Mother Russia Holds the Reigns

For years, the armed forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad sustained defeats at the hands of the rebel forces and ISIS – until the Russians stepped in and took over. A special review of the Russian military involvement in Syria and how the contest between Iran and Russia over influence regarding the future of Damascus will affect us all

Russian troops in Syria (Photo: AP)

The agreement currently being consolidated regarding the future of the Syrian state at the conclusion of the civil war shows the extent of the Russian regime's involvement in the decision-making processes in Syria and how it steers the future of Syria in accordance with Russia's interests in the Middle East.

Since late 2015, we have witnessed developments in the fighting in Syria between the forces of the Syrian regime and their allies and the rebel forces. These developments included the arrival of Russian forces in Syria during the second half of 2015, as well as organizing by the forces of the regime in preparation for large-scale offensives against the rebel forces, including the establishment of two new corps formations, designated the 4th Assault Corps and the 5th Assault Corps.

Until the outbreak of the rebellion and the civil war in Syria, the ground forces of the Syrian Army included three corps formations: the 1st Corps was deployed on the Golan Heights and charged with defending this front opposite Israel. The 2nd Corps had been deployed in Lebanon until 2005 when the Syrians withdrew their forces from that country under international pressure pursuant to the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic al-Hariri. The 2nd Corps was subsequently deployed in Syrian territory, opposite the border with Lebanon. The 3rd Corps was deployed in northern Syria and charged with internal security in that region as well as with border defense opposite Turkey. Additionally, the Syrian Army included forces assigned specifically to protect the government, including the famous 4th Armored Division (the former "Defense Companies", commanded by Rifaat al-Assad, brother of former President Hafez al-Assad) and the Presidential Guard Division.

During the six years of the civil war, the Syrian ground forces, including these three corps formations, were severely weakened, owing to the reduced recruitment of compulsory service conscripts, owing to the widespread desertion from the various units during the war, and owing to the losses inflicted by the various rebel and opposition forces. In July 2015, President Bashar al-Assad announced that his armed forces were suffering from a shortage of manpower. Before the outbreak of the war, the personnel complement of the Syrian Army amounted, according to various estimates, to about 300,000 servicemen, consisting primarily of compulsory service conscripts. In October 2015, the personnel complement of the Syrian Army was estimated at 80,000 to 100,000 servicemen – a substantially reduced force.

With a military force on such a scale, it was difficult to expect the regime to successfully overcome its domestic opponents and manage to survive for any length of time without the assistance of volunteers from within the loyal population in Syria and support provided by the Syrian regime's allies, Russia and Iran. This assistance, delivered to the weakened and exhausted forces of the regime, enabled the Syrian regime to overturn the balance of power on the ground in its favor over the last two years and bring about the change we are currently witnessing.

The Russians Enter

Over the course of the war, three terms emerged in Syria that refer to the forces operating alongside the regime. The first term is "The Armed Forces" namely – the remaining forces of the Syrian Army that are still loyal to the regime. The second term refers to the militia forces established in various areas of Syria under the general title of "The National Defense Forces" to fight against the various opposition organizations. The third term, "The Allies," refers to the Iranian forces and the various Shi'ite militia elements operating on their behalf, as well as to the Russian forces.

Local militia forces were established mainly in order to operate, first and foremost, in areas that were of importance to the regime, such as the coastal cities of Lattakiya and Tartus, the cities of central Syria such as Homs and Hama as well as the region of the capital Damascus. Most of these militia forces did not necessarily operate under the direct command of the regime, and were financed primarily by loyalist businessmen. Recruitment of conscripts for these militia forces was based primarily on ethnic affiliation. Whereas the religious element had formed the basis for the establishment and operation of these forces, most of them operated under the command of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Hezbollah of Lebanon. These militia forces, which operated mainly in areas close to the homes of their men, enabled the Syrian regime to maintain its domination over these areas through these forces, with the emphasis on the centers of support for the regime in the coastal and central-western regions.

Russia's entry into the war in Syria in the second half of 2015 triggered a significant change with regard to the organization of the forces operating under the authority of the regime. Up to that point, the Syrian regime had conducted its war against the opposition through the forces of the worn-out Army, which cooperated with the irregular militia forces described above. According to various commentators, this attempt at operating the militia forces failed and no successes were recorded on the battlefield.

The Russians had no wish of coordinating their operations with these elements, which had been subordinated to the Iranian forces. They preferred to cooperate with the regular, formal elements of the Syrian regime. Accordingly, they pressured the regime, about a month after the arrival of their forces in Syria, to establish a regular military formation on the basis of their forces. They informed the Syrians that they would only assist the forces of the Syrian Arab Army, so the Syrians decided to supposedly "abolish" their "National Defense Forces" and merge them into the ranks of the Syrian Army, all in the context of a new formation designated the 4th Assault Corps (AC), which also included elements of the "National Defense Forces" and the various paramilitary groups.

