Russia admits that it has indeed suddenly increased its military aid to Syria since August and is going to break the UN embargo and supply the Assad government with new weapons. Satellite and ground level photos show more Russian personnel and military equipment in Syria. This increase in Russian military aid to Syria solves several problems for Russia. For one, it prevents the looming collapse of the Assad government, which has been losing territory at an accelerating rate in 2015 and is facing a collapse in morale among its forces and civilian supporters. Iran cannot provide more aid, mainly because despite the July agreement to lift sanctions on Iran that does not go into effect until early 2016 and until then Iran is as broke as ever.
It gets worse. The Iran backed Hezbollah militia has been providing thousands of fighters inside Syria but this has been increasingly unpopular among Hezbollah members and even more unpopular with Lebanese in general. That’s because Syria considers Lebanon a “lost province” and has always treated Lebanon badly. Hezbollah had to fight in Syria for the hated (by most Lebanese) Assad government because Iran has long been the main financial and military support for Hezbollah and demanded that Hezbollah send fighters to Syria. But Hezbollah leaders have been warning Iran that the Hezbollah operations in Syria were causing serious damage to the unity and effectiveness of Hezbollah in general. In fact, once it became clear that Russia was putting substantial combat forces in Syria, Hezbollah quietly informed Iran and the Assads that by the end of the month Hezbollah would cease offensive operations in Syria and confine their participation to fighting Syrian rebel (especially al Qaeda and ISIL groups) attempts to get into Lebanon. This sort of thing is very popular with most Lebanese and especially welcome by Hezbollah fighters, who always thought they had signed up to defend Lebanon in general and the Shia minority of Lebanon in particular. Guarding the border is doing just that and will repair the damage to morale done because of combat operations inside Syria (and several thousand casualties suffered as a result).
Russia sees its intervention as a bold political move as the Russians describe their work in Syria as a direct attack on ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), which everyone agrees is a major threat. Yet until the recent arrival of Russian ground forces in Syria no one else, not even the Arab states most directly threatened by ISIL, were willing to send in ground forces. Russia sending dozens of warplanes and apparently plans to expose the timidity of the American led air campaign. The U.S. has been using a very restrictive ROE (Rules of Engagement) that ISIL has exploited by widely using human shields at many of its key bases. As a result the most important ISIL facilities are untouched by the bombing campaign. This plays into a recent scandal where dozens of American intelligence analysts have been leaking accusations that they have been ordered to modify their reports anout the impact of the air campaign against ISIL to hide the fact that a lot of the ISIL targets hit were secondary ones ISIL did not see worth deploying human shields (and gunmen to keep the civilians there) to. The ROE also made it difficult to recruit and train Syrian rebels, given the extreme fear of somehow happening a rebel who does not like the United States.
Like the Arab air forces in Yemen, the Russians have an ROE that ignores human shields and bombs all targets of military value. Russia is only sending a few thousand ground troops but these are some of the best troops Russia has and ISIL and the other Islamic terrorist rebels will suffer much heavier casualties if they clash with these Russians. All this will boost morale among troops and Syrian civilians in Assad territory and make it more likely that a Russian peace proposal that keeps the Assads in power, even if it means a partition of Syria, will be more acceptable to the world.
At the moment Russia appears to be moving in warplanes and enough troops to support them and protect the airbase near the coast in Latakia province. Russia has also announced that it is selling Syria another twelve MiG-29s, but only nine will delivered by the end of 2016 and the last three will arrive in 2017. Meanwhile the Russians can immediately do a lot of rebuild what is left of the Syrian Air Force. The Syrian Air Force has suffered enormous losses since 2011, with most of its combat aircraft now destroyed or unable to fly. Beginning in 2012 the air force was ordered to attack the rebel fighters and the civilians believed to be supporting them. The rebels shot back and the air force’s ancient aircraft fell apart from heavy use and a lack of spare parts. Of the 370 usable fixed wing war planes the Syrian Air Force had in 2011 about 70 percent are now out of action because of combat losses or wear and tear. Nearly two-thirds of the 360 helicopters are gone, for the same reasons. Part of the problem was that few Syrian air force leaders (and pilots) were not prepared for this kind of war (low level bombing and lots of helicopter flights under fire). Desperate times demanded desperate measures and by 2013 even the MiG-29 fighters have been seen dropping bombs. These are the most modern aircraft Syria has and their pilots were trained to fight Israeli jets, not bomb civilians. But a village or city neighborhood is hard to miss, even for a rookie. Helicopters have also been used to drop bombs, as well as cargo transport aircraft. Russia has always provided tech and material (spare parts) support for this largely Russian fleet of warplanes and helicopters. The surge of Russian support will mean the Syrian Air Force will be even more active.
