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Yossef Bodansky

Yossef Bodansky

Yossef Bodansky, the Director of Research at the International Strategic Studies Association (ISSA) and Senior Editor of Defense & Foreign Affairs publications (including the Global…

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How Russia Is Deploying Its Military In Syria

The Russian Air Force launched its first acknowledged bombing raids in Syria on September 30, 2015. Most of the sorties were flown by Su-24M2s, and the rest by Su-25s.

The Russians claimed that they conducted about 20 sorties against at least six objectives in three specif-ic target areas. The targets included jihadist force concentrations, headquarters, fortified positions, as well as weapons, ammunition, vehicle, and fuel storage sites. The primary objective of these strikes was to significantly reduce the jihadist threat to the ‘Alawite heartland and particularly the Russian defense zone.

The first target area was jihadist forward positions on the main highway from Jisr al-Shughur toward Lata-kia, not far from the Sheekhaneh road junction which also leads to Slanfah. The main jihadist positions bombed were in Jabal al-Zaweed, Kassab, and Deir Hanna: all in the direction of the Turkish border. This was the forward most area of advance by jihadist forces in the aftermath of the recent Jisr al-Shughur offensive in the Idlib area. The jihadist positions were some 20km from the Russian base in Latakia and were thus most threatening to the ‘Alawite heartland. The forces attacked were mainly from jihadi groups Jabhat al-Nusra and Harakat Ahrar al-Sham.

The second target area was in the Al-Lataminah and Kafr Zita area west of the M5 highway to Hama, overlooking the Khan Shaykhun-Morek section of the highway. The jihadist forces there were threatening the road to Hama and on to Damascus. This was the southernmost advance of jihadist forces in north-western Syria. The forces attacked were mainly from Jabhat al-Nusra and Jaysh al-Fath.

The third target area was in the greater Homs area, up to about 10km north of the city. These were the edges of the jihadist pocket which blocked the M5 highway from Damascus to the north. One cluster of jihadist forces bombed was in the Rastan area some 10km north of Homs, one in the Talbisah area some 5km north of Homs, and another cluster was in Ter Maelah some 2km north of Homs. One of the targets destroyed was a car bomb factory which served all jihadist terrorists inside Homs. The forces attacked were mainly local jihadist entities with diverse affiliations including Jabhat al-Nusra, Fatah al-Islam (of northern Lebanon), and takfiri jihadists loyal to the Islamic State.

As promised in Moscow, the Russian General Staff warned its Israeli counterpart of the impending strikes more than an hour in advance. A Russian general also personally warned the U.S. military authori-ties in Baghdad about an hour before the strikes were launched. He recommended that U.S. aircraft keep away from the Russian zone of operations and that the U.S. intelligence community evacuate pertinent assets and resources with the jihadist forces. The Russian recommendation that U.S. aircraft keep away from the strike zone became a major political incident when the U.S. Barack Obama White House pre-sented the forewarning as a Russian warning for the U.S. military not to fly over Syria at all.

The Russian Air Force expanded the bombing strikes on October 1, 2015. Most of the targets hit in the morning were jihadist positions and concentrations in the Jisr al-Shughur and Jabal al- Zawiya areas in Idlib Province, and the south-eastern approaches to Aleppo where the Syrian Armed Forces had been struggling to sustain a corridor into the contested city.

By now, the Russians and their allies were settling in the Middle East for the long haul. The Kremlin was now formally committed to helping Damascus win and to the complete eradication of the jihadist scourge emanating from the heart of al-Jazira, no matter how long it would take.

On September 30, 2015, Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin formally articulated the objectives of the interven-tion:

“Syria is the issue here. The only real way to fight international terrorism ... is to take the initiative and fight and destroy the terrorists in the territory they have already captured rather than waiting for them to arrive on our soil. ... I want to stress the point though that the conflict in Syria has deep roots and is the result of many factors. This includes interstate and domestic political factors, and religious and inter-ethnic differences, which have been exacerbated by unceremonious foreign intervention in the region’s affairs. Related: Can The Panama Canal Fulfill Its Global LNG Promise?

