Russia warplanes carried out over a hundred airstrikes in the last week against Islamic terrorist targets in northwest Syria (Latakia, Idlib and Homs provinces) plus ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) targets in eastern Syria. Russian warplanes are based in Latakia, where Russia has built a large airbase on land provided by the Syrian government on a long-term lease. Russian military aircraft have been active in Syria since 2015 and by 2021 had flown over 40,000 sorties. Most of these sorties were non-combat operations by helicopters, military transports and combat support aircraft carrying out reconnaissance missions seeking out targets and keeping track of enemy, and friendly activity on the ground. Russia does not have many UAVs for recon or ground attack. Using manned aircraft for any sorties is expensive, the combat sorties are just more expensive because they deliberately expend most of their cargo.
The Assad government wants the Russians to stick around to deal with the long-term threat from Islamic terror and secular rebels. The airstrikes and maintaining an airbase and nearby port facility are expensive but easier to hide in the budget than Russians getting killed in Syria. Nearly all the Russian military personnel in Syria are volunteers or military contractors, who are also more expensive than sending conscripts, which still comprise over half the armed forces. Families of conscripts are unhappy with conscription in general and get agitated if their sons are sent overseas and even more angry, and outspoken locally and on the Internet, if their conscript son is wounded or killed overseas.
The current Russian government believes expensive foreign military operations, like the ones in Syria and Libya will eventually pay for themselves by generating more exports and lucrative foreign deals. So far, this strategy has been running at a loss and the situations in Syria and Libya still have uncertain outcomes for Russia. In many respects foreign military interventions in Syria and Libya have also caused more problems with existing allies.
In Syria, Russia and Turkey are supposed to be Iranian allies but are less frequently acting the part. Russia sent forces to Syria in 2015 to help preserve its old Cold War era ally the Assads. This was done for the benefit of Russia, not Syria, Iran or Turkey. Russia was the second foreign power to come to the aid of the Assads. Since 2012 Iran has been helping keep their old Shia ally, the Assads, in power. Iran had more ambitious goals, as in increasing its threat against Israel once the rebels were defeated. A year after the Russians showed up, the Turks sent in troops, but used locally recruited Syrian mercenaries to do most of the fighting and dying. The Turks used the same mercenaries in Libya, where the Russians are the enemy rather than an ally.
The Russians hoped to rebuild the Syria military and get most of their own troops and equipment out. Reviving the Syrian military sufficiently to allow the Russians to leave proved impossible. The only alternative was hiring local or foreign mercenaries, which the Iranians, Turks, Americans and Syrians all relied on in Syria. The pre-2011 Syrian military was gone when the Russians arrived and that was obvious when the Russians had time to examine the situation in detail. Russia responded by concentrating on improving the Russian weapons and equipment Syrian forces already had while providing air and artillery support for the remaining Syrian troops. This made it possible for the meager Assad forces to defend themselves, their families and communities. This was all Assad supporters really wanted to do after several years of civil war. Eventually Russia began hiring some Syrian mercenaries as well, if only to help eliminate the last remnant of ISIL in eastern Syria. Russia was content to let the Israelis keep the Iranian forces busy.
For centuries Turkey, Iran and Russia were all antagonists, not allies, and their seeming “alliance” in Syria was largely a mirage. These historical adversaries still have unresolved disputes worth going to war over. All three of these allies continue scheming against each other in Syria and elsewhere. Russia notes that Turkey is selling weapons to Ukraine, where Russian forces are still at war with Ukraine. Turkey is also trying to repair its damaged relationship with NATO, and that means reneging on weapons purchases from Russia. There have been other forms of anti-Russian behavior that must be tolerated by Russia to keep the “alliance” with Turkey in Syria viable. Russia is sticking it to Iran by backing Israel and the efforts of Arab states to replace Iran as the protector of the Assad government.
If Islamic terrorists remain in Idlib, ISIL in the east and Iranians near the Israeli border, the Syrian civil war will not be over. The only ones who cannot walk away from this are the Assads, Turkey and Israel. Russia depicts itself as the good guy interested only in peace and prosperity. That leaves Iran as the real interloper and troublemaker. Dealing with Iran has been a headache for Turkey and Russia for centuries while the Arabs have several thousand years of bad memories created by Iran. In other words, Iran is difficult to deal with, something everyone can agree on. That is a common problem, not an incentive to violently gang up on Iran.
