Original by Andrey Soyustov published by riafan.ru; translated from Russian by J.Hawk
Oil prices are falling, dollar is trending up, German Gref called Russia a “downshifter country”, which did not prevent Russia’s economy from being listed as one of the top-15 most innovative in the world by Bloomberg…With all these news, the events in Syria are slowly but surely fading from the headlines. This is also the impression one gets from the rarer and more miserly press briefings by Major General Igor Konashenkov, the the Russian Ministry of Defense Press Service chief.
But that does not mean that the Syrian campaign has ended or has become less important for Russia. It means that it has become daily reality for the country as a whole and for the MOD in particular. It is work in which they are engaged. But it doesn’t mean that the grey daily routine in Syria has become less dangerous and bloody.
All Quiet on the Syrian Front?
The general situation is changing, but slowly. Unprofessional assessments from remote Russian couches don’t notice changes at all, even though they exist. What has remained the same and what has changed?
The general arrangement of forces remains the same. The two poles of the Syrian theater of operations contain, on the one hand, the Islamic State, al-Nusra, and other jihadists, and on the other hand the army loyal to Damascus, Russian Aerospace Forces group, Kurdish armed formations, etc. Between these two poles there are the formations of the so-called “moderate anti-Assad opposition” which include, for example, units of the Free Syrian Army. The “moderates” fight against both the jihadists and Damascus.
The jihadis are supported by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey. Damascus relies on help from Russia, Iraq, and Iran. “Moderate opposition” is backed by the US.
Damascus equipment superiority, while its opponents have more fighters and a greater mobilization potential. Damascus is attempting to advance with Russian support but the offensive is proceeding slowly due to inadequate forces and in a few places it has stalled. The jihadists are defending with determination and occasionally launch counterattacks.
In this situation which looks a lot like a stalemate, Russia is trying to transform the situation in favoe of Damascus by supporting Syrian forces from the air, providing Assad’s troops with modern weapons, and also pulling the moderates over to his side to operate jointly against the jihadis.
A Chronicle of Blood
In the north, government forces with Kurdish support have not been able to take control of the Syria-Turkey border, due to not only jihadi resistance but also Turkish. However, Assad’s forces were able to take the strategically important city of Salma in the mountains of Latakia, which instantly led to the local media proclaim Salma as Syria’s Stalingrad.
Battlefield maps make clear that al-Nusra and the FSA were more or less able to stabilize the front south of Aleppo along the Damascus-Aleppo highway. Here the government offensive clearly ran out of steam, although there are ongoing offensive operations north of the de-blockaded Queiris airbase.
Jihadists launched an unexpected counterattack near Deir-ez-Zor and inflicted serious losses on government troops even though they were not able to capture the city itself. Moreover, the militants carried out a massacre of civilian population in the city’s suburbs, killing about 300 and taking 400 women and children as hostages.
Damascus city quarters occupied by jihadists are being cleared.
In the last four days, Russian aircraft in Syria carried out 157 missions against 579 terrorist infrastructure targets in Aleppo, Raqqah, Latakia, Homs, Hama, and Deir-ez-Zor provinces. The US-led coalition also achieved successes. Or so they say…The Yanks were able to convince public opinion that in a November bombing of Raqqah a US bomb killed the infamous ISIS executioner Mukhammed Emvazi, known as Jihadi John.
Here’s what the Syrian “routine” looks like. Nothing spectacular or sensational. Front lines moving back and forth remind of a rocking horse. But there is much of interest behind the scenes of these swings.
A list of failed predictions
Today we can safely say that the expectation Iran will send large numbers of Revolutionary Guards to Syria and facilitate a major offensive by Damascus thus ending the war quickly turned out to be false. Equally false were the predictions Russia would quickly abandon Syria or that Turkey and Saudi Arabia would provide hundreds of modern portable SAMs to the jihadis.
Predictions of further escalation of conflict between Turkey and Russia, including Turkish troops in Syria and closing of the Bosphorus, also failed to materialize. There is also no war between Iran and the Saudis with US participation.
It is clear that Iran wisely did not allow itself to be provoked by the Saudis, the Turks were distracted by their own campaign against the Kurds and Russia…Russia is still at work in Syria.
Russia for Assad
Even in these difficult political and economic circumstances, Russia is continuing to demonstrate its ability to maintain a pace of air operations and to supply its forces in Syria with all they need.
Judging by available reports, Russian MOD successfully rotated ground units providing security for Hmeimim and Tartus. Aircrews are also being rotated. Naval forces in eastern Meditarranean have also been rotated. The expeditionary HQ for the Syrian operation transferred from the missile cruiser Moskva to the identical Varyag, with Moskva returning to Sevastopol.
