Since the launch of the Russian military campaign against terrorism in Syria on September 30, 2015, the Russian Army has increased numbers of military aid officially provided to the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and its allies. From the beginning, the Russian Army had to transport large bulks of equipment and ammunition to Syria to supply its bases inside the country and to supply the SAA. To accomplish this, Russia established an aerial and naval logistics supply network that came to be known by the name Syria Express.
Syria Express relies on a series of airbases, airports, and ports in Syria and Russia. Sevastopol Port in Crimea is considered the main port for cargo shipping to Syria while inside Syria, Russian mainly depended on two ports.
At the outset of the intervention, Russia was looking for the least possible media attention so it relied on Al-Mina Bayda naval base in the northern coast of Lattakia. Due to the base’s limited capabilities and with the official declaration of the Russian intervention in Syria, Russia began depending on its naval establishments in Tartus, which later became an official base for the Russian Navy in January 2017. The base was expanded to have 4 platforms instead of 2. On November14, 2016, the Russian Army reformed the railway connecting Tartus Port to Hmeimim Airbase aiming to ease the transport of supplies and humanitarian aid.
The Russian Navy depended on the following ships for the transportation of military aid:
Ropucha-class Cargo Ships. The displacement of each ship of this class is 2200 tons unloaded and 4080 loaded. Its range is 6100 nautical miles. This class of ship can carry between 10 and 12 battle tanks or BTR vehicles in addition to 340 soldiers or 500 tons of general loads like ammunition. It is believed that the Russian Navy uses 5 ships from this class (named: Azov, Yamal, Korolev, Novocherkassk, and Caesar Kunikov) that operate under the Russian Baltic Sea Fleet to supply Russian Army bases in Syria and the SAA. The Tartus Port receives at least two of these ships every month.
Alligator-class Cargo Ships. Their displacement measurements are 3400 tons unloaded and 4700 tons loaded. The ship of this class can carry between 300 and 425 troops in addition to 20 tanks or 40 AFVs. Equivalently, the ship could carry 1,000 tons of general cargo.
The Russian Navy uses 3 ships of this class operating under the Black Sea fleet: Saratov, Nikolay Vilko, and Nikolay Filchenkov. Tartus Port receives one of these ships at minimum every month.
As Russian military assistance to the SAA increased, which began launching larger operations and advancing faster, the Russian Army began relying on civilian vessels to support the shipping process. Turkish sources have revealed that the Russian Army bought the four civilian used vessels: Dvinitsa-50, the Kyzyl-60 and the Vologda-50 and Kazan-60 and these four vessels began to work quickly to transport logistical supplies to the Russian and Syrian armies within the supply network Syria Express. In 2016, with the start of the SAA reconstruction, Russia began relying on RO Civilian Cargo Ships to transport vehicles and tanks to Syria, including SPARTA III and SPARTA II. These ships can carry dozens of vehicles because of their wide structure.
In addition to maritime shipping, the Syria Express supply network relied on air transport to meet the needs of the SAA and the Russian Army in the operation theater quickly, as well as providing humanitarian assistance to some of the besieged areas. Russia relies mainly on Hmeimim air base in Lattakia and Damascus International Airport to receive cargo planes that are often loaded with important shipments such as humanitarian aid, spare parts for various weapons, or high value weapons/systems. Moreover, Russian military advisers and Russian Special Forces, which provide support to SAA in the battlefield, are also being flown in.
The most important cargo planes on which the Russian Army depends on the supply network Syria Express are the following:
An-124 is one of the largest cargo aircraft in the world, the An-124 can transport 108 tons of cargo with a range of 5550 km, and the Hmeimim Airbase receives aircrafts of this type exclusively, and a plane of this type lands at the Hmeimim Airbase almost daily.
Il-76 can carry 52 tons of cargo for more than 4000 km. These planes land in at several airports and air bases, especially at the Damascus International Airport. It was used to transport the air ammunition of the Syrian Air Force in 2016 to the Sha’erat airport for support during Operation “Dawn of Victory” in Aleppo. Il-76 is also used to deliver humanitarian aid to civilians and to supply the SAA in Deir Ezzour city, besieged by ISIS, and such planes arrive on a daily basis in Syria.
An-72 is a light cargo plane carrying more than 5 tons and has a range of more than 4300 km. The Russian Air Force has deployed a plane of this type at the Hmeimim Air Base to support cargo operations inside Syria, especially between Lattakia, Damascus and Aleppo.
The Russian Army also uses Tu-154 transport planes to transport Russian advisors, Russian Special Forces and VIPs to and from Syria. Important spare parts can also be shipped on this plane, which has a range between 2500 and 6600 km.
