Russia now admits that it suddenly increased its military aid to Syria during August. Satellite and ground level photos show more Russian personnel and military equipment in Syria. Russia appears to have sent troops to guard and expand a naval base in Tartus as well as an airbase near the port city of Latakia (
85 kilometers north of Tartus). The Russians appear to be expanding an existing airport into a military airbase for Russian transports and warplanes. With all this help Russia is reinforcing the Assad heartland along the coast. Latakia province is a coastal areas in the northwest that is largely Alawite and where the Assad clan comes from. Since July al Nusra and other rebel forces have been on the offensive towards Latakia. This fighting has resulted in over a thousand casualties and before it was halted in late August. This rebel offensive seriously threatened to reach the coast. Most of the rebel forces involved were not ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). The U.S. led air coalition over Syria has not attacked Assad forces so far, but the Assads are still seen as the bad guys. At the moment ISIL is considered the badder guys.
This increase in Russian military aid to Syria is apparently an effort to grab some positive publicity for Russia, which is currently seen as a treacherous bully because of its aggression in Ukraine and elsewhere in East Europe. Russia portrays itself as taking the lead in confronting and halting ISIL and doing something NATO is unwilling to do; put their own troops into Syria. So far this includes some marines, paratroopers and air force personnel plus armored vehicles and combat aircraft. The problem here is that the Russian effort it largely in support of the Assad government which is seen in the region as treacherous and oppressive and why there has been a civil war in Syria since 2011. But since ISIL showed up in 2013 it’s been a three-way civil war between the Assads, ISIL rebels and non-ISIL rebels all fighting each other. Russia and Iran (the long-time patron of the Assads) want to make the war mainly about destroying ISIL, not the Assads. Some Arab countries are willing to support this, seeing ISIL as the greater threat. Russia is also trying to get some cooperation from Arab states and NATO to allow the Assad clan to go into exile (presumably in Russia or Iran) and given the mess ISIL has made the Arabs and NATO have not dismissed the idea entirely. Russia is also offering a plan to split Syria up and leave the Assads in control of their “heartland” (the area from Damascus to the coast.) This idea has proved to be very hard to sell.
Meanwhile In Ukraine
The ceasefire has been holding for ten days but it is feared that is mainly because Russia is having problems with some of the rebel leaders in Donbas (eastern Ukraine). More information about who is running the rebellion in Donbas have become public lately and it appears that a Russian general is in charge. Most of the rebel combat troops (at least the ones that can be depended on) in Donbas are Russian. There are rebels present but the Russians have found them to be generally ineffective fighters led by troublesome leaders. The Russians are currently trying to sort out the leadership problems.
Since Russia first invaded Ukraine in early 2014 they insisted that no Russian troops are involved. A Russian magazine recently published an article on pay for military personnel and one of the charts showed the number of soldiers who died (over 2,000) or were wounded (nearly 4,000) in Ukraine. This was part of a discussion on benefits paid to the families of dead soldiers or living but wounded ones. Russian government officials soon found out about this and the article (in Russian) disappeared from the visible Internet. It was too late. What is surprising about these numbers is that they are larger than earlier estimates based on fragmentary data from some families of Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine and complaining on the Internet about how the Russian government is trying to keep the presence of Russian troops in Ukraine a secret. Suffering over 6,000 casualties in 18 months indicates a large force and an unusually high casualty rate. For example the Russians lost 15,000 troops during the 1979-89 Russian fighting in Afghanistan. This was out of a force that averaged 150,000 troops. During that time at least 1.5 million Afghans also died from the Russian violence. Note that during 14 years of American operations in Afghanistan fewer than 2,200 American troops died and fewer than 100,000 Afghan civilians (most at the hands of the Taliban and various outlaws). The American force in Afghanistan averaged fewer than 50,000 troops. That’s about twice the size of the force Russia now has in Ukraine.
Total deaths in eastern Ukraine so far are under 10,000, most of them civilians and largely because of indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas by Russians or pro-Russian rebels. Now we know that, as many had already suspected (because a lot of the rocket and howitzer firing was from weapons across the border in Russia) that most of these casualties were the result of Russian efforts. Ukraine recently revealed the names of the four Russian generals running the rebel force in Donbas. Ukraine believes Russians (soldiers or mercenaries) comprise about 60 percent of the rebel force. Ukraine has a lot of sources inside Donbas and their intelligence about what is going on there has generally been reliable.
