Putin’s Russia Pushes Military Activity in Syria
In a series of moves that surprised most observers in the West, Russia began aggressively countering Syria’s military adversaries this week.
Russian airstrikes continue to primarily target Syrian opposition groups throughout northwestern Syria, including areas along the Turkish border in northern Latakia Province. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) also confirmed airstrikes targeting ISIS-held positions northeast of Palmyra. In addition, the Russian MoD declared its first airstrikes in Damascus Province on October 5.
Although some strikes were in Eastern Syria and against ISIS targets, it appeared that most of the air attacks were against rebels in the west, especially north of the Syrian cities of Homs and Hama. These attacks have been denounced by some NATO spokesmen as not targeting the biggest threat. However, they do make military sense as they are striking against anti-Assad rebels closest to Russian positions (especially those north of Hama).
Russian military, also engaged its naval forces by launching 26 medium-range cruise missiles on Wednesday from four warships in the Caspian Sea. Russian officials said the missiles — which traveled more than 900 miles, through Iranian and Iraqi airspace — struck 11 targets in Syria, but they did not specify which groups were hit.
It was speculated that the missile strike was coordinated with the ground offensive.
The Caspian Sea Fleet wasn’t the only Russian naval units involved. One cruiser, one destroyer, and two frigates have been deployed to the Eastern Mediterranean. these ships are more likely to provide a seaborne radar and air defense system from NATO attack.
What can be found at Bassel al-Assad International airport in Latakia, is more indicative of what Russia is planning to do.
Russia is only deploying 4 Su-30 Flanker fighters – which indicate that they have no intention of engaging NATO F-16s. Most of the aircraft are primarily ground attack, including 4 SU-34 Fullback fighter bombers, 12 SU-24 attack aircraft, 12, SU-25 Frogfoot close air support aircraft, and 12 Mi-24 Hind attack helicopters.
Although the offensive remains in its early stages, it is significant because it is the beginning of a wider, coordinated assault that reveals close collaboration between Syria and its main allies — Hezbollah, Iran and Russia. According to the Daily Mail Hundreds’ of troops from Iran, Hezbollah, and Shiite rebels from Iraq have also converged on Syria over the last few weeks.
The Russian Strengths
What Russia has on its side is an aggressive air warfare tempo that appears to be hitting Syria rebels harder than comparable Turkish/NATO/American air ops. It also has allied ground forces – Syria, Hezbollah, and Iran (a more formidable force than the US backed Syrian militia that numbered less than a dozen).
Although not skilled in overseas deployments like NATO militaries, this exercise has gone well. Although some of the information from the front must be considered controlled or guided, it appears that the strikes have been effective, although there are claims of civilian causalities.
The Russian aircraft deployed are actually more ideal to the fighting in Syria than the F-16s deployed by NATO forces.
The Russian aircraft like the Su-25 and Mi-24 are designed for counter insurgency warfare. Although they might not be ideal for long range strikes like those against ISIS in Eastern Syria, these two aircraft are perfect for supporting allied ground forces. They are slow enough to provide accurate ground support and are heavily armored.
The F-16, which is the main aircraft for most of the American alliance is not designed for close ground support and is primarily an air superiority aircraft. It is notorious for providing inaccurate close air support compared to the A-10 close air support aircraft that, ironically, the US is positioning in Eastern Europe against Russian tank forces.
With a better air/ground mix and an aggressive pace of air operations, Russia has an edge in pushing back Syrian rebels,, especially those in Western Syria,, where the loiter ability of the Russian aircraft can be used to advantage.
Russian potential logistical difficulties
It is an adage amongst military professionals that, “Amateurs talk strategy and tactics, professionals talk logistics.” This is an important fact here.
Although Russia has maintained a heavy air operations schedule in the first couple of weeks, modern aircraft are dependent on maintenance and a regular supply of parts. This reliance on logistics support only grows as combat operations continue.
Although Russia has established an air bridge to Syria, there is still the question of their staying ability. Russia doesn’t have the supply support capability of the US and they haven’t tried to provide this level of support in another country since Afghanistan.