Since 2015, the Russian Army has provided large quantities of equipment to the SAA to rebuild and improve its capabilities, and Russia has supported mainly the Syrian Armored Force, which suffered major setbacks during the current war. Russia supplied several tanks to the SAA; the most important one is the T-90A, where dozens of this tank were sent to the SAA and its allies in Syria. The tank is characterized mainly by active protection system “Shtora” capable of disrupting ATGMs such as the US-made TOW missiles, which gave the SAA a great advantage, especially in the clashes of Aleppo and the Syrian Desert. The T-90 tanks are also equipped with modern Kontakt-5 reactive armor, along with high-tech night\day fire control systems.
At the end of 2016 Russia supplied the SAA with T-62m tanks equipped with BDD armor with the ability to launch ATGMs. The tank enabled the SAA to advance better in the Syrian Desert, and its armor proved its effectiveness against ATGMs, including the US-made TOW missiles. The SAA has received dozens of tanks of this type.
The SAA has received the T-72B1 tanks, which have kontakt-1 armor, and the T-72b1 obr1986 tanks equipped with the latest Kontack-5 armor. The SAA has also received dozens of Bmp-1 and Bmp-2 infantry combat vehicles.
Russia has worked to support the SAA firepower, where it has equipped the SAA with large number of howitzer D-30 of 122 mm caliber and a range of up to 21 km, as well as the M-30 howitzers of 122 mm caliber and a range of more than 11 km.
The SAA was also equipped with 2A65 “Msta-B2 towed howitzers of 152.4 mm caliber and with a range of up to 28 km. In 2017, the SAA was equipped with the S-2S19 “Msta-S” self-propelled 152.4 mm howitzers with a range of up to 62 km and the ability to launch guided rounds, which supported the SAA operations in the Syrian desert significantly.
Among the most important weapons supplied to the SAA by Russia is the heavy flamethrower system TOS-1A, which launches the heavy 220mm thermo-barrick rockets with a range of 6 km. These launchers have successfully destroyed terrorist fortifications in Aleppo and the Syrian Desert.
Moreover, the SAA has received several BM-21 Grad rocket launchers of 122-mm caliber to compensate for its losses. Russia has also supplied the SAA with rockets for its heavy multiple rocket launchers: BM-27 Uragan 220 mm and BM-30 Smerch 300 mm, owned by the SAA before the Syrian crisis.
The SAA also equipped a number of armored vehicles to move safely and support the Special Forces operations such as GAZ Tiger and Rys LMV, as well as a number of GAZ Vodnik and BTR-80 vehicles to support the SAA operations in the desert areas.
Russia has re-equipped the Syrian infantry, loaded with tons of helmets and body armor. The Syrian infantry also received modern rifles AK-101 and AK-103. Special forces obtained AK-104 or AK-74U rifles. Russia also equipped the Syrian infantry with thermal vision systems and night vision, and ground radars such as FARA-1 with a range of 5 km.
The Syrian infantry received dozens of AGS-17 30mm grenade launchers, as well as RPG-18 light rocket launchers with a range of 200 meters and a penetration capacity of 300 mm, and RPG-22 with a range of 250 meters, a penetration capacity of 400 mm, also RKO-A Shmel launcher with a range of 1 km and a thermo-barrick warhead.
The SAA was also supplied with dozens of Konkurs-M ATGMs with a penetration capability of 800 mm, a range of 4 km, Kornet-E with a penetration capacity of 1200 mm and a range of 5.5 km.
The Russian army played an important role in supporting the Syrian Air Force and the Syrian Air Defense Forces. The Russian army helps the Syrian Air Force maintain the fighters it owns. It also supplies the Syrian Air Force with all the spare parts needed by the Syrian fighter jets, which helped the Syrian Air Force maintain more than 100 active fighters even after 6 years of war. The Russian Army is supplying the Syrian Air Force via the Syria Express network with the ammunition almost daily.
The Syrian Air Force was also supplied with 4 Mi-24p attack helicopters, capable of launching Shturm ATGMs with a range of 5 km. Russia is expected to increase its support for the Syrian Air Force in 2017, especially after the Syrian Air Force has been targeted several times by the US-led coalition.
Russia has worked to reorganize and build Syrian Air Defense Forces. Several sources have talked about new deals between Russia and the SAA to supply advanced air defense systems such as BUK-M2E, TOR-M2E and Pantsir-S1 to improve Syrian Air Defense Forces capability. At the end of 2016, it was confirmed that SAA had obtained a number of modern Pantsir-S1 air defense systems equipped with AESA RADAR.
One of the most prominent aspects of the Russian support for the SAA is to provide it with important intelligence through the Russian satellite network, or planes like the AWCS A-50u aircraft, SIGINT \ ELINT aircrafts such as Tu-214R \ Il-20M and dozens of Russian drones such as Forpost \ Orlan-10.
The Russian intervention in Syria can be considered as one of the largest deployments carried out by the Russian Army outside the borders of the former Soviet Union, and one of the most demanding supply operations. The Russian Army is working through the Syria Express supply network to ship hundreds of tons a day and thousands of tons of equipment and ammunition a month from Russia to Syria in order to support the SAA in its war against terrorism and put an end to the Syrian war as soon as possible.