Russia’s intervention into Syria marks a new turn in the nation’s relationship with the Syrian government and the direction of the ongoing civil war. In late August, rumors began to circulate of an increasing Russian presence in Syria, particularly in Latakia. By late September and early October, Russia had acknowledged that it was conducting combat operations in Syria, in the form of air strikes.
Prior to the Russian intervention, the situation was growing bleaker for the Syrian government. The Syrian Army controls large swathes of territory, primarily but not entirely in the country’s west, but a string of losses to the Islamist coalition Jaysh al-Fatah in Idlib and northwestern Hama, beginning with the latter’s assault on Idlib city in March, put the Syrian Army on the defensive. By the end of August, the Syrian Army had lost almost all of its positions in Idlib Province – only the besieged Abu al-Duhur air base and towns of al-Fu’ah and Kafarya remained in Army hands.
In mid-September, Abu al-Duhur air base fell to an attack led by Jabhat al-Nusra,[i] a militant group linked to al-Qaeda. The Russian buildup by this time was reportedly already ongoing, but the collapse of the air base and subsequent massacre of its defenders may have served to change or speed up the Russian calculus. Weeks after the air base fell, on September 30, Russia began its air strikes.
Russia has brought a formidable fighting force to aid the Syrian Army’s operations. Primarily, Russian forces use Hmeymim air base in Latakia. Other reports have indicated that Russia is using or may use Qamishli airport in Hasakah, and at times unconfirmed rumors have said that Russia seeks to use air bases in Homs and Damascus. Russian bombers have flown from bases in Russia, and naval vessels have fired cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea and the Mediterranean.
Aircraft include Su-24Ms, Su-25s, Su-27s, Su-30SMs, Su-34s, an An-124, an Il-76 or Il-78, an Il-62M, Mi-17s, and Mi-24/35s. UAVs have provided reconnaissance for air strikes conducted by both the Russian and Syrian air forces.
Armored vehicles include T-90s, T-55s, BTR-82s and others of the BTR family, and R-166-0.5 signal vehicles.
Warships involved in the fight include amphibious landing ships, submarines in the Mediterranean, and Caspian Sea-based warships.
Russia has made use of or deployed a wide variety missiles and other ordnance. At least 15 howitzers have been deployed. Recent bombing runs have used the Kh-101 cruise missile.[ii] Reportedly, Russia has deployed the S-400 system to Hmeymim, though the Ministry of Defense denies these reports.[iii] Footage originally produced by the National Defense Forces shows a Russian TOS-1 MLRS that was reportedly transferred to the Syrian Army firing rockets in Latakia.[iv]
The Russian MoD generally reports on the targets of its operations. These include militant command centers, ammunition depots, training camps, oil trucks, armed combatants, armored vehicles, and fortified areas. Locations of Russian air strikes include the following places, among many more: Mayadin (Deir ez-Zor), Maarat al-Numan (Idlib), Mahin (Homs), Kafr Zita (Hama), Palmyra (Homs), Raqqa city (Raqqa), ICARDA (Aleppo), Jabal al-Akrad (Latakia), and positions in the Quneitra countryside.
The subjects of Russia’s air strikes have drawn controversy. Some of the first air strikes, videos of which were uploaded to YouTube by the Russian MoD,[v] were publicized as targeting the Islamic State (IS) group, but the site of the strikes in Lataminah, Hama, was under the control of a Syrian rebel group called Tajammu al-Izzah that has no connection to the IS.
Initial Russian reports publicized by the MoD referred to all subjects of air strikes as IS fighters. Since then, however, Russia has gradually begun referring to other groups, such as Jabhat al-Nusra or Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya, or simply terming the recipients of air strikes as “terrorists” or “militants.” In late October, open-source analysts alleged that the bulk of publicized Russian air strikes were hitting territory not controlled by IS.[vi] The Russian MoD has generally denied these allegations.
More recently, and particularly following confirmation that Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (IS’s “Wilayat Sinai”) had downed a Russian airliner after it departed from Sharm el-Sheikh, Russia has increased the intensity of its air campaign against IS.[vii] Air strikes throughout Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor have supposedly destroyed up to 500 fuel trucks,[viii] which through trading to areas around the country provide significant revenue for IS. Russian and French air strikes on Raqqa city have killed dozens of militants and reportedly forced senior leaders to flee the city.[ix]
Battlefield Developments Since The Russian Intervention
As of November 17, the Russian MoD had carried out 2,289 sorties, performing 4,111 missile and bomb strikes. The Russian deployment to Syria has certainly shored up the Syrian Army and provided breathing room for President Assad ahead of diplomatic maneuvering for a possible new round of political talks aimed at ending the war. Major developments since the Russian military intervention began include the following:
In Aleppo, the Army has broken IS’s siege on Kuweires air base. Russian Su-24s helped cover the advance.[x] The Army has also acquired large swathes of territory south of Aleppo city from rebel factions, including al-Hadher and al-Eis.
In Hama, the Army has secured its supply line to Aleppo after an IS assault on the Khanassir-Ithriya highway. However, despite intense Russian air support, the Army has suffered losses to Jaysh al-Fatah and Jund al-Aqsa (formally a member of Jaysh al-Fatah) north of Hama city, such as the town of Morek, which it had held since October 2014, and other towns and villages along that front. In the northwest, the Army has advanced toward Islamist-held Jisr al-Shughour, which fell in April 2015, by taking Safsafa.
In Homs, Russian airpower has targeted IS positions in and around Palmyra, ahead of the oft-rumored Army offensive to retake the city. The Russian MoD has recently noted that air strikes have hit the vicinity of Mahin, which is held by IS and is close to the strategic town of Sadad on the Homs-Damascus supply line.
In Damascus, Russian air strikes have targeted Eastern Ghouta, which is a stronghold of Islamist group Jaysh al-Islam. The Syrian Army notably has advanced into and taken at least partial control of Marj al-Sultan air base, which was captured by rebel factions in 2012.[xi]
As of yet, Russia has avoided suffering any losses in combat missions. The only reported Russian casualty was described by the MoD as being a suicide.[xii] No Russian aircraft have been downed, though a media account from Jabhat al-Nusra on November 17 posted photos of what the terrorist group claimed was a Russian UAV downed in the vicinity of Abu al-Duhur air base. Russian helicopters often provide very close air support to the Syrian Army, and according to opposition media have at times taken ground fire that forced emergency landings,[xiii] but no helicopters appear to have been put out of commission as a result.