By carrying out what the world media will depict as a heroic intervention to defeat ISIL Russia will earn positive publicity. That sort of thing is badly needed because Russia is currently seen as a treacherous bully because of its aggression in Ukraine and elsewhere in East Europe. By the end of the year Russia expects to turn that around, even if some depict them as a treacherous and opportunistic hero. Smashing ISIL will nevertheless be praised and appreciated.
For the West the major negative to all this 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) have always sought to make the war mainly about destroying ISIL, not the Assads. Some Arab countries have been willing to support this, seeing ISIL as the greater threat. Russia is also willing to support 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 so far but a Russian victory may change that.
Russia appears to already have troops in Syria 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 are expanding an existing airport into a military airbase for Russian transports and warplanes. In effect all this help Russia is reinforcing the Assad heartland along the coast. In addition to warplanes and helicopters (both transport and gunships, there also appear to be anti-aircraft and artillery missile systems. Syria provides Russia with an opportunity to test many of their new guided bombs, rockets and missiles under combat conditions.
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. 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.
Meanwhile ISIL shows signs of collapsing from a combination of internal disputes and declining morale. In rural areas the locals are increasingly organizing armed militias and waging guerilla, or open warfare with ISIL. This may seem suicidal but the tribes have centuries of experience with this sort of thing and when they detect that the “occupier” is stretched thin and vulnerable, the tribal militia becomes a popular and effective option. ISIL understands this and informally grants autonomy in some of these situations. There is a downside as if ISIL makes another resurgence and becomes capable of suppressing the autonomous tribes the retribution can be brutal. This has already happened a few times in the last year in eastern Syria and western Iraq. But the tribes are always attuned to what is going on in their territory and more tribes are detecting a decline in the ISIL ability to crack down on disobedient tribes, especially heavily armed and determined one.
Internally ISIL is not only suffering more desertions and losses from combat (and air attacks) but is seeing its access to the outside being systematically cut off. The Turks are now officially at war with ISIL and have increased border controls. On the Syrian side the Kurds already control most of the Syrian side of the Turkish border and are pushing west. The Lebanese border used to be accessible but no longer. Hezbollah has said it will keep the border sealed as far as ISIL is concerned. These new border problems not only interfere with the flow of new recruits but also blocks a lot of smuggled equipment and weapons. This stuff can still be gotten across but now it takes longer and costs more. Plus you have to deal with more shipments being seized by the border guards who will not let it go for a bribe. It’s not the end of the world for ISIL but life is getting more difficult and victory more elusive.
Meanwhile Europe is feeling the impact of the war in Syria up close and personal. Many of the four million Syrians in refugee camps (mainly in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan) and a growing number still inside Syria have headed for Europe. In the last year a growing number of criminal gangs have switched to the safer and more lucrative business of moving Syrians across borders and into West Europe, where local laws and customs provide much more comfortable lives for the displaced Syrians. People smuggling gangs were the first to switch to moving refugees by expanding their existing operations. In the last year more non-smuggling criminal gangs have entered the business, often with disastrous (for the refugees) results. There is a certain urgency to this flight to West Europe because those nations show signs of changing their policies to stem the flood of illegal migrants. This movement is made worse by the growing number of non-Syrian migrants pretending they are Syrian to help them make their way in West Europe. All this is doubly bad for the Assads because a growing number of the Syrian refugees are his Shia supporters. A lot of Shia men of military age are fleeing to avoid being forcibly conscripted into the Syrian Army or, increasingly a rebel group or Iran backed Shia militia. Most Syrians, pro-Assad and pro-rebel alike are tired of all the fighting and just want to get away from it.