Given these circumstances, we naturally have no intention of getting deeply entangled in this conflict. We will act strictly in accordance with our set mission. First, we will support the Syrian Army only in its lawful fight against terrorist groups. Second, our support will be limited to air strikes and will not involve ground operations. Third, our support will have a limited time frame and will continue only while the Syrian Army conducts its anti-terrorist offensive.

Our view is that a final and long-term solution to the situation in Syria is possible only on the basis of political reform and dialogue between all healthy forces in the country. I know that Pres. al-Assad knows this and is ready for this process. We are counting on his active and flexible position and his readiness to make compromises for the sake of his country and people.”

To date, the Russians have been rapidly deploying the forces needed to prevent the overrunning and collapse of the predominantly-’Alawite western Syria. However, the initial focus of the Russian planning team was setting the system for region-wide containment and subsequently the destruction of the jihadist cauldron as the first step toward restoring the indigenous stability of the region (but not necessarily the modern states).

The Kremlin seemed cognizant that the destruction of the jihadists would first create the most dangerous phenomenon in the Middle East: socio-political vacuum. The law of the region is that, on its own, a vacu-um would always be filled by a phenomenon far worse than the one which preceded it. Hence, before creating a vacuum, it was imperative to prepare the positive forces which would fill it. In the case of the greater Middle East, this meant reinforcing the minorities and rebuilding the Sunni Arab tribes and urban clans (extended families).

This dynamic is what the Kremlin was determined to accomplish.

While the jihadist forces might be defeated by external forces, the vacuum created must be filled by in-digenous grassroots elements. Hence, the Kremlin resolved, it was imperative to coordinate the anti-jihadist effort with all pertinent local forces from the very beginning. Therefore, the Kremlin decided to expand the military coordination center opened in Baghdad in the summer of 2014 into a full- fledged center for the coordination of the regional fight against jihadism.

On September 27, 2015, the Iraqi High command formally announced an agreement on “security and in-telligence cooperation” with Russia, Iran, and Syria in order “to help combat the Islamic State” forces. The statement elaborated that the coordination agreement would enable the participating militaries to “help [each other] and cooperate in collecting information about the terrorist DI’ISH group”.

Initially, the center would better coordinate the Russian supply flights from Russia over Iran, Iraq, and Syria. In the very near future, the center was to begin to coordinate the distribution of pertinent intelli-gence about the jihadist forces they are all confronting jointly. The joint intelligence work would also in-clude coordinating reconnaissance flights, satellite, and other source collection on the basis of opera-tional requirements.

The objective of the center would be to provide the allied forces with actionable intelligence and targeting data. Timing depended, first and foremost, on the Kremlin’s formulating strategy and deciding on timeframes, including how long it would take to deploy all necessary forces and deliver all necessary military supplies. The long-term objective was to create regional warfighting capacity, from unified logis-tical effort to coordinated fighting all around al-Jazira, to the establishment of the joint command center for the General Staffs of Russia, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Ultimately, the center would coordinate a tightening siege on the Islamic State from both Iraq and Syria by Shi’ite, Kurdish, and ‘Alawite-Druze forces.

The Kremlin considers the Baghdad center as the venue through which the great war for the elimination of the jihadists in the entire al-Jazira will be managed and waged. “The Russian Federation, the Syrian Arab Republic, the Republic of Iraq, and the Islamic Republic of Iran have decided to open an information cen-ter in Baghdad which will include the General Staff representatives from the named countries,” a Russian senior official noted. “The success of the center in the near future will create conditions for the formation on its basis of the coordination committee for the purpose of planning operations and control of units of the armed forces of these four countries fighting against [the Islamic State].” The key to the center’s suc-cess would be the joint work of the representatives of the general staffs of Russia, Syria, Iran, and Iraq. “The main functions of this structure will be the collection, processing, compilation and analysis of cur-rent information about the situation in the Middle East region in
the context of the fight against the ‘Islam-ic state’, the distribution of intelligence and its operational transfer to the general staffs of these coun-tries,” the official explained.