There are reports of possible deployment to Syria of Ka-52 attack helicopters equipped with the L370 Vitebsk self-protection suite. The helicopters would ensure Hmeimim’s security and support search-and-rescue operations. No information on possible deployment of Mi-28 attack helicopters.
The news that pilots are beginning to train on the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier, new carrier-based MiG-29K fighters, and newly announced plans of a two-year modernization of the carrier starting in late 2016, the hopes to see Admiral Kuznetsov in eastern Mediterranean are waning…
The decrease in the Syria Express sorties indicates that the deployment of Russian forces in Syria is complete. Current Syria Express cargoes are mainly “expendables” such as munitions, fuel, and lubricants.
Water channel into Tartus harbor is being dredged which is consistent with the expectation it will be transformed from a technical support point into a fully fledged Russian naval base. This is more than likely, given the recent reports of unlimited duration of Russian leases on Syrian military facilities. One should get used to the fact that Russia has come to Syria in all earnestness and for a long time.
In addition to work on Hmeimim and Tartus, Russian military advisers are expanding their work within Syria’s armed forces. One can see our soldiers among Syrian troops with increasing frequency. It’s not surprising–there are reports that Assad’s army has integrated Russian military advisers down to company level.
Russian specialists effectively help their Syrian allies not only on the front lines but also in the rear areas where Syrian forces are being retrained on equipment supplied from Russia. Here’s an important development–Syrians were able, with direct Russian participation, to restore their armored vehicle servicing and repair system. All of that allows Damascus to gradually overcome the jihadi numbers with the quality of their forces.
The Russian efforts to “bomb ISIS into the stone age” and to split the “moderate opposition” are starting to bear fruit. There are more and more cases of not even the bombing but the mere appearance of a Russian aircraft overhead forces the militants to abandon their positions. Igor Konashenkov made the following comment: “We are noting cases of mass desertion and of whole units avoiding further fighting. Field Commander Abu Khaldun’s armed band, some 30 strong, abandoned their positions on Sunday in its entirety.”
Is that good? Of course! But, alas, 30 deserters or even 300 won’t make or break the jihadis. Only when the numbers of fleeing terrorists will reach thousands the situation will change. So far we aren’t seeing that, though work on making it happen is continuing.
There are also “men at work” on the so-called “moderate opposition. No, nobody is being lured to Assad’s side using cookies. Opposition is, as the term suggests, fundamentally opposed to Damascus. But being against Assad does not mean supporting ISIS. So why not finish off ISIS together with Damascus and then come to terms with Syria’s president?
Using that logic, Russian airpower de-facto placed the “moderates” before a simple choice: “you are either an enemy of ISIS or you are dead.” This tactic aimed at motivating the “moderates” to adopt policies consistent with Russian preferences is having effects. Particularly since the incentive is not merely the absence of half-ton bombs falling on their heads, but provision of light weapons and munitions by Russia.
This situation may bring about many unexpected collisions due to the oppositionists going back and forth. But so far it’s working. The proof of that is the use of the new term “patriotic opposition”, meaning opposition fighting the jihadis, in Russian MOD press briefings.
From a recent MOD briefing: “Russian air group command continues to cooperate with patriotic opposition formations in Syria, fighting against ISIS, al-Nusra, and others. Several days ago, we received information from a patriotic opposition unit about the location of an ISIS camp. After additional drone reconnaissance and clearing the target through the coordinating center in Baghdad, the camp was destroyed by an Su-25 attack aircraft.”
Concurrently with these activities, Moscow and Damascus began humanitarian aid airdrops to civilians in the zone of fighting. This led to a considerable increase of Assad regime’s popularity.
New old terror
The jihadists were not able to counter these operations by Syrian government forces and Russian airpower other than by using naked terror against the civilians. The result was the already mentioned slaughter and hostage-taking at Deir-ez-Zor.
Another method used by the militants is provocative shelling. Again Igor Konashenkov: “Not being able to stop the government forces’ advance, terrorists are more and more often shelling populated areas using mortars and artillery, in order to place the blame on Syrian government forces.” It’s enough to recall the recent shelling of a school in Turkey’s border area…
One way or the other, such ISIS operations are leading to further schism with al-Nusra and “moderate opposition”, and also the collapse of ISIS hopes to gain “respectability” and legitimacy in the eyes of certain Western circles.
Victory will be ours
All of that means situation in Syria is changing. Very slowly but to our favor. One must keep in mind we are at war with international terrorism, and that war won’t be over in two weeks. It’s also obvious there is no victory without effort and losses. The more effort, the fewer losses.
It means that it’s time to get up and continue the work. Day after day, no matter what, for the sake of victory. That victory is drawing closer thanks to our guys over there in Syria. We are also working for victory here, in Russia. The main thing is not to grow complacent, not expect miracles, and then victory will be ours.