There is also the question of manpower to support combat operations. Does the detachment have the number of pilots and ground crew to launch several sorties with each aircraft every day? If they don’t, then the Russian Air Force can only provide a couple dozen sorties a day to support widespread operations.
Since one military aircraft needs tens of hours and tens of thousands of dollars in fuel and parts to support just one sortie, it’s easy to see that 24 hour operations in Syria, with each aircraft carrying out 3 to 4 sorties during a 24 hour period will be maintenance intensive. And, this doesn’t include the cost of maintaining the “air bridge” aircraft supporting the logistical effort.
It appears that Russia is well aware of the long term cost of combat operations. Reports on Wednesday spoke about only 8 close ground support missions and an additional 12 combat air patrol sorties. This indicates a sortie rate of less than one sortie per aircraft – a level that is sustainable for a long period of time, but isn’t one that will overwhelm the Syrian rebels.
Russian warplanes violated Turkish airspace and harassed Turkish F-16s in at least two separate incidents over Hatay Province of southern Turkey on October 3 and 4, prompting an emergency NATO meeting on October 5. In addition, Russian fighter jets shadowed U.S. predator drones on at least three separate occasions high above Syria since the start of Russia’s air campaign last week, according to two U.S. officials briefed on this latest intelligence from the region. Meanwhile, a U.S. aircraft flying over Syria had to be rerouted to avoid a Russian fighter jet at least once.
Although Turkey is a NATO country, there remain questions about how to respond. There are major divisions between eastern NATO members, who want to keep the focus on the Ukraine crisis, and others who worry about ISIS – hampering a unified response from the 28-nation North Atlantic alliance.
France and Britain, want to see the alliance use its new 5,000-strong rapid reaction force beyond NATO borders, potentially helping stabilize post-conflict governments in Libya or Syria.
Others nations, including Poland and the Baltics, want a permanent NATO presence on their territory to act as a credible deterrent to any further effort by Russian President Vladimir Putin to gain influence in former Soviet states.
In the meantime, there is an immediate concern about protecting Turkish airspace with Patriot air defense missiles. NATO deployed its Patriot missiles in January 2013 in Turkey. Currently, the US, Germany, and Spain now have five batteries in place.
However, the United States will withdraw its two Patriot batteries any day for modernization. And, Germany’s defense minister said Berlin would go ahead with plans to switch off its two Patriot batteries in Turkey next week and withdraw most of the soldiers operating them before Christmas. All soldiers and materiel are due to be withdrawn by the end of January.
“This decision (to withdraw the Patriots) is right,” Ursula von der Leyen said as she arrived for the meeting.
“The question is what danger can be warded off in which way,” she said. The comments appeared to suggest that the Turkish air force is capable of intercepting fighter jets.
France and Italy are understood to be willing to join Spain, but no decision has been taken, people familiar with the discussion say.
The Russian Mission
Despite the news surrounding the insertion of the Russian force into Syria and the relatively few missions it has carried out in the past few days, it is obvious that Russia isn’t planning for intensive operations on a long term basis.
The Russian force is designed for effective, but limited, close air support of Syrian or other allied forces. Its fighter aircraft contingent is capable of patrolling Syrian airspace and discouraging NATO overflights of Syria. It is unlikely to challenge NATO aircraft further east as it is at the far reach of its range and any ISIS targets there would be of little concern to Russia.
It’s also important to note that the Russian force would be challenged to effectively stopping any determined NATO air incursion into Syria, but no indication is there to suggest such dangerous course anyway.
Putin has put Syria and President Assad in a much more powerful position. The force is large enough that the rebels are facing a nearly impossible route to taking Damascus and defeating Syrian Arab army.
The Russian presence and air attacks against rebels around Homs and Hama have secured the Syrian coast.
Assad is not only the legitimate head of Syria, his control of the populated and economically important regions of Eastern Syria make him a necessary member of any negotiations. And, should negotiations fail, he will remain in control of the most important part of Syria – the east and the coastline. He will also retain Syrian UN membership.