Indeed, in early October 2015, the Syrian Chief of Staff, Imad (Lt. Gen.) Ali Abdullah Ayoub, announced the establishment of a new formation within the Syrian Army – the 4th Assault Corps. This announcement was made concurrently with Ayoub's announcement regarding the launching of a new Syrian military initiative against the various opposition forces and ISIS, and the opening of a large-scale offensive aimed at eliminating these opponents and liberating the territories and cities that had fell into their hands and subsequently suffered miserably under their occupation, all with Russian air support.

This was the first significant organizational move of the Syrian Army since the outbreak of the civil war in early 2011, and it was intended, supposedly, to demonstrate the "ability" of the Syrian Army to exercise control over the various forces cooperating with it, as well as to once again demonstrate its operational potential and its ability to organize new forces, in order to prove to the (Russian) friends that it was capable of controlling the various processes and developments.

According to various sources, the new AC included elite forces that specialized in built-up area warfare and anti-gang guerrilla tactics. These modes of warfare require warfighters possessing excellent physical fitness and mental endurance, as well as high-quality weapons and suitable tactics and maneuvers. The Syrian announcement regarding the establishment of the new AC stated that it will include Russian advisors and that it would be led by a joint Syrian-Russian command. According to one source, the new AC included elements from the 3rd and 4th Divisions and from the Presidential Guard Division, as well as elements of Alawite and Ba'ath party militia forces.

According to various sources, the new AC was reinforced by Russian elements, which included mechanized infantry, marines, commando (Spetsnaz – Russian Special Forces) and artillery units.

According to commentators, one of the accomplishments of the establishment of the new AC was the fact that the various militia elements and the groups fighting alongside the regime evolved into a disciplined, organized military force, which no longer possessed the negative characteristics those elements had possessed in the past, and was capable of fighting in coordination with the Russian allies and the other forces of the Syrian Army. The basic task of the new AC was to execute offensive (assault) operations and take advantage of the effects and results of the joint air strikes staged by the Russian and Syrian aircraft against the hostile forces.

Commentators note that it was an important decision, although it was made at a fairly late stage, which paved the way for the important achievements recorded on the ground since then. It restored the power of the organized Syrian Army and the social coherence that had been undermined during the war. The operations of this AC focused on central Syria, with the emphasis on the cities of Homs and Hama, as well as Idlib and Lattakiya, with extensive Russian support. To demonstrate their operational capabilities, the Army High Command reported the rapid progress of the new AC on the ground and its successes in occupying dominating areas and villages around the cities of Hama and Lattakiya.

Through its propaganda efforts, the Syrian regime announced that the establishment of the new AC was a successful attempt by the Syrian Army to accomplish all of its missions and to effectively merge all of the militia forces within its organizational structure. Additionally, they declared that it was a success by the Russians in their attempts to improve the ability of the Syrian Army to control all of the forces fighting alongside it. At the same time, however, it would seem that this move failed to achieve its objective, and the Syrian Army managed to organize, within the new AC, only a handful of militia forces in the areas of Hama and Lattakiya, while a substantial part of the militia forces had not joined it and continued to operate outside the ranks of this AC after it was established, which reflects the fact that the Syrian Army was not yet capable of controlling and exercising its authority over all of the forces operating alongside the regime in that war, and that the coordination and cooperation between Russia and Iran, in this context, were not full. Against the background of the failures of the forces of the new AC on the ground in the Lattakiya area, owing to poor management of the fighting, the commander of the new AC, Liwa (Maj. Gen.) Shawki Yousef was dismissed in July 2016, and another officer was appointed in his place.

According to Russian commentators, the 4th AC failed to live up to Moscow's expectations: its accomplishments in offensive missions were fairly limited and the Syrian commanders of the new AC demonstrated poor performance, which led, as stated, to the dismissal of the Corps' commander. It should be noted that the 4th AC was provided with extensive Russian air support by strike fighters that operated out of Khmeimim airbase. As stated, Russian Special Forces, artillery and armored units participated in the operations of the new AC.