Despite all the declarations of unity and close cooperation, the strain with Iran continues. Politically, Ira-nian Pres. Hassan Rouhani is reticent about cooperation with Russia. “I do not see a coalition between Iran and Russia in the war against terrorism in Syria,” he stated on September 25, 2015, in New York. Ear-lier that week, Maj.-Gen. Ataollah Salehi, the Commander-in-Chief of the Iranian Army, explained why there was no, and could not be, any military coordination on the ground between Iran and Russia in both Syria and Iraq. “We are not tied to anyone in helping the resistance and we do our own job. Russia helps its allies within the framework of the treaties it has, and we also act by our own methods,” Salehi stated. Related: Against The Odds, Libya Reopens Major Oil Export Terminal

This was an extremely important statement.

Salehi distinguished between Iran’s commitment to “the resistance” — that is, the jihadist trend fighting the Nusayra, the Sunni takfiris and the Zionist-Western presence — and between Russia’s commitment to alliances with the states of Syria and Iraq.

The Russian strain with Iran was further aggravated by the Russian suspicion of the U.S. dealings with Iran. Indeed, the Obama White House has kept trying to seduce Iran to break away from the cooperation with Syria and Russia. The last round took place in the meeting between U.S. Sec. of State John Kerry with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in New York. Under current conditions, this would be an impossible task given Tehran’s inherent mistrust of bilateral relations with the U.S. and of the U.S.’ ability to deliver on promises. In addition, Tehran fears losing the long-term weapons and technology supplies from both Russia and the People’s Republic of China.

Meanwhile, the Obama White House announced that the U.S. would not cooperate with the Baghdad cen-ter. The sole result was the further marginalization of U.S. influence in Iraq and elsewhere.

The Russian build-up in the region continued in late-September 2015.

At least six Su-34s, Russia’s most modern strike aircraft, arrived in Jablah. The Russians also deployed an Ilyushin Il-20 ELINT platform: the Air Force’s premiere electronic surveillance aircraft. The Il-20 model in Syria was equipped with a wide array of antennas, IR, and optical sensors, a SLAR (side-looking airborne radar), and satellite communication for real- time data sharing with Moscow and pertinent headquarters. A growing number of combat and assault helicopters were being assembled in Jablah. On top of this, Russian landing ships delivered additional Russian forces, and weapons and ammunition for the Syrian Armed Forces. The expansion and construction of military facilities all over the greater Latakia-Tartus area also continued. As reflected from the nature and scope of the construction, the Russians were clear-ly planning on a long-term stay and on significantly larger forces.

The last week of September 2015 saw the forces of the 810th Naval Infantry Brigade of the Black Sea Fleet expanding their operations in Syria. The armored personnel carrier (APC) patrols of the Russian Naval Infantry along the Slanfah-Masyaf road expanded to nearby towns with emphasis on Christian Or-thodox and Armenian towns threatened by jihadists. Naval Infantry detachments joined Syrian Special Forces and began to man checkpoints on roads leading toward the Russian defense zone. Naval Infantry forces were also guarding the 4th Armored Division’s headquarters in Ras al-Bassit near Latakia. This was the fallback northern headquarters of the core of the Assad Administration’s security forces under the personal command of Maher al-Assad. If Damascus was to fall to the enemy, the 4th Armored Divi-sion and related Special and Security Forces would deploy to the ‘Alawite heartlands, and their headquar-ters would be moved from Yafour, near Damascus, to Ras al-Bassit.

Russian commanders started visiting key combat zones in areas adjacent to the ‘Alawite heartland. They were interacting with the Syrian forces, HizbAllah (in the Zabadani area), and the Iranians (near Damascus and Homs).

The first major clash involving Russian ground elements began on September 24, 2015, near Aleppo’s Kuweires military airbase. The airbase had been besieged and partially occupied by large jihadist forces for about two years.

On September 15, 2015, a major offensive by the Syrian Armed Forces failed to break the siege and link-up with the base. The Syrian advance forces were ambushed and badly mauled by nimble jihadist forces. On September 24, 2015, Russian commanders and military specialists, along with a large security detail by 810th Naval Infantry Brigade Spetsnaz, conducted a reconnaissance near Kuweires with Syrian, Iranian and HizbAllah commanders. The Russians were attacked by jihadists, including Chechens and other North Caucasus mujahedin. A quick firefight ensued in which the Russian commanders guided Syrian and Hiz-bAllah forces in destroying the jihadist attackers. The Spetsnaz only repelled the attacks on the Russian vehicles. The Russians would like to use the Kuweires airbase as a forward base for the liberation of Aleppo and the region. Hence, lifting the siege had become a priority. Large quantities of combat vehi-cles, weapons and supplies were delivered by the Russians to the Syrian forces.

