts of this strike and the Russian response. The al-Shayrat airbase was chosen because according to U.S. sources on April 4th a Syrian Su-22 deployed some kind of munition with chemical weapons.  On April 6th two U.S. destroyers fired 60 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the base, although technically it was 61 since one failed to launch and had to be replaced, while another missile ditched into the sea (60 planned – 1 launch fail, + 1 replacement, -1 malfunction resulting in sudden conversion into torpedo). The official story is that 59 hit targets.

What did the missiles hit? This base hosted two squadrons of Su-22M3/M4 bombers and one squadron of Mig-23ML/MLD fighters. For those who don’t know, these are legacy aircraft from the Soviet Union, long retired in Russia. If memory serves Su-22s were taken out of service in the Russian air force back in 1998, but are still flying in Poland.  These squadrons were distributed in three different parts of the airbase, and it looks like the missiles hit two out of three sectors. As a consequence they got 5 Su-22M3s, 1 Su-22M4, and 3 Mig-23ML fighters for a total of 9 aircraft destroyed (Pentagon claimed 20, but so far we can only count 9, then subsequently in a recent press release the Pentagon changed the story to 20% of Syrian air power destroyed.) The squadron of Su-22s located in the northwest of the base seems largely untouched, which is why one of the planes was shown on video launching from the base within the same day.

Photo of Syrian Air Base with markings for the three squadrons (found on BMPD)

Additionally the missiles took out a SA-6 radar site (Kub), some ground equipment, and what was first described as a M-600 missile launcher (Iranian produced SRBM). Bunkers, fuel, ammunition and general stores were also hit. Although there were early rumors on twitter suggesting that there were visible containers of chemical weapons, these proved to be nonsense, and were actually generic containers for cluster munitions and other types of ordnance (twitter experts best experts). The runway was left untouched since it is quite long, simple to repair, and plugging cruise missiles into runways is not the most efficient use of the weapon.

What wasn’t there? Su-24Ms that Russia had recently handed over to Syria, which are much more capable than the aging Su-22 bombers, and actual Russian aircraft. Back in April 2016 this base was being used as a forward operating strip for Russian attack helicopters during an earlier phase in the campaign. Supposedly some Russian personnel were at this facility, but that story increasingly sounds like a guesstimate.

Destroyed Mig-23ML

Russian air defense

The short answer is that their air defenses were meant to defend Russian forces, not Syrian assets, and probably not armed to take on a 60 cruise missile salvo anyway. The primary Russian fear was that a country like Turkey or someone else might hit concentrated Russian assets in Latakia. From their positions these air defenses probably had little to no chance of hitting cruise missiles meant for a different airbase, and the U.S. likely routed the strike package in such a way so as to make it impossible.

There is an often spotted S-400 system at Hmeimim Air Base in Latakia, together with Pantsir-S1 short range air defense and medium range point defense Buk systems (not many photos of the Buk but supposedly its there). The common depiction of the S-400s capabilities is also pretty inaccurate.  For one, it does not have a 400km range missile (the 40N6). That long range missile has never been seen in operation, nor a new canister for it, which suggests it’s still not ready for prime time. So the actual maximum range is 250km, which still makes it a great system, but cuts down on the imaginary 400km firing ring. Furthermore the system is at the airbase, and there is a mountain range running north to south just east of Latakia, so naturally the radar is going to have a hard time seeing most of eastern Syria – and the Russians have admitted as much in their own press.

S-400 at al-Hmeimim Airbase

Last year Russia deployed a S-300v4 to Tartus (often confused for S-300VM or Antey-2500). This system is designed for intercepting missiles and large aircraft at long ranges. Unlike the S-400, which does not have a 400km range missile, this one actually does though it’s not designed for cruise missile interception. However, unlike the S-400 which is regularly seen in pictures and satellite imagery, the S-300v4 remains elusive, either because nobody is looking at Tartus or because it’s moving about.  Either way it was doubtfully well placed to do anything about this strike.

