Leadership: Russia Travels Light In Syria


September 16, 2018: In mid-2018 Russia revealed that they had sent 63,012 troops to Syria since mid-2015. That includes army, navy and air force personnel, many having been there multiple times (but are only counted as one of the 63,012). Not included are contractors, who are civilians, even if they took on some of the most dangerous jobs and suffered more casualties than the military personnel. Yet many of the contractors were never near combat and were there mainly to help the Syrians refurbish and revive their rundown military equipment and infrastructure.

Out of those 63,000 Russian military personnel who have been in Syria (some for less than a day, few for more than six months) only about a hundred have died in combat so far. There have been half as many military contractors serving in Syria and they have suffered several hundred dead. No official numbers of military contractor fatalities have been released but Russian volunteer organizations have tried to keep track of the funerals or other indications of young men dying in Syria and it is clear that being a military contractor is a lot more dangerous. The point here is that there are still some Russians willing to take dangerous combat jobs but there are not enough them to maintain the million man military Russian leaders want. Russia knew going in that Russian troops getting killed overseas, even if they were not conscripts (who were kept out of Syria from the start) was politically unpopular with most Russians. Even volunteer troops getting killed overseas was unpopular although opinion surveys showed that the average Russian was not upset if a contractor (or “mercenary”) was killed because they were paid a lot more and were professionals who knew what they were getting into.

Russia also revealed that 41 percent of the Russian troops in Syria were officers and that seven percent of the troops sent were “artillery specialists”. That’s because Russia did have some artillery (tube and rocket) and anti-aircraft units in Syria as well as a lot of artillery officers and technicians to help rebuild the Syrian army artillery and air defense equipment and train personnel. Next to “artillery” troops there were nearly as many special operations troops. These were there both for training Syrians and carrying out, well, special operations.” Most of these were eventually replaced with contractors, some of whom had earlier served in Syria as a soldier.

Most of the Russian troops in Syria were there to provide training, combat advisors and, most importantly, technical help in rebuilding the Syrian inventory of weapons and equipment. These support personnel were also hard at work maintaining Russian aircraft and military equipment in general. The Russian aircraft maintainers made it possible for Russian warplanes to fly 39,000 sorties (an average of 36 a day) that, according to Russian estimates, killed at least 86,000 enemy personnel. This air support was a key factor in Syrian forces being able to regain control of most of the country by 2017.

Russian air strikes in Syria were directed primarily at “rebels” and about 70 percent of the dead were Syrians (primarily rebels or nearby civilians) and not Islamic terrorists who were concentrating on their religious war with each other. Russia officially said it was there to fight ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) but most of the targets were non-ISIL rebels who have been taking a lot of territory from the Assad government. The Russian air strikes went after a few key Islamic terrorist leaders and the FSA (the largest secular rebel group, supported by the U.S.). Both FSA and al Qaeda (HTS/al Nusra) are hostile to ISIL but for Russia, these two groups were a major threat to the Syrian government, which has long been a Russian ally. Russian warplanes carried out 50-60 air strikes a day during peak periods, which was far more than the U.S. led air coalition.

By 2016 it was obvious that Russia was concentrating most of its considerable firepower on rebel groups that were hurting the Syrian Assad government forces the most. By American count, only about ten percent of Russian air strikes were against ISIL and those targets were usually hit to protect Assad forces. Russia justified (to the UN and the world in general) its military presence in Syria because it was part of the effort to destroy the ISIL threat. While Russia does not hide its support for the Assad government (which the UN and most of the world accuse of war crimes and want gone) it insists that its presence in Syria is not primarily to keep the Assads in power. Yet thousands of Russian troops were working with the Assad forces, the Russian troops were all based in Assad controlled territory and the majority of rebels, who are not ISIL or the local al Qaeda franchise al Nusra (now HTS), are the main targets of Russian firepower.

The Russian intervention in Syria was never meant to be a large effort in terms of manpower and intended, from the beginning, to help rebuild and revive the Syrian military forces that were already there. Most of the Russian troops and contractors were technical experts to assist the Syrians in refurbishing elderly (or just overworked) weapons and military equipment. Russia supplied the spare (or improved) parts and any special tools needed to get this done. New weapons and gear also arrived and the Syrian troops had to be quickly taught how to use all this stuff. By January 2016 the impact of this effort was visible to people on the ground. Western photo satellites and aerial surveillance showed the Syrian troops using new Russian artillery as well as more of their own refurbished stuff because the Russians had shipped in lots of ammo along with the new parts. A lot of worn out Syrian artillery and armored vehicles were ready to go again with the right replacement parts and perhaps a few new items (sights, electronics, better batteries) as upgrades. Russian UAVs were providing target information and the Syrian infantry seemed more precise and confident as they called in supporting artillery and air support before advancing. All this made it much harder for the rebels to defeat the Assad government and much easier to accept a peace deal that keeps the Assads in power, which was always a Russian goal.

Another advantage the Russian intervention bought the Syrian government was more medical assistance. The Russians brought in lots of badly needed medical supplies and equipment as well as medical personnel. This was a big morale booster for government forces because all these offensive operations meant more casualties. The knowledge that there was better medical care available made government forces more willing to take chances. This meant more Syrian local militias, even ones that are neutral or anti-government, were willing to work with government forces to defeat ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). There were a growing number of communities that initially (2011-12) sided with the rebels but by 2016 were willing to work with whoever could protect them. The government has always been willing to work with “neutral” civilians and make deals. The most useful neutrals are the non-Sunni Moslems (Shia, Christian, Druze and so on) that ISIL persecutes enthusiastically and that have long sided with the Assads who themselves come from the local Shia minority.