On September 27, 2015, the Syrian army launched a new offensive at the Deir Hafer Plains, east Aleppo, in the direction of Kuweires. The assault was preceded by massive air strikes by both Su-25s and attack helicopters of the Syrian Air Force. The lead pilots were Russian advisers.

Soon afterwards, Syrian forces recaptured the strategic hilltop of Tal Rayman, the village of Al-Salihiyah from where the jihadists blocked the main supply route along the Khanasser Highway. Syrian senior mili-tary officials stressed that the key to the success of the attack was the guidance provided by the Rus-sian military advisors. Moreover, “the logistical assistance from their Russian military advisors has pro-pelled the Syrian Armed Forces to advance along the south-western axis of the Kuweires Military Airport, resulting in the capture of Al-Salihiyah after fierce firefights with the terrorist group.”

At the request of Pres. Assad, the Russians agreed to “oversee the Syrian Armed Forces’ operations in northern Syria” and toward this end “have now taken complete command of the east Aleppo offensive to lift the siege of the Kuweires Military Airport.” Russian advisors and experts started leading the opera-tions from the Syrian command room. On September 29, 2015, Syrian senior military officials noted that their forces had already “benefitted immensely from their guidance”.


Damascus now deployed two of Syria’s top Special Forces units to the area: the Qawat al-Nimr (Tiger Force) under Col. Suheil Al-Hassan and the Qawat al-Fahoud (Cheetah Force) under Col. Luayy Sleitan. Another key unit earmarked was Liwaa al-Quds (Jerusalem Brigade), a unit comprised of Palestinians who had undergone specialized training by the Syrian Special Forces before 2011. This deployment indicated the immense importance of the Kuweires fighting for Assad’s Damascus.

Indeed, senior Syrian military officials stressed that all the illustrious Syrian senior commanders were “taking a backseat to the Russian military advisors overseeing the battle of east Aleppo.” Under Russian guidance, the Syrian Special Forces, on the morning of September 30, 2015, launched a major assault on the Scientific Research Building in the Al-Rashideen District of west Aleppo. Overnight (September 30/October 1, 2015), Qawat al-Fahoud carried out a highly unusual night raid on the village of Ayn Sabil, a forward position of the Islamic State forces.

Senior Syrian military officials elaborated that Qawat al-Fahoud attacked the Islamic State forces “along the southern perimeter of Ayn Sabil, while helicopters from the Russian Air Force provided them cover-age during their advance along this desolate territory that sits approximately 13km from the Kuweires Military Airport.” Related: Official: America Has A New #1 Supplier Of Uranium

Meanwhile, Russian pilots started familiarization and reconnaissance sorties over key areas of both Syria and Iraq. Most reconnaissance flights have been conducted by single or pairs of Su-30SMs. Familiariza-tion sorties were being conducted by pairs of Su-24M2s. The initial sorties were over north-western Syria, mainly the Idlib and Aleppo areas. Starting September 28, 2015, the Russians focused on the Islamic State/Caliphate heartlands.

The Russian Air Force conducted more than 20 reconnaissance flights on the first day. Its focus was the strategic supply routes between the Deir ez-Zor area in Syria and the al-Anbar Province in Iraq. The Rus-sians also covered the cities of al-Mayadeen, Abu-Kamaal, and Mohassan in eastern Syria and the city of al-Heel in western Iraq. This was the first major intelligence collection operation coordinated by the new center in Baghdad. On September 29-30, 2015, the Russians conducted reconnaissance flights over the provinces of Deir ez-Zor, al-Hasakah, al-Raqqa, Aleppo, al-Sweida, Damascus, and Homs. Russians were identifying and mapping jihadist positions and facilities throughout Syria’s vast desert. Damascus expected the Russians to soon begin air strikes in the Deir ez-Zor, al-Raqqa, al-Hasakah, Aleppo, and Homs areas.

By October 1, 2015, the Russian strategy in Syria-Iraq was very clear.