In either case, these systems and their attending short range brethren might do well if cruise missiles were fired at them or close to them, but not at some other facility, especially if they hug the ground and use terrain masking. It’s possible Russian electronic warfare systems might have affected the guidance system, but these would have to have powerful ranges and why give away many of the system’s technical capabilities on behalf of the Syrians? Hence Russian air defenses, despite being painted as a giant red circle in news coverage are actually quite limited in what they can do against cruise missiles fired from an unknown point, headed on an unknown trajectory and towards a target they’re not intended to defend.

Update: posted flight path of cruise missile strike from Russia’s Izvestia – not vouching at all for veracity, but good map showing how the strike package may have been directed specifically away from air defenses. I would not use this as a hard source on the flight path.

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Closing out with a Fateh-110/M600 missile launcher at the airbase that’s seen better days. There is some debate on whether its really a Pantsir-S1. Syrian mod Fateh looks very similar in chassis to the Pantsir-S1, but on Pantsir jacks are behind 2nd wheels set whereas Fateh 1st, and the destroyed vehicle’s jacks are clearly behind the first axle.

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Thanks to coverage from diana_mihailova and BMPD blogs, also easiest place to get access to damage photos.

Russian Special Forces

Below is a Q&A I did with the Cipher Brief that outlines much of what we know about the Russian special operations community.  The rest is on their website. 

The Cipher Brief: How are Russian special operations organized within the military?

Michael Kofman: The best way to parse through a myriad of Russian special designation units is to break them into three categories: elite infantry primarily for reconnaissance in ground, airborne, and naval services (Spetsnaz GRU), special purpose units belonging to intelligence agencies (Alpha and Vympel), and the Special Operations Command (SSO or KSSO). The last one is of particular note as a recent development and arguably the most interesting of all, since it represents a Russian special forces capability that featured prominently in Crimea and Syria.

Spetsnaz GRU are sometimes shorthanded as Russian special operations forces, but this is a common misnomer. Spetsnaz are elite infantry intended to support conventional unit formations. These units consist of eight Spetsnaz brigades, one Spetsnaz regiment (25th), four naval infantry Spetz units, and the 45th VDV (Airborne) brigade with a total complement of 9,000-10,500.  Currently the Russian armed forces are integrating Spetsnaz units into brigades and divisions, adding a company to each reconnaissance battalion. These units are almost invariably under the purview of the main intelligence directorate for Russia’s General Staff, the GRU.

Meanwhile the FSB, Russia’s domestic intelligence service, fields two specialized units for counterterrorism and defending strategic infrastructure at home, named Alpha and Vympel respectively. Less mentioned is the FSB’s Directorate S (Smerch), a special reconnaissance outfit founded on the basis of the FSB’s economic counter-intelligence unit, and likely larger than Alpha or Vympel.

The rest of the discussion focuses on KSSO.

A COMPARATIVE GUIDE TO RUSSIA’S USE OF FORCE: MEASURE TWICE, INVADE ONCE

My latest article examining Russian use of force, published on War on the Rocks.

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In the 20th century, the Soviet military’s penchant for area of effect artillery and armored firepower had earned it the reputation of a large hammer always in search of nails.  This popularized impression stuck with Russia long after the Soviet Union’s demise, but today’s Kremlin employs military power in a much more nuanced manner to pursue its objectives.  In recent conflicts, Russia has demonstrated a keen understanding of how to apply this instrument of national power to achieve desired political ends, doling out force in prescribed doses in the quest for decisive leverage.  Although Russian military power remains a blunt force instrument, the state wields it more like a rapier, demonstrating discretion and timing.

In a previous article on the key pillars of Russian strategy, I argued that Moscow favors an emergent strategy based on “fail fast and fail cheap” approaches. The Russian military itself has a long way to go in terms of modernization, but conversely, America’s political leadership needs to reexamine how great powers, with far fewer resources, use the so-called “big stick” to get the job done.  The unipolar world order appears to be rapidly melting, while great powers are back on the agenda.  When it comes to use of force by peer rivals contesting America’s interests, it is only going to get harder from here on out.

