Written by Leen Ibrahim exclusively for SouthFront; Edited by Yoana
The battle of Palmyra [SF editor: The video-analysis of the military operation is here.] is the biggest event since the beginning of the Russian military involvement in Syria. The Russian air force (RuAF) played a significant role supporting the Syrian army in its advances against terrorist groups since October 2015; however air force alone was not able to liberate Palmyra, one of the most strategic and vital locations in Syria’s war. The heroes behind the historic success of liberating the strategic ancient city of Palmyra have not been spoken of publically as it should have been.
The Russian Ministry of Defense (MOD) denied any troops on the ground at the beginning of its operations in October 2015. In an article, published on October 6, 2015, The Telegraph wrote that “officials in Moscow dismissed reports, some from the Pentagon, of a build-up of artillery and multiple rocket launch systems as ‘unfounded’. But later Russian official’s narrative has changed to admit the presence of those fighters. Colonel General Alexander Dvornikov, commander of the Russian group of troops in Syria, has acknowledged ground troops in an interview with the Rossiyskaya Gazeta daily, according to TASS.
According to the Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed forces Valery Gerasimov, the ancient city was liberated with the participation of the Russian Federation Air force, special operations force, and military advisors. Whereas the Russian MOD has declared 7 causalities among its forces, ISIS media sites published photos and videos indicating more losses among fighters of Russian ground fighters [SF editor: These videos can hardly be discribed as a proof].
The Fontanka has also published an investigation into the activities and deaths of Russian “private military contractors” (PMCs) in Syria and Ukraine, or better name them ‘mercenary’. Yet, the Russian authorities have never admitted any links to mercenary which fought in the battle of Palmyra and had the leading role in battle fields according to the investigation. [SF editor: How could Russian military companies change the situation in Syria?]
What brought attention to those mercenary groups, was the rapid progress during the Palmyra battle in the second half of March. As President Vladimir Putin ordered on March 14, 2016 partial withdrawal of its forces from Syria. Many questions arose concerning the battle of Palmyra and what has been kept from the public eye. The outcomes of cooperation between Syrian Army (SAA) and RuAF between October2015 and March 2016 were good but slow compared to the rapid success during the second half of March 2016. And this makes us to ask a very significant question: what was this super power that freed Palmyra?
Michael Kofman, an analyst at CNA who focuses on Russian military operations, stated that “Russian special forces are doing a lot of the targeting for Russian airstrikes and a lot of advising for the Syrians,” adding that they provide most of the intelligence on the ground for Russian airpower and help run Syrian operations. But the companies Kofman speaks about like Zaslon, are only security companies for protecting organizations, embassies and persons outside Russia, not for battles.
If we also take in consideration the announced scale-down of the Russian forces in Syria before Palmyra battle this leads us to the conclusion that there is somebody else who did the actual fighting on the ground, and was able in 10 days to do what no one was able to do since May 2015, when Palmyra was taken by ISIS. Russian mercenary were the true heroes, and right after they performed their task they were sent back home. Those mercenaries were excluded from the battle field after the liberation of Palmyra for unannounced reasons.
Finding out that those mercenary were excluded can be inferred from the loss of territory in April and in May and the deterioration of the military situation in Aleppo and around Palmyra. After the exclusion of those forces, counter-attack by ISIS militias to restore the city from government’s forces and its allies in have been reported. Therefore, the exclusion of those forces was not for the good of Syria nor Russia and that MOD decision will have worse implications if the current situation continues.
Kharaqah, ayn al Bardah, and Al Busayri were lost to ISIS after those counter attacks. Remarkably, maps show how current ISIS control areas, as of 22 April 2016, are much bigger than what they were by March 31.
In May the advances of ISIS and other terrorist groups continued and Terminal 3 [SF editor: a pumping station known as T3] southeast Palmyra was lost, while to the northeast the strategic area of Arak is still under severe clashes.
There have been continuous counter offensives by Al-Qaida, ISIS, and other extremist groups around Homs in Northern Lattakia. Those counter offensives have increased as the terrorist groups have not been deterred as they should have been. Today we also hear about more losses on Khannaser, the strategic supply route to Aleppo, like Al-Eis, Khan-Touman, and Al Khalidiyah in southern Aleppo [SF editor: the SAA counter-attacked at Khan Touman on May 8] and Birnah.
[SF editor: Indeed, the government forces secured Al-Zahara District]
The Russia-Syria alliance has been effective but it was not enough and MOD resorted mercenary groups to do the real fighting on the ground and this should not go unmentioned. Moreover, maintaining the successes of those groups is now on the brink of failure. Analysts say it is unclear who will actually be able to control and run liberated areas, liberation is not enough if it was not maintained and this is where MOD has absolutely stumbled.
The idea that the Russian Ministry of Defense is involved in deploying Russian mercenaryies to Syria can’t be confirmed. The Russian military contingent has other tasks (air support, planning, advisory missions). The Russian military companies, if they operate there, coordinate their efforts with the local clients, definetely.
After 5 years of war, it’s hard to expect that any side of the conflict have no problems with manpower. The sponsors of anti-government groups solve this problem, involving mercenaries, mainly jihadists, from over the world.
In turn, the Syrian government are supported by its allies and a wide range of para-military organizations, mainly from Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. Here, you can find a list of voluntary Self-Defense Groups Fighting on the Side of the Syrian Government.