Now Iran has another threat on their eastern border as the Pakistan-backed Afghan Taliban took advantage of a disorganized American withdrawal and grabbed control of most of the country. Local anti-Taliban militias did not respond immediately but after about a week the Taliban had to deal with videos showing violent and non-violent reactions to the second effort by the Taliban and Pakistan to gain control of areas they were unable to conquer before 2001. Iran is under pressure from Iranians to defend the 20 percent of Afghans who are Shia. Iran is also not having much success in getting economic sanctions lifted and that means more protests inside Iran over the growing poverty rate and declining living standards for everyone. Russia does not expect to gain anything from a Taliban revival in Afghanistan and fears the pro-Russian military government in Pakistan, which has been buying a lot more Russian weapons and other goods lately, will lose control in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Since 2001 the Pakistani military has made itself unpopular in Afghanistan and India as well as Pakistan and even the UN.
Russia no longer borders Afghanistan. That was gone when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, three years after the last Russian troops left Afghanistan. While there for a decade, Russian forces suffered 15,000 dead, many more maimed and more cash than the Soviet Union could afford. Most of those 15,000 dead were conscripts, as were most of the troops sent to Afghanistan. That had a lasting impact on Russia. While the Russians left Afghanistan, Afghan problems, in the form of heroin and opium, are still a problem for Russia and the former Soviet regions that became independent and now border Afghanistan. With the return of Taliban control comes the return of sanctuaries for Islamic terrorists, including those from Russia and former parts of the Soviet Union.
In response to this Taliban revival, Russia announced joint military exercises between Russian forces and those of the three new nations Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan that now border Afghanistan plus Kyrgyzstan, which borders China and Tajikistan. Russia has maintained close military, economic and diplomatic ties with the “stans” who are suffering from the Afghan drug cartels that used their countries as markets for the drugs as well as a smuggling route to other parts of Eurasia. Now more Islamic terrorists from Taliban Afghanistan will be added. Russia and the stans bordering Afghanistan also stand ready to support the armed opposition to the Taliban, just like before. That cooperation has apparently already begun, without any official announcements.
In the Russian Far East (Khabarovsk) there was a major uprising at a prison labor camp in the last week. There were dead and wounded among prisoners as well as guards. The violence escalated and an army special forces unit in the region was called in to get the situation under control. The violence began as a fight between inmate factions but this time it escalated into what looked like an uprising by most of the prisoners. Prisoner gang violence is common and rarely makes it into the state-controlled mass media. Uprisings are rare and news usually gets out despite the return of censorship. In this case the “rebellion” was put down and further speculation discouraged. Since 2000 the Russian government has been dominated by former Soviet era KGB officers who promised to restore public safety and take care of the growing number of retired, especially the veterans of World War II. They did that much, but at a cost many did not expect. This KGB revival was not popular and many Russians were openly opposed to it and had to be intimidated or removed from public view. There were still KGB old timers around who remembered how to run prison camps. Dealing with the growing number of dissidents, plus the uncooperative criminals the KGB also jailed meant a partial return to the old ways. That's what the Soviet era Gulag (the Russian acronym for the prison camp system, or "The Chief Administration of Corrective Labor Camps and Colonies") was created for. It gets the troublemakers off the streets, permanently, as needed. Using the term “Gulag” can get you sent to the new version that is less lethal but still years of hard labor and treatment that would be considered criminal in most Western nations. Like the old Gulag, it is more punishment than solution to popular opposition to the government. This is an unwelcome reminder of the role the original Gulag played in bringing down the Soviet Union.
September 8, 2021: The Russian national security advisor visited India to confer with Indian counterpart and announced that both countries agreed on the danger Taliban control of Afghanistan is to the region and called on Pakistan to halt its support for the Taliban and halt its support for other Islamic terrorist groups. Russia had tried to improve its relations with Pakistan but found China had a veto on who Pakistan could play with. China is better insulated from any Islamic terrorism the Taliban seek to export. China has also been more successful at keeping the Afghan heroin and opium out.
September 7, 2021: In northwest Syria (Idlib province) Russia carried out more airstrikes in the de-escalation zone that nearby Islamic terrorist rebels are supposed to leave alone but don’t. Turkey does not object because after the Islamic terrorists violated several ceasefire deals the Turks are content to let the Russians bomb the Idlib opposition. Syrian artillery often joins in. The “de-escalation” zones established in early 2017 by Russia, Turkey, Iran and the Assad government were seen as a ploy (according to some Idlib Islamic terror groups) to make it easier to defeat the rebel forces. By the terms of this de-escalation deal the zones would be “no-fly” zones for all aircraft except those from Russia, Turkey and Syria. The Assads and their supporters (Russia, Iran and Turkey) would establish checkpoints around the zones to control ground access. This would, in theory, allow emergency aid to get in (or be blocked) and eliminate air attacks on civilians. Rebels later pointed out that during previous ceasefire agreements the Russians and Assads ignored the terms and attacked rebels and civilians claiming they were reacting to rebel violence. In the case of the four de-escalation zones that’s exactly what happened frequently. One aspect of the de-escalation zone agreement that was honored was safe passage for rebels and their civilian supporters who surrendered and were transported to Idlib province. Renewals of the new ceasefires didn’t last long and within hours there were some violations. That was because the Russian and Syrian airstrikes are continuing, usually at civilians and Islamic terrorists close to the de-escalation zones. The airstrikes, and less frequent artillery (cannon and rockets) fire has been going on for several years. There have been a lot of civilian casualties, because the Assads have found that attacking hostile civilians forces them to move and often leave the country. This is considered a war crime but that has never stopped the Assads, who have been using these tactics since the 1980s.