The United States may not wish to emulate Russian approaches, but American strategists should certainly study then.  Those who fail to learn from the experience of others must inevitably gain it at personal cost.  As Mark Twain  is said to have remarked, “The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.”  To take another step along the journey of understanding Russian strategy, I explore how Russia changes facts on the ground, compels its adversaries, and achieves much of this on the cheap.  The goal is to examine Russian use of force and draw lessons for an era when American use of power must become judicious, timely, and better married to something that resembles political objectives.

Read the rest here.

The Russian Navy’s Great Mediterranean Show of Force

My latest on the Russian flotilla sailing to the Eastern Med in The National Interest.  A more technical brief to follow in next post.

News has been rippling across Western media of a Russian naval squadron headed by the country’s only aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, slowly making its way towards Syria.  Originally announced on July 11th, the combat tour to Syria has been long in the works, together with a host of other Russian naval activities unfolding simultaneously this month.  The Russian squadron has been lurching along at a steady pace as part of a tour de force around NATO countries and towards the Eastern Mediterranean.  At the time of this writing, the ships were passing through the English Channel. While the military objectives of this mission are not entirely insignificant, Russia’s chief purpose is status projection, leveraging its navy to demonstrate that it is a great power.

The squadron will first irk Russia’s already apprehensive Western neighbors and then make its presence felt in the Middle East.  Yet this latest bit of political theater and military showmanship is not without risk.  Kuznetsov’s fortunes will determine whether this becomes a demonstration of Russia’s power projection, or an unintended embarrassment, leaving the impression that Moscow is only imitating great power status.  The carrier is notoriously unreliable, while many of its fellow ships are also Soviet inheritances—capable but aging.

Russia seeks to intimate that it is one of the few countries able to project military power to distant shores and present the image of having some parity with the United States.  Both images will play well with a domestic audience.  Behind the scenes, a two year battle over the future of the State Armament Program is also unfolding in Moscow, with military services fighting over a defense procurement budget on the ebb.  Despite being a vast Eurasian land power, Russian leaders going back to Peter the Great have a history of lavishing disproportionate attention to the navy, believing that in the international system one must be able to show prowess on the high seas to be recognized as one of the great players in the system.

Vladimir Putin has not deviated from this traditional mindset, only exemplified it.  He has at times quoted Alexander III’s famous line that Russia has only two dependable allies: “its army and its navy.”  A commentary on geopolitics more so than military matters, but it still holds true to this day.  Russia’s navy has taken on considerable risk in a bid to convey to national leadership that it is an invaluable instrument for global status ambitions and national inspiration.

Though often a point of fixation, the Russian carrier Kuznetsov—or perhaps more accurately the originally Soviet-built ‘heavy aviation cruiser’—is also accompanied by the nuclear-powered missile cruiser Peter the Great. This flagship of the Russian Navy packs an arsenal of anti-ship missiles, air defenses and combat capabilities worthy of its prominent name.  Kuznetsov’s mission is in part to make a combat debut in Syria, having sailed several times to the region, but never having fought.  This is a public relations mission at heart, but also an important training event for Russia’s tiny naval aviation component.

The military aspects of the operation should not be overlooked.  Russia’s carrier is often disparaged as a floating lemon, and such criticisms are fair, but the West has an unhealthy track record of underestimating Russian military capabilities for the sake of disparaging them.  Unlike previous tours, which were largely for show, this time the ship will likely conduct combat operations, and it’s not traveling alone either.

The Kuznetsov set sail on October 15th from Severomorsk for the Syrian coast together with Peter the Great, two Udaloy-class destroyers, a tanker ship and a large tugboat.  Little noticed is that on the same day a squadron from Russia’s Pacific Fleet departed Vladivostok on the other side of the world.  The second grouping consists of two destroyers (Udaloy and Sovremenny class), together with a large tanker and tug, headed for the Indian Ocean.  It’s possible that this task force may choose to rally with the Kuznetsov in the Eastern Mediterranean, or perhaps standby on call in nearby waters.