Iran Wants A Better Deal
Iran is eager to go shopping for new arms and Russia is ready to sell but both countries are still locked in a dispute over an old anti-aircraft missile contract. Iran is demanding that Russia pay a billion dollars compensation for cash paid for older model S-300s in 2007 that were never delivered. That sale was halted by the sanctions and deals with Israel and the United States. But now Russia is under sanctions itself because of its invasion of Ukraine and not concerned with sanctions anymore. Although Russia has offered to sell Iran the newer S-300VM system Iran demands delivery of the older ones before their lawsuit is dropped. The S-300VM is the latest (2013) version of its S-300 anti-aircraft missile system. The main issue here is money. Russia has also been badly hurt by the plunging world oil price and recently cut its current defense budget more than ten percent and other government programs even more. Iran will not budge and wants the older missiles before buying any newer ones. It also appears that most of the new Iranian weapons purchases will be from Russia. Iran is also negotiating with Russia to supply American military tech it has obtained from American UAVs that have crashed in Iran.
The government is surviving the economic recession (caused by low oil prices and sanctions resulting from the Ukraine aggression) by convincing most Russians that the current economic problems are all part of a plot to destroy Russia. Given 70 years of Soviet propaganda saying the same thing and centuries of general paranoia, this invented threat has some traction with many Russians. But it will not last and the opinion polls are already showing that. Unless the government can come up with some economic relief, or more convincing explanations for the mess, there will be more popular resistance to the current policies.
September 11, 2015: The government asked the United States to coordinate with Russian forces in Syria to prevent accidents. Such communications used to be common but this arrangement was cancelled in 2014 because of Russian aggression against Ukraine. Russia is expanding an airbase near the Mediterranean coast in Syria. This includes bringing in modern anti-aircraft weapons. This concerns the United States because none of the rebels have aircraft and the only possible targets are NATO or Arab coalition aircraft bombing ISIL forces. Russia also has warships operating off the Syrian coast and wants make sure there are no fatal misunderstandings with NATO warships there. While the U.S. and Russia are both opposed to ISIL Russia also supports the Assad government while everyone else supports the anti-Assad rebels.
September 9, 2015: In the south (Dagestan) Islamic terrorist gunmen shot dead a Moslem cleric who openly opposed Islamic terrorism.
September 8, 2015: The UN announced that its analysis of the Ukraine violence indicates that since April 2014 7,962 people have been killed and 17,811 wounded in the Donbas fighting.
September 6, 2015: Russia admitted that it was providing more military support to the Assad government in Syria, including Russian troops, combat vehicles and aircraft.
September 4, 2015: In eastern Ukraine one of the pro-Russian rebel leaders (Andrei Purgin) was arrested by his fellow rebels. There is some disagreement between rebel leaders and their Russian overlords about strategy and tactics. Purgin was considered “too independent” by Russia.
September 3, 2015: The U.S. found a Russian electronic monitoring ship about 500 kilometers off the east coast (near the Kings Bay, Georgia naval base). Since the ship was in international waters it was ignored.
September 2, 2015: In August police in the Moslem south (mainly the Caucasus) detained 25 Moslem men believed to be trying to go to Syria to join ISIL.
September 1, 2015: Until recently most of the American armored vehicles moved into East Europe were painted with the desert tan color used in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now these tanks in East Europe are being painted the green color appropriate for operations in Europe. Russian media plays this up as proof that NATO is planning to invade.
August 31, 2015: In Ukraine someone threw grenades outside parliament. One soldier was killed and over a hundred people (mostly civilians) were wounded. Nationalists were there protesting parliament planning to grant more autonomy to Donbas as part of a peace deal.
August 30, 2015: Ukraine cancelled voting (for local officials) in parts of Donbas considered too dangerous for election workers to operate in.
August 29, 2015: Two American Predator UAVs arrived in Latvia for a two week training mission.
August 25, 2015: In the south (Dagestan) police found and killed three Islamic terrorists including one who was a leader sought for over a year. A major Islamic terror group in southern Russia (the Caucasus Emirate) recently lost its top three leaders after several days of heavy fighting against a large force of police and troops. This was but the latest defeat for this group and other Islamic terror groups in the area. Now the Russians are seeking to find out how many, if any, organized Islamic terrorists are left in the Caucasus.