The initial Russian effort was to consolidate and stabilize the areas adjacent to the ‘Alawite heartland and particularly the Russian defense zone. This meant focus on defeating the jihadist forces in north-western Syria; areas where the jihadists were supported and sustained by the U.S.-led sponsorship infrastructure in Hatay Province across the Turkish border.

The second priority was to clear the roads to Aleppo and lift the jihadist siege and occupation: again, confronting and defeating jihadist forces sustained from across the Turkish border. These jihadists also controlled the key supply roads from southern Turkey to the heart of the Caliphate’s Euphrates Valley bastion.

Only then, would the Syrian Armed Forces be in position to advance eastward into the Euphrates Valley.

Significantly, the Russians’ initial priority areas were also the priority areas of the U.S.-sponsored ji-hadists in their repeated efforts to reach Damascus and topple the Assad Administration, as well as de-stroy the ‘Alawite heartland in between. These U.S.-sponsored jihadists not only do not confront the Is-lamic State forces, but closely cooperate with them in the Aleppo area, the Damascus area, and the Homs pocket.

Rhetoric notwithstanding, any progress of the Syrian and Russian forces represents a setback to U.S. Pres. Obama’s pro-jihad/anti-Assad efforts.

By Yossef Bodansky

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Leave a comment
  • Lee James on October 09 2015 said:
    This article is the best that I have seen for describing Russia's Syrian strategy and progress-to-date. After reading this detailed account, the conclusion of the article seems a bit understated: Obama's coalition is seeing a setback in Syria.

    Clearly, Putin is in the game to win -- if winning is the right word to use in Syria. Whatever the military outcome, we have a devastated, decimated country. Russia publicly measures success by doing-in ISIS and keeping in-place Assad. Left unsaid is Russian chest-beating and pride on the world stage ... and the potential for oil prices to rise.

    Russian involvement in Syria furthers the rift between the two major sects in Islam, and forces in-between sects to choose sides. Russia is aligned with the Shiite sect. Very possibly threat and conflict will spread to Sunni oil-producing areas, driving up the world price of oil. This is where Putin can win once again.

    Oil sales fuel Putin's ability to embark on costly enterprises such as Syria and the Middle-East. Oil buys weapons, but will Russian petroleum sales provide the resources needed to put the Syrian pottery barn back together again? Syria appears to have many friends who will buy them airstrikes and missiles. How about something as basic as a garbage truck?

    Putin is being very strategic in his commitment to Syria. Russia's impressive tactics will fascinate, impress and likely distract us, but these tactics should not blind us to the possibility that factionalism will increase, and with it cascading conflict in the region.
  • Jim on October 09 2015 said:
    Fantastic article Yossef! Thank you for your hard work, great job!
  • Runde on October 09 2015 said:
    There's some 5-6 big groups fighting in Syria and it's neighborhood(not only IS) perhaps Putins way dealing with it is better than US arming all of those terrorists? Arming them hasn't helped middle east much but perhaps that never was the purpose?

    Arming the kurds is making things interesting considering no love lost between them and the Turks
  • Santeri Satama on October 12 2015 said:
    Most informative article on the subject so far, thanks.

    Lee, if this is true:

    "Hence, before creating a vacuum, it was imperative to prepare the positive forces which would fill it. In the case of the greater Middle East, this meant reinforcing the minorities and rebuilding the Sunni Arab tribes and urban clans (extended families).

    This dynamic is what the Kremlin was determined to accomplish."

    it doesn't necessarily mean rise of factionalism - or rather continuation and escalation of the factionalism that Syrian state and civil war etc. have so far produced. There is very little mention about Russia lead coalition's relations with and attitudes towards YPG/YPJ and more generally the Rojava social revolution which is breaking old patriarchal and factionalist structures and replacing them with culturally inclusive and autonomous local communities based on gender etc. equality, and bottom up confederate structures of local communities, but the strategic goal stated in the article is very much in line with what is already happening in Rojava, instead of another faction replacing the Alawites in control of top down hierarchy, letting local communities built their bottom up confederate structures of pluralistic and inclusive society is the most positive outcome.
  • RussRamey6 on November 05 2015 said:
    Once again outstanding information and analysis. More the pity our government ignores your intel and warnings since Iraq fell. Bravo!

Leave a comment

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