Russia has also made a major effort to help rebuild what is left of the Syrian Air Force, which has suffered enormous (over 70 percent) losses between 2011 and 2016. The Russians also brought in UAVs and electronic monitoring equipment and because of that provided a much better picture of where the best targets were. This caused a lot of damage to the rebels who found their supply facilities and other support operations being located and bombed. These airstrikes were delivered mainly by Russian jets and helicopters at first but soon the refurbished Syrian warplanes were carrying out a lot more airstrikes. Russia had always provided tech and material (spare parts) support for this largely Russian fleet of warplanes and helicopters but not enough for the Syrians to keep more than 30 percent of the 370 aircraft and helicopters operational by the time the Russians showed up. The surge of Russian support meant the Syrian Air Force could be rebuilt and become a major factor once more. By 2018 the Syrian Air Force was able to handle most of the air support Syrian ground forces needed.

Russia brought in several thousand of their Spetsnaz (special operations) troops both as active duty Russian army operators and former Spetsnaz serving as contractors. Unlike the popular image of special operations troops, these Spetsnaz were rarely used for raids. Like their Western counterparts Spetsnaz are also trained to do reconnaissance (often deep into enemy territory), provide security for very valuable people or equipment and carry out “direct action” (raids) as needed. Spetsnaz did a lot of direct action in Afghanistan in the 1980s and in the Caucasus since the late 1990s but not in Syria. That’s because Russia wanted to avoid casualties in Syria as any troop losses here were very unpopular in Russia. Spectacular victories, on the other hand, are still popular. Russian Spetsnaz commandos had been in Syria officially since October 2015 and unofficially up to a year earlier. Russia did not say much about what Spetsnaz was doing in Syria, which is standard for special operations missions. Initially, Spetsnaz were there to train their Syrian counterparts and help hunt down and kill key ISIL leaders. Any successes there were not publicized, which is, again, pretty standard for secretive commando operations. It was more difficult to hide the role Spetsnaz (especially the contractors) played in helping improve the security of senior government officials in Damascus. That operation was also a success. Russia also sent expert snipers, many of them Spetsnaz, who mainly served as instructors for Syrian Army snipers and to set up a program to select troops who could be good snipers and train them. New Russian sniping rifles were seen in Syria after 2015.

To make their Syria intervention work Russia had to quietly resort to employing Russian private security companies. By the end of 2017, there were about 1,200 military contractors from the Wagner Group and perhaps as many more from other Russian contractor firms. About half these private security troops were believed to have been organized combat units that were reliable enough to be used in place of scarce army special operations troops. By monitoring Russian language social media activity (which anyone can do) it was noted how many recent military veterans were working for several of these private security companies. These fellows would often post pictures from Syria and Ukraine. Casualties were suffered in both places although the duties of the contractors were different in each of those countries. In Syria, the security contractors mainly guarded Russian bases but were also used in combat when they provided security for Russian artillery units supporting Syrian Army troops. In a few cases, the contractors were sent in to assist Syrian troops who got themselves in trouble. Russia described these men as special operations troops because outside Russia the security contractors often wear Russian military uniforms. But social media revealed that many of these dead Russians in Syria were actually contractors.

Among the many Russian civilians in Syria were engineers and other specialists from Russian defense firms that were developing and manufacturing the most modern Russian weapons. This included smart bombs, warplanes, electronic warfare equipment and air defense systems. The defense industry experts were not only there to collect information on how the latest Russian military tech was doing but to also supply the sales and marketing people back in Russia with specific information they could use to improve export sales for new Russian weapons. This angle was widely publicized in Russian state-controlled mass media. One thing these defense firm personnel did not want to comment on was the small number of smart bombs, shells and rockets the Russian armed forces had. Some 90 percent of the bombs dropped in Syria by modern Russian aircraft were unguided (“dumb”) weapons because the tiny Russian stockpiles of smart bombs were quickly exhausted.

By late 2015 Russia was also learning the hard way how difficult it was to maintain modern warplanes in the sand and dust of the Middle East. Russia knew about this problem because for decades it had been selling military aircraft to countries (including Syria) in the region. But it turned out that there were a lot of (often minor) modifications Syrian maintainers made to their Russian aircraft to keep them operational in this environment. Russian maintainers were soon working overtime to adapt to all this. Despite that Russia was getting several sorties a day out of many of the fifty or so warplanes it had (most of the time) in Syria. On some days there are nearly a hundred air strikes. The 50 or so Russian aircraft in Syria initially consisted of Su-34 and Su-30 fighter-bombers, Su-24M bombers and Su-25 ground attack aircraft as well as about a dozen armed helicopters. There are also many transport helicopters. As time went on just about every new Russian warplane showed up in Syria, including the Su-57 stealth fighter and the Su-35 (the new top fighter in service).

By 2018 Russian casualties in Syria continued to be remarkably low with nearly all the fatalities were suffered by highly trained troops advising the Syrians or special operations personnel carrying out recon or other intel gathering missions. The few Russian artillery units rarely got close enough to the fighting to be shot at and were their mainly to test new or updated Russian guided rockets or artillery shells. As of the end of 2017, Russia admitted to 45 Russians killed in Syria since mid-2015. The actual number is believed to be 30-80 percent higher because of the growing use of Russian military contractors, who are not, for record keeping purposes, members of the Russian military. The Syrian war effort, despite the low number of Russian casualties, is not popular with most Russians who see Assad and most other Middle Eastern governments (especially former Soviet allies) as losers. By mid-2018 Russia adjusted their official death count to 90 (for members of the armed forces) and still said little about contractor deaths.




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