Should the Syrian rebels and ISIS start to falter, the Russian air contingent has the ability to kick into high gear and launch a short burst of up to 50 to 75 sorties a day for a very few days. This could be decisive in an offensive supported by allies of Syrian ground forces.
The Iran Nuclear Deal: What the Next President Should Do
By James Phillips
October 2, 2015
Issue Brief #4468
The failure of Congress to halt the implementation of the Obama Administration’s nuclear agreement with Tehran means that the U.S. is stuck with a bad deal on Iran’s nuclear program at least for now. Iran’s radical Islamist regime will now benefit from the suspension of international sanctions without dismantling its nuclear infrastructure, which will remain basically intact. Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon is unlikely to be blocked by the Administration’s flawed deal, any more than North Korea was blocked by the Clinton Administration’s 1994 Agreed Framework. The next President should not passively accept Obama’s risky deal with Tehran as a fait accompli. Instead, he or she should immediately cite any violations of the agreement by Iran, its continued support for terrorism, or other hostile policies as reason to abrogate the agreement. The Bush Administration, faced with bad deals negotiated by the Clinton Administration, eventually withdrew from both the Agreed Framework and the Kyoto Protocol.
Obama Must Resist ‘Do More’ Calls on Syria
By Brad Stapleton
October 6, 2015
Russia’s recent intervention in Syria has ruffled feathers in Western capitals. On Tuesday came claims from NATO that Russia had moved ground troops into Syria, only a week after Russia launched its first airstrikes in the country. The moves prompted renewed calls from many in Washington — including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — for the Obama administration to impose a no-fly zone and begin arming the Syrian rebels in earnest. President Obama should resist such clarion calls and refrain from escalating the conflict in such a manner. Indeed, he should be wary of much of the talk we are hearing about “doing more,” lest he risk exacerbating an already growing crisis. Western powers were able to impose a no-fly zone in Libya in 2011 with ease, making it tempting to try to repeat the trick in Syria. But Libya was an unusually permissive environment for such action, and NATO aircraft faced virtually no resistance. That would surely not be the case in Syria. Indeed, now that Russian pilots are flying throughout western Syria, any attempt to impose a no-fly zone would present an unacceptable risk of direct hostilities between U.S. and Russian forces.
The Long War in Syria: The Trees, the Forest, and All the King’s Men
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
October 1, 2015
Clichés are clichés, but sometimes it really is hard to see the forest for the trees. In the case of Syria, the “trees” include the UN debate between Obama and Putin over Syria and the fight against Islamic extremism, Russia’s sudden military intervention in Syria, the failure of the U.S. training and assist missions in both Syria and Iraq, and the developing scandal in USCENTCOM over exaggerated claims of success for the U.S.-led air campaign in Syria and Iraq. The most important “tree,” however, is trying to negotiate an end to the fighting from the outside, as if Assad was the key issue and as if it would be possible for some diplomatic elite or mix of power brokers to bring Syria back to some state of stability if only Assad would agree to leave and the United States and Russia could agree on how to approach the negotiations.
The Background to Putin’s Actions in Syria and the UN: Russia’s New View of the US and Western Strategy: The Color Revolution
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
October 2, 2015
Far too much of the commentary on Russian military intervention in Syria, Vladimir Putin’s speech at the United Nations, and Putin’s relations with Barack Obama reverts to the mindreading era of Kremlinology. It takes Putin’s actions out of context and often says more about the author’s prejudices than it does about Putin. It is important to note that Russia formally introduced many of the views of the U.S. and Western “destabilizing” impact on the Middle East and the developing world well over a year ago at a formal military conference in Moscow. Russian high-level officers and diplomats reacted strongly to the criticisms and sanctions resulting from Russia’s actions in Ukraine. They shifted radically away from a past focus on improving military relations with Europe—and to a lesser degree the United States.