A host of other naval movements are playing out simultaneously.  One of Russia’s newly completed Admiral Grigorovich-class frigates is transferring from the Baltic to the Black Sea Fleet, and may join the group off Syria to fire land attack cruise missiles.  It’s possible one of the Northern Fleet’s nuclear-powered submarines has joined this tour as well.  The Russian Navy’s comparative strength, its submarine force, is unlikely to have been left completely without a role in this affair.

Two large corvettes from the Baltic Fleet have ventured out of port, either to escort the carrier or join it for exercises on its voyage south.  Already on October 18th, the carrier began flight-training operations in the Norwegian Sea, shadowed by the British and Norwegian militaries.  Traveling slowly, the Russian Navy will probably make several exercise stops as a pointed show of force to NATO along the way.  Although planned well in advance, the first part of this tour will undoubtedly answer some of the ‘deterrence messaging’ by the United States 6th Fleet and NATO ships routinely visiting the Baltic and Black Sea.

More at TNI.

THE MISADVENTURES OF RUSSIA AND THE UNITED STATES IN SYRIA: COMPLETE STRATEGY IMPLOSION EDITION

Below is my latest piece on War on the Rocks, analyzing the Russian intervention in Syria and the collapse of the ceasefire.

The current situation in Syria is the civil war’s most dangerous and arguably tragic phase. Months of U.S.-Russian efforts to arrange a nationwide ceasefire in Syria and set up a military coordination agreement have collapsed spectacularly, leading to venomous recriminations as a Russian-backed coalition renewed its assault on Aleppo. The tone of official rhetoric — Ambassador Samantha Power called the renewed bombing campaign “barbarism” — together with a suspension of military contacts raises the risk of a military clash that much further. Meanwhile, interventionist circles in the West have renewed their cries for the United States to use force, while Russia signaled that such a move would lead to uncertain consequences and possible military conflict, reminding the United States to “think carefully” before hitting any Syrian regime forces. If this is not the greatest foreign policy train wreck of 2016, it will certainly do until that calamity arrives.

On October 3, the United States suspended its attempts to implement a ceasefire with Russia and scrapped the proposal for a joint military coordination body. Russian President Vladimir Putin retaliated by shelving a 2000 deal on disposal of weapons-grade plutonium and canceling a bilateral agreement on research cooperation between nuclear sectors. The two countries have since cemented an escalatory cycle of tit-for-tat blows, as U.S. intelligence agencies publicly blamed Russia for its hacking of the Democratic National Committee to interfere with U.S. elections. The prevailing impression in policy and media circles is that Russia has abandoned efforts at peace, instead making a bid for military victory on the ground. Increasingly, many in Washington are certain that Russia strung the United States along in negotiations to help Syrian forces recapture Aleppo in the closing days of the Obama administrationReferences to the Cold War abound as tensions increase.

These well-structured narratives are built upon grains of truth, but they miss more than they capture. Important facts get in the way of this story. Since the first day Russian planes took flight over Syria in September 2015, analysis in Washington too often flailed between declaring the Russian intervention a hopeless quagmire and decrying that Russia is winning at everything. These depictions suffer from being wedded to merely tactical snapshots. They bend whichever way the wind is blowing that day in Syria. At times, we have been treated to contradictory strategic assessments based on the same battle.

In late August, Reuters told us that fighting in Aleppo exposed the “limits of Russian airpower,” and a few days later The New York Times explained how Syrian forces made their gains in that siege thanks to Russian help. This results in great stories but poor analysis. I offer a different perspective on why the ceasefire collapsed and what it tells us about the Russian intervention. Essentially, Russia got caught selling something they did not have — Assad’s agreement to a ceasefire before the Syrian Arab Army subdued Aleppo — and U.S. Secretary of State Kerry accidentally trapped them by conceding to a grand deal sooner than Moscow expected.

There’s Something Wrong with This Story

Setting aside popular misunderstandings in Washington, many experts and analysts in Moscow also do not seem to understand why the ceasefire collapsed. That is what makes the current situation so dangerous: It was actually unplanned on the Russian end. “Unplanned” may be the defining characteristic of U.S. policy on Syria, but it has not been similarly true of the Russian approach. Since September 19, when the ceasefire was visibly on life support, experts and intelligence officials have opined that Moscow’s strategy is to seize Aleppo in the coming months and present the next U.S. administration with a fait accompli. They are working the problem backwards from what happened in the last two weeks.

