Syria (Part 2): Military Implications
By Jeffrey White
September 15, 2015
As Moscow builds up
a reportedly substantial presence in the coastal provinces, Washington and its
allies need to consider how the intervention could affect the Assad regime's
prospects of survival and the future of the campaign against ISIS.
Moreover, if the
Russian presence becomes established, it will be increasingly difficult to
remove. As in Crimea and Ukraine, the United States -- much less any other
country -- seems unlikely to challenge Russian forces militarily. And while
these forces will probably suffer casualties and could become bogged down in
Syria, Moscow may well accept that as the cost of keeping the Assad regime in
power and frustrating Washington.
DECISION, PREPARATIONS, AND BUILDUP
Russia's moves in
Syria are seemingly based on a larger geopolitical strategy that counts on
little interference from the United States and its coalition allies. The
intervention appears to be a deliberate strategic effort to support the regime
with direct military force, most likely spurred by the assessment that Bashar
al-Assad's forces are failing and that the support provided by Hezbollah and
Iran is inadequate. The decision was likely made in coordination with Tehran,
which is reportedly boosting its own military assistance to the regime. Other
probable goals include safeguarding the regime's western heartland, protecting
and expanding Russian naval and air access to Syria, and increasing Moscow's
overall influence on the situation. More broadly, Russia appears committed to
exercising its influence in the Middle East, and Syria provides an opportunity.
In some ways, the
deployment looks like Russia's 2014 seizure of Crimea: ambiguous early moves
cloaked by misleading leadership statements on their purpose, accompanied by an
incremental buildup of forces using cover provided by preexisting Russian
activities and facilities in Syria. Moscow has used both ships (including naval
landing craft) and fifteen transport planes (AN-124/Condors and IL-62s) to move
new materiel and combat forces into the country. These planes have used multiple
air routes from Russia to Latakia, and flight activity continues under the cover
of humanitarian aid missions.
The equipment and
materiel brought in as part of the ongoing operation apparently include combat
vehicles (six T-90 tanks, thirty-five armored personnel carriers), fifteen
artillery pieces, military trucks and utility vehicles, prefabricated housing
units (for around 1,500 personnel), and a mobile air-traffic control center.
Commercial satellite photography has also identified efforts to expand Bassel
al-Assad Airport. Under the current circumstances, Russia would have access to
the airport as well as the ports of Latakia and Tartus to support its
Thus far, some 200
Russian marines -- probably from the 810th Independent Naval Infantry Brigade
based in Sevastopol -- have reportedly been deployed to Latakia to protect
Russian facilities. Elements of the 363rd Naval Infantry Brigade have also been
reported in Syria. According to U.S.-government-attributed sources, advanced
SA-22 surface-to-air missiles and combat aircraft (fighter, strike) are headed
for the country as well. In short, the deployment looks very much like a joint
expeditionary force in the making.
for the projected Russian force include supplementing the regime's declining air
force in strike operations against the rebels, providing air defense to Russian
forces and the regime heartland via the SA-22s and combat aircraft, and
conducting a range of ground combat and support missions, including offensive
and defensive operations as well as training and advisory roles. Limited
evidence suggests that Russian forces are already taking part in some ground
actions -- one video showed a BTR-82A in action with a purportedly
Russian-speaking crew, and some reports have mentioned a Russian military
casualty in Syria. Numerous unconfirmed reports also suggest that small numbers
of Russian troops are active at several points outside the coastal region,
engaged in combat and ground reconnaissance missions.
The emphasis of the
Russian mission (whether offensive, defensive, training, or advisory) will
become clearer as the size and types of forces are determined. The arrival of
strike aircraft would further signal offensive intent, as the reported presence
of T-90s already does. Whatever the mission, a buildup of Russian
command-and-control and intelligence capabilities should be expected.
IMPLICATIONS FOR SYRIA
If developed along
the lines laid out above, the Russian intervention would have major implications
for the military situation in Syria. Russian combat forces would presumably
cooperate with regime forces, providing increased firepower, air support, and
combat effectiveness. If assigned to training and advisory roles, they could
improve the military skills of Syrian units. They could also conduct independent
combat missions against important targets.
forces could give the regime a decisive edge on battlefields where they are
employed, allowing key positions to be taken or held and increasing attrition on
rebel forces. Their appearance would also be a major morale booster for the
regime, while simultaneously disheartening rebel forces. Opposition units are
capable of defeating regime forces under some circumstances, but this is
unlikely when Russian forces are present and active in any numbers. The rebels
could inflict some casualties on Russian units but are largely incapable of
defeating them in serious combat, despite the hopes of those who recall Moscow's
experience in Afghanistan. The rebels would lack the coordination, cohesion,
discipline, and firepower to defeat the Russians consistently or win
larger-scale actions against them.