It should be noted that a force of Russian mercenaries, known as the "Wagner Group" (an infantry force named after a Russian colonel who had operated with distinction in the fighting in the Crimean Peninsula and Eastern Ukraine) took part in the fighting alongside the regular Russian units. This force was made up of volunteers possessing combat training from the Russian Army, veterans of battles in Chechnya and Eastern Ukraine. At its peak, this force had a personnel complement of about 2,500 men, but it normally consisted of 1,000 to 1,500 men. These mercenaries had received preparatory training at a base of the Russian military intelligence (GRU) in southern Russia and provided with weapons and kit from the stores of the Russian Army. The mercenary force operated under the auspices of and through financing provided by a Russian oligarch, Yevgeni Prigozhin, who's a close friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin. It should be noted that commanders from this force were decorated with high awards by Putin himself in a public ceremony held at the Kremlin. Additionally, the Russian Parliament (Duma) has recently passed legislation that legitimizes the operations of mercenaries outside of Russia's borders – an activity that was hitherto banned by Russian law.

Boots on the Ground

As stated, as far as the Russians were concerned, despite the extensive support they had provided, the new Assault Corps failed to accomplish the missions assigned to it. Consequently, they initiated the establishment of a new corps, this time under their full control. This led to the decision, coordinated with the Syrians, to establish the 5th Assault Corps. Unlike the 4th AC, this time the Russians assumed complete command and operational responsibility for the new AC. Additionally, Russian instructors were placed in charge of providing comprehensive instruction and training to the Syrian officer cadre of the new AC.

Apparently, the Iranians had attempted unsuccessfully (vis-à-vis the Russians) to have Shi'ite militia forces as well as Hezbollah units incorporated in the new AC. The Russians, however, preferred to have those forces operating separately, but in coordination with the HQ of the new AC. Russian commentators explained that in this way, the authorities in the Kremlin intended to impose restrictions on the Iranian influence over the manner in which the war against the opposition forces in Syria was being conducted and ensure Russian dominance in the employment of the new AC they had initiated. For this reason, it was also decided that Russian ground units and Russian mercenaries would be included in the new AC.

The establishment of this AC benefited the Syrian regime in its attempts to reinforce its own forces, by this time recruiting volunteers into the Army, including individuals who had not been included in the 4th AC. During the second half of November 2016, the Syrian Army HQ announced the establishment of the 5th Assault Corps, which was made up of volunteers and charged with the task of operating against the hostile forces alongside the other units of the Syrian Army and the allied forces. The Army HQ called on civilians to volunteer for the new force – including individuals who had deserted from the Army during the war, or failed to report for military duty, who would be pardoned by the regime, as well as on government employees, and announced the locations where volunteers should report at the various military bases throughout the country. The Syrian State also offered volunteers various benefits, including monthly wages. The manner in which the new AC was established, which was based, among other things, on the recruitment of volunteers, had been intended to emulate the "popular recruitment" drive that took place in Iraq for the war against ISIS, as in this case, too, a large-scale volunteer recruitment drive was initiated, including volunteers from eastern Syria, for the purpose of fighting the Islamic State that existed in that region.

The Russians helped the Syrians establish and operationally employ the new AC on the ground. This help was reflected in funding, weaponry supplies and training of the new recruits.

According to various estimates, the new AC consists of no more than 10,000 servicemen and includes different forces, including "ISIS hunters" – a force trained by the Russians to raid ISIS strongholds, as well as the Syrian "Nimr" force, based primarily on special forces of the Syrian Army. This force, named after the nickname of its commander, Amid (Brig. Gen.) Souheil al-Hassan, established itself as an elite force that has thus far gained only successes in combat encounters. The new AC is equipped with weapon systems supplied by the Russians, including upgraded T-62 and T-72 tanks with improved protection, BMP-1 and BMP-2 APCs, small arms and vehicles. The various units of the new AC receive an on-going supply of ammunition and other consumables. Since its establishment, the 5th AC has operated primarily in eastern Syria. Its forces took part in the successful defensive operation at the T-4 base opposite attacks by ISIS and subsequently began to advance toward Palmyra (Tadmur), which they managed to dominate in early March 2017, assisted by massive Russian air support. In April, the forces of the 5th AC expanded their domination over the areas around the city. Additionally, the 5th AC operated successfully in the area of Hama, dominating areas previously occupied by the opposition forces. Later on, the 5th AC operated in the Deir ez-Zor sector.

The offensive operations of the 5th AC in the eastern provinces of Syria was supported by Syrian armored forces, Russian ground forces and pro-Iranian militia forces. During this campaign, the units of the 5th AC succeeded in dominating large areas previously dominated by ISIS and in capturing key cities, including Deir ez-Zor, where a Syrian force had been under siege for a long time. According to Russian sources, it appears that the first commander of the 5th AC was a Russian officer, Lt. Gen. Sergei Sevriukov, who had previously commanded the 49th Army in Southern Russia. In May 2017 he was replaced as commander of the new AC by Lt. Gen. Vitali Asapov, who had commanded the 5th Army of the Russian Army in the Fast East. Gen. Asapov was killed in mid-September near Deir ez-Zor, in an ISIS mortar attack. It should be stressed that the appointment of a Russian general as the commander of a Syrian formation is an unprecedented phenomenon that reflects the weakness of the Syrian Army and the total dependence of the Assad regime on Moscow's military and political support.