Russia may not have expected for the ceasefire to last — and most in the West did not either — but this entire episode is not a Kremlin-managed scheme.  To start, there is little evidence of Russian preparation to support Syrian forces in their campaign to seize Aleppo. There was no Russian military buildup in Syria to better enable an attack on the city or a large-scale expansion of the air wing based at  Hmeimim Airbase. While Russia’s air force has been flying more sorties over the city, its presence in-country is arguably lower than it was during heavier fighting last winter. Following the March announcement by Putin that Russia was “withdrawing” from Syria, there was a visible reduction in both fixed- and rotary-wing aviation deployed. Russia’s newspapers reported that Russia was sending aircraft back to Syria, including the 12 Su-25 ground attack aircraft that were previously withdrawn. Yet, at the peak of this deadly air campaign against Aleppo, we have satellite footage from IHS Jane’s showing that they have not arrived back in Syria.

Russia’s attempt to use Iran’s Hamadan airbase back in August, which would have greatly increased the payload its Tu-22M3 bombers could carry into battle, failed embarrassingly in a public spat with Tehran. Because they thought the arrangement should be kept secret, Iran’s leadership bristled at Russian attempts to turn cooperation into a public relations opportunity, claiming Moscow “betrayed trust.” There is also no visible increase in Russian ground forces present in Syria to suggest that a “final solution” to Aleppo had been in the works all these months, while Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov kept Secretary of State John Kerry distracted with notions of peace. If there is a Russian strategy to make timely gains with Aleppo as the primary operational objective, the Russian military does not seem to have been informed.

Typically, militaries build up assets in theater for an offensive operation beforehand, but in this case, we cannot discern a substantial increase of Russian support to Syrian and Iranian forces even after the ceasefire’s collapse. Instead, Russia had been busy with its annual strategic exercises in September that simulated amphibious landings in Crimea, and much of the country’s national attention had turned to the situation in Ukraine.  Russia has engaged in a dizzying number of troop movements, multinational exercises, wargames, and military events in August and September, many centered around contingencies in Ukraine or with NATO but none resulting in additional combat capabilities transferred to the campaign in Syria.

Following fiery exchanges between Russian and Western officials, Moscow has become noticeably wary of a possible U.S. lurch toward considering military intervention. The calls to do something grow louder in U.S. policy circles. America’s penchant to meet such calls by lobbing cruise missiles as a low-risk form of military action is well known. To ready for such a development, the Russian General Staff sent an S-300V4 air defense system, along with several missile corvettes from the Black Sea Fleet, hoping to deter any inclinations the United States may have toward a campaign of strikes against Syrian forces. This complements the S-400 system that is already in theater. Moscow’s generals, such as Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, are not leaving much room for doubt as to what these systems are for: “Any missile or air strikes on the territory controlled by the Syrian government will create a clear threat to Russian servicemen.” Although Russia continues to block for Syria, the bloody battle for Aleppo and this subsequent political maelstrom does not appear to be the product of a deliberate strategy.

If the Kremlin wished to take advantage of the Obama administration’s closing days to consolidate some sort of gains in Syria, then why was Lavrov permitted to spend so much time negotiating the intricate technical details of a ceasefire agreement going back to mid-July when Kerry first flew to Moscow with a proposal to establish a joint military coordinating body? What was the point of agonizing delays in announcing a deal, delving into the minutiae of who is positioned where around Castello Road? This is a Rube Goldberg theory of Russian scheming in Syria, and one that does not make much sense if Moscow simply sought a military solution in the last months of the administration.

Instead, what we have is a case of policy capture and, as I explain below, a reasonably well-thought out Russian political strategy unraveling at the hands of its allies. In September, the contradictions inherent in Russia’s approach and the divergent interests of its allies finally came home to roost. We may assign blame to Russia, but what is happening right now in Syria is Russian-led in name only.

Please click on this link to read the rest of the article.  No paywall I promise.