A Way Forward for Obama and Putin in Syria
By Eugene Rumer
October 7, 2015
The crisis in Syria has become a standoff between the U.S. and Russia. Each side is blaming the other for it. Moscow charges the Syrian tragedy is the direct consequence of U.S. unilateral, delusional pursuit of democracy in the Middle East. Washington insists that Russian support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is the cause. The most the two seem to be able to agree on is to talk about de-conflicting their air operations to avoid a mid-air collision between their planes. With no solution in sight, it is time to resort to what has worked in other seemingly unsolvable crises: the P5+1 mechanism. The P5+1—the U.S., Russia, France, Great Britain, China, all U.N. Security Council permanent members joined by Germany—is a unique forum where the key parties can come together to seek a way to solve the Syrian crisis. In addition to the major powers, the P5+1 format has the advantage of being able to engage Iran, a critical actor in Syria without whom no solution can be found. The trust built up between the P5+1 countries and Iran in the course of the negotiations about Iran’s nuclear program, and the success of those talks make for a unique basis to address the Syrian crisis. The U.S. and Russia can ill afford to squander it.
Iraq after Russian Intervention in Syria
By Patrick Martin
Institute for the Study of War
October 7, 2015
The Russian formation of a coordination cell in Baghdad is an inflection point aimed at undercutting U.S. influence over the direction of the anti-ISIS efforts in Iraq and Syria. However, the Russian footprint in Iraq is much smaller than in Syria, while U.S. influence over the ISF and Iraqi state are much greater than U.S. influence in Syria. The U.S. and the U.S.-led Coalition can maintain its position as Iraq’s essential ally in the anti-ISIS fight by increasing advisory, materiel, and aerial support to the Iraqi state, without substantially increasing its ground presence. Such changes must prepare Iraq to recapture territory from ISIS quickly in order to demonstrate the value of cooperation with the U.S.
Syria’s Kurds Are Contemplating an Aleppo Alliance with Assad and Russia
By Fabrice Balanche
October 7, 2015
Despite repeated Russian statements to the contrary, Moscow’s most pressing goals in Syria are safeguarding Bashar al-Assad’s regime and expanding its own military presence on the Mediterranean coast, and it can meet these goals even if Damascus and its allies are unable to regain territory outside the Alawite heartland. Yet if Vladimir Putin wants to be at the center of the Syrian chessboard, he will need to push his pawns further into the country’s interior. In particular, Aleppo could be his next target because all of the war’s major players are currently vying for control of the key northern metropolis. Losing the city would be a major political and strategic setback for Assad, weakening his regime in future negotiations. Currently, the Syrian army still controls a third of Aleppo, which is connected to the rest of the government-controlled zone by a narrow road. But this corridor is being squeezed by the Daesh/ISIS on the east and al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra on the west. To win the battle for Aleppo, Assad will therefore need to cooperate with the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian franchise of the Turkish Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The PYD is eager to connect its cantons around Kobane and Afrin and open a corridor to Sheikh Maqsoud, the Kurdish district of Aleppo. An October 1 al-Monitor interview with PYD leader Salih Muslim suggests that the group may be seeking a strategic alliance with Assad and Russia in order to achieve that goal.
Putin’s Syria Adventure Is an Opportunity for Washington and Ankara
By Lt Col John R. Barnett
October 6, 2015
While all eyes are on Moscow’s dramatic entry into the Syria conflict, policymakers and military planners should not forget about Vladimir Putin’s ambitions in Russia’s “near abroad,” including the South Caucasus republics of Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. By capitalizing on existing structures and interoperability, the United States and Turkey can thwart Russia’s efforts to expand its influence in the area, obliging Moscow to rein in its plans further abroad and allocate more resources closer to home. But it will not be an easy marriage. Over the past decade, relations between Ankara and Washington have ebbed and flowed. The rise of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party gradually distanced Turkey from the West, and both governments have had difficulty establishing shared interests on emerging issues in the Middle East and elsewhere. Moscow has sought to fill this vacuum by increasing its sway over Turkey’s foreign policy decisions. Yet the latest events in Syria may encourage Ankara to change that equation and favor a lasting strategic alliance with the United States.