Since 2011 over seven million Syrians have been forced from their homes by the civil war. Nearly 300,000 have died and most of the 22 million Syrians have lost their homes and/or jobs. Thus a third of the population has been driven from their homes and over 20 percent (over four million) have left the country and most of those live in refugee camps. Two-thirds of those still in Syria are short of food, medical care and much else. Most of the country no longer has electric power (other than from small generators) or public water and sanitation service. Cell phone service is down in most of the country and over ten percent of the towns, villages and city neighborhoods are completely abandoned (except for scavengers or passing travelers). It’s a Mad Max world, except they use real bullets.
Meanwhile the fighting continues in Idlib province (next to the Assad heartland of Latakia province). Some Syrian Shia are holding on in Idlib but just barely. Idlib was long controlled by the Assad government as part of “intact” or “normal” Syria (from Damascus north to the coastal area of Latakia). For many Syrians that is the only part of the country worth fighting for, even if you don’t like the Assads. The rest of the country is largely desert. What the Assads control is only about 20 percent of Syria and 20 percent of the population. The rest is a war torn wasteland full of armed men, terrified civilians and unresolved claims about who is in charge. The Assad portion of pre-2011 Syria is shrinking. The government lost control of Idlib province in north-central Syria in early 2015 and many smaller bits in the north (especially around Aleppo) and south (around Deraa and the Israeli border). The steady shrinkage of Assad controlled territory is one of the things that prompted the Russians to intervene and expand the footholds the Assad forces still have in Aleppo and along the southern borders. .
September 22, 2015: Some Syrians have reported seeing Russian UAVs flying surveillance missions in western Syria.
September 21, 2015: Israel and Russia reached an agreement on how to avoid military clashes in Syria. In short, Russia recognizes the Israeli need to stop Iran or Syria from transferring weapons to Hezbollah. Thus Russia says it will not interfere with Israeli aircraft or ground forces attacking attempts to make such transfers. Israeli warplanes have also been used to retaliate against rebel and Syrian forces for incidents where bullets, rockets or shells from Syria landed in Israel. Russia will also leave these actions alone. Israeli warplanes have made dozens of attacks in Syria since 2013, several of them to destroy Russian weapons being moved to Lebanon (by Hezbollah). Israel made it clear that it could not back off on using air power to protect their Syrian and Lebanese borders and Russia said it understood that and did not want any problems over this issue. Apparently the two nations have set up a procedure to keep each other informed when Russian and Israeli warplanes or ground forces might encounter each other.
September 20, 2015: In Damascus an unidentified rebel group managed to fire some mortar shells at the Russian embassy. One of these shells landed inside the embassy compound but caused no casualties. Russia and the UN protested the attack.
September 17, 2015: Israeli and Russian diplomats began quietly trying to work out an arrangement regarding the recent Russian military buildup in Syria.
September 16, 2015: In Lebanon locals who know what Iranians and Iranian soldiers look like report seeing large numbers of Iran IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) soldiers aiding Syrian troops and Hezbollah militiamen to fight Syrian rebels along the Syrian border. These same IRGC fighters are apparently operating elsewhere inside Syria. Some of the rebels fighting along the Lebanese border are ISIL but most appear to be less extreme Islamic terror groups like al Nusra (the major local al Qaeda affiliate). Iran and the Assads have regularly denied that Iranian troops are in Syria but the recent sightings did not bring forth the usual denials. There do not appear to be a lot of IRGC soldiers involved and this IRGC presence is similar to the recent arrival of Russian troops. This is to provide the Assads with help in defending their heartland, a strip of territory starting in the south (around the capital, Damascus) and thence north to the coastal areas.
September 11, 2015: Russia 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.
September 8, 2015:
In early September the U.S. Air Force halted the movement of families (of air force personnel) to Incirlik air base in Turkey because of Islamic terrorist groups have threatened to go after civilians as well as military personnel at Incirlik. Technically Turkey is not considered a war zone, but Incirlik is located in an area where secular Kurdish separatist terrorists as well as Islamic terrorists are increasingly active. Incirlik is also one of the six air bases in Turkey where American nuclear bombs (for NATO aircraft) are stored. The base normally has about 5,000 personnel in residence, about 60 percent of them civilians (workers and service personnel families). Incirlik is located in an area long dominated by conservative Moslems. U.S. Air Force personnel have long considered Incirlik a hardship posting because it was so difficult to get a drink, or a date, off base.