IMPLICATIONS FOR ISRAEL
intervention could have a significant limiting effect on Israeli air operations
over Syria and Lebanon. In particular, the presence of Russian-manned
air-defense systems and aircraft in Syria could spur Israel to reconsider
strikes in areas where Russian forces are deployed, potentially allowing Iran or
even Moscow to deliver more advanced weapons systems to the Assad regime and
Hezbollah. Israel has reportedly struck weapons deliveries in the Latakia area
in the past, but that would be a very dangerous action with Russian forces
present. If the Russian air and air-defense presence expands beyond the coastal
region, which seems likely, there would be increased risk of clashes with any
intruding Israeli aircraft.
IMPLICATIONS FOR TURKEY
military engagement in favor of the Assad regime would further consolidate
U.S.-Turkish cooperation in Syria. Ankara sees Moscow as a historic adversary --
the Ottoman Turks fought at least seventeen winless campaigns against the
Russians. Therefore, Turkey will likely align itself closely with U.S. policy in
Syria in order to avoid military confrontation against Russia in that theatre.
IMPLICATIONS FOR THE UNITED STATES
Russia's move is a
clear challenge to Washington, exploiting what Moscow presumably sees as U.S.
reluctance to act in Syria. The administration's tepid reaction so far
(statements of concern, phone calls to Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, efforts
to block Russian air traffic to Syria) is probably encouraging to the Russians,
and they are likely to press on.
presence of Russian combat forces could complicate U.S./coalition air
operations. Although most of these operations are conducted far from the coastal
areas where Moscow appears to be deploying, any Russian expansion to the east or
north would create the potential for adjacent or overlapping areas of operation.
Russia has already raised the possibility of inadvertent clashes and mentioned
the need to establish means of deconfliction.
could also complicate U.S. plans to support ground operations in Syria. While
ISIS would be the focus of any U.S.-backed campaign, Syria's complex
battlefields often feature a mix of rebel, ISIS, and regime forces operating in
close proximity or even actively engaged with one another. Under these
circumstances, Russian operations in support of regime forces could lead to
attacks on U.S.-backed forces, whether by design or accident. Aleppo and Deraa
provinces would be prime areas for such incidents.
Of course, Moscow
has argued for an international military effort against ISIS, and in theory,
Russian forces could add to the weight of coalition attacks on the group,
increase the attrition of its forces, and damage its infrastructure. In all
likelihood, however, the primary intent of Moscow's intervention is to bolster
the regime, not to fight ISIS. The main threat to the regime comes not from the
ISIS strongholds in eastern and central Syria, but from the kluge of rebel
groups that pose a growing danger in western areas key to the regime's survival,
especially northern Latakia, Idlib, north Hama, and south of Damascus. Indeed,
the regime has never made ISIS its top priority for military operations, at
various times cooperating with or fighting the group based on pragmatic
assessments of the military situation at the time.
Although the full
scope and purpose of the Russian action in Syria is unclear at present, it
appears to be significant. Like Hezbollah's open entry into the war in 2013, it
is a potential military game-changer, potentially halting or, if large enough,
even reversing the decline of Assad's forces, bolstering the regime's staying
power, and restricting the ability of Israeli and U.S. forces to operate there.
The intervention may prove problematic for the Russians, but Moscow seems
willing to take some risk to pursue its goal of regime survival and to score one
A Russian combat
presence will also give pause to the Syrian opposition and those who support it,
particularly governments whose support is wobbling. The prospect of getting
involved in a military contest with Russia is not what most of these actors
seek, and it may encourage them to support a political solution instead of a
military one. Russian intervention also bolsters the argument that there can be
no solution to the conflict without Moscow's involvement. With forces on the
ground, Russia's influence on any outcome grows. And as long as the Kremlin
continues to support him, the idea that Assad will leave power recedes even
The weakness and
vacillation that the United States and others have shown in supporting the
rebellion, coupled with the rise of ISIS, have given Russia an opportunity to
move boldly in pursuit of its goals in Syria. Moscow has made clear that it will
continue providing "military-technical" assistance to Assad. If the
Russian presence develops into a significant combat force, there is probably not
much that Washington and its allies can do about it. They will not risk a
military confrontation, and traditional instruments of policy (diplomatic
protests, sanctions, UN action) are likely to be ineffective or thwarted by
Russia. The West is in a reactive mode and has demonstrated little willingness
to confront Moscow in other areas when risks of military clashes exist.