September 5, 2021: In Sudan the government revealed that it had been holding over a ton of Russian weapons and military equipment it had found on an Ethiopian Airlines flight from Moscow. This seizure took place a month after the Sudan dictator Omar Bashir was overthrown. Sudan has been ruled by a pro-West “transition council” since then and has been kept busy dealing with a lot of the internal problems decades of Basher left behind. Elections are to be held soon and the illegal Russian military cargo appears to be one of the less critical items on the clean up list.
September 2, 2021: Russia is willing to settle its differences with Ukraine if Russia keeps Crimea and Ukraine does not join NATO. To most Ukrainians giving up Crimea is possible but staying out of NATO is not. Ukraine is another “foreign” war Russia cannot afford and is now openly admitting it. They will have to surrender the hostility to NATO, which was an invention of the current KGB government to create a foreign threat that was scary but not real. In the same spirit Russia tried to scare Ukraine by pointing that what happened to American support for the Afghan government could happen to Ukraine. Many older Ukrainians served, as conscripts, in Afghanistan during the 1980s and conclude that Russia is still spinning the news to suit their needs, not provide an accurate assessment of what is going on. Ukraine has also been on the receiving end of Afghan heroin and now expects more of it, as does Russia and the other former parts of the Soviet Union closer to Afghanistan.
August 24, 2021: In the northwest Syria (Idlib province) Russia airstrikes and Syrian artillery fire have been used almost daily against Islamic terrorist rebels seen moving towards the forbidden “de-escalation zone”. Russian airstrikes also hit targets inside rebels controlled Idlib, trying to disrupt factions that are believed to be planning attacks against the Russian airbase in adjacent Latakia province.
In the southwest (Daraa province) weeks of attacks on a rebel enclave ended when the rebels agreed to leave the area and be moved north to Idlib province. At least that’s the plan Russia is trying to make happen. The rebels don’t trust the Assad forces but the Russians have Syrian mercenaries and Moslem Russian troops to assist negotiations and reassure the rebels. Russian troops will also supervise the surrender and movement of rebels and civilian supporters to another area, apparently Idlib province in the northwest. The alternative was more artillery and airstrikes and the deaths of civilian supporters as well as armed rebels. The Syrians and Russians have been working to gain the support of the largely Sunni and Druze civilian population along the border in (from west to east); Quneitra, Daraa and Suwayda provinces. This is a joint effort to block Iranian efforts to gain the support of the border population. Total population of these provinces in 2011 was 1.4 million but only about 20 percent of that was on or near the border. After the 2011 Civil War began much of the Sunni population fled. How much remains on the border is unclear but is apparently at least 100,000. Only Queneitra and Daraa border Israel.
August 20, 2021: In central Syria (Homs province) and further south near the capital (Damascus) Israeli airstrikes hit several Iranian targets. At least four Iranian mercenaries were killed in Damascus. There were a lot of people in the Damascus region, including foreign reporters, who got out their cell phones and took videos of action. This involved Israeli air-to-ground missiles hitting their targets while Syrian anti-aircraft missiles were launched but not hitting anything. Russia later reported the air defense systems they provided to Syria had again destroyed most of the Israeli missiles.
August 10, 2021: In northwest Syria (Idlib province) Russia carried out eleven airstrikes against Islamic terrorist targets.
August 7, 2021: In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province), numerous Israeli air strikes against Iranian bases outside Mayadeen city have led Iran to bring in air-defense radars and mobile SAM (Surface-to Air Missile) units to the area. This is an effort to discourage Israel from continuing their airstrikes. The Iranians have also installed a radar for detecting low flying UAVs. Syrian and Russian air defense systems have been unable to stop the Israeli attacks and now the Iranians are seeking to show the Syrians and Russians what effective air defense is. The Israeli response has been more airstrikes. Iran is trying to turn this area, just west of the Euphrates River, as a major logistics and training center for its Syrian operations against Israel. So far that effort has provided more targets for Israel to attack and those airstrikes are increasing.