Since the death of general Asapov, the Russians changed their habit, up to that point, of keeping their massive military involvement in the fighting alongside the Assad regime as covert as possible. While the Syrian Army boasts its considerable achievements in the fighting opposite ISIS, the Russians now admit officially that the military campaign in eastern Syria had been planned by the HQ of Russian Forces Syria, commanded by Gen. Sergey Surovikin early this year, and that victory was achieved owing to the command by the Russian generals and the ground forces of the Russian Army. Russian Special Forces, marines (naval infantry) and artillery units all played a major role in the fighting in this sector, along with a Russian combat engineering force that deployed a military bridge across the River Euphrates, over which the attacking forces crossed the river on their way to Deir ez-Zor. All of these operations benefited from the massive air support provided by Russian strike fighters operating out of Khmeimim airbase, as well as by Russian Tu-22M3 (NATO designation Blackjack) strategic bombers that operated against ISIS targets in the Abu-Kamal sector. These bombers had flown into Syria from Russia through the airspaces of Iran and Iraq. All of these facts indicate that the Russian forces made a decisive contribution to the success of the operation.

In the context of the operation, the Russians established two ad-hoc command centers for managing the combat operations and commanding all of the regime's forces that operated along the main axes of advance toward Deir ez-Zor. These command centers were also headed by Russian commanders. Maj. Gen. Andrei Ivanaev commanded the southern axis (the "Euphrates HQ"). He had served as a deputy army commander in his previous position in the Russian Army. Maj. Gen. Rustam Muradov commanded the northern axis. He had served as an army chief of staff in his previous position. Russian mercenaries also operated in the context of the 5th AC – and sustained heavy losses in the Deir ez-Zor sector. According to Russian sources, 135 Russian servicemen were killed in the fighting in Syria since the beginning of the year (the Russian mercenaries alone sustained about one hundred KIAs, along with numerous WIAs while fighting in the Deir ez-Zor area).

Tough in Training, Easier in Combat

From a Russian perspective, taking advantage of the fighting in Syria for the purpose of providing the senior commanders of the Russian armed forces, from all service branches, with operational experience, is of the utmost importance. According to the Russian Chief of Staff, Gen. Valeri Gerasimov, since the beginning of active Russian involvement in August 2015, numerous senior commanders have already served in Syria in the context of rotational duty cycles, including all of the military zone and army commanders as well as their respective chiefs of staff; most of the division commanders and about one half of the brigade commanders. According to a review by these authors, this cadre amounts to at least 60 officers at general rank and more than 100 offices at colonel rank.

According to Gen. Gerasimov, almost all of the fighter pilots of the Russian Air Force have gained operational experience in Syria in the context of rotational duty cycles implemented over the last two years (according to a review by these writers, this amounts to at least one thousand fighter and helicopter pilots). It should also be noted that since the outset of the Russian involvement in the fighting in Syria, ground forces from four Russian marine brigades, Special Forces (Spetsnaz) brigades, mechanized infantry brigades and artillery, armored, engineering, signals, electronic warfare and combat intelligence units have all taken part in rotational duty cycles.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said on December 22, 2017, that a total of 48,000 Russian troops from all branches of the military took part in the country’s military campaign in Syria.

Gen. Gerasimov also elaborated on the important experience being gained by the Russians in Syria in the use of the various weapon systems of the Russian Army, being operated under real-life combat conditions. This includes the latest Russian-made weapon systems – especially those developed recently, of all of the service branches and arms taking part in the fighting.

During his recent meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Sochi, Crimea on November 21, Russian President Putin announced that the military campaign against the terrorist elements in Syria is about to be concluded, and that now an effort should be made to achieve a political settlement that would end the civil war in that country. According to Russian sources, it is the Kremlin's intention to end Russia's military involvement in the fighting in Syria by the end of this year, unless the present situation has changed unexpectedly. In this context, the air strikes by the Russian Air Force will be discontinued, the strike fighter OrBat deployed at Khmeimim airbase will be reduced and most of the ground forces that have been participating in the fighting on Syrian soil will be shipped back to Russia. Only the forces securing the airbase in Khmeimim and the naval base in Tartus, the air-defense, UAV and intelligence setups will remain in Syria and continue to operate as before. 

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