Russian Military Presence in Syria: Reasons and Goals

Islamic State is a global, quasi-Islamic fanatic millenaristic sect. By its very nature it is resilient to human casualties. It lacks a developed economy or infrastructure, which means that attempts to fight it with airstrikes and special operations are unlikely to succeed.

As this article is being written, Russia has deployed over 2,000 officers and soldiers in Syria, plus at least 34 Sukhoi Su-30SM fighters, Su-34 and Su-24 bombers and Su-25ground-attack planes. Russian military bases, including the main air base near Latakia, are being defended by motorized rifle and marine units, as well as by a certain number of tanks, artillery systems and helicopter gunships. Russian air-defense systems are also deployed near these bases.    

“No land operations or participation of Russian army units has ever been considered or ever could be,” President Vladimir Putin told journalists in New York after his meeting with US President Barack Obama. At the same time, Russian officials are making much vaguer statements about providing air cover for the Syrian army. It appears that such air strikes could be launched anytime now. It is already possible to talk about reconnaissance missions and the assistance being provided by Russian radio-technical reconnaissance and electronic countermeasure (ECM) systems to Syrian and Iraqi government forces. Russia has also vastly expanded arms shipments to Syria and Iraq.

What are the reasons behind Russia’s decision to interfere in the conflict? Primarily, judging by available data, it is obvious that the US strategy to combat Islamic State (IS) has failed completely. This defeat is the result of the inability of the United States to create the slimmest, albeit reliable and efficient, ground force on the frontlines with IS that can launch an offensive. It seems also that the US faced systemic issues in training allied armies. By the way, it has had to grapple with the same issue before, for instance in Georgia in the run-up to the 2008 conflict against Russia. The second factor is that the Syrian army has been exhausted recently and requires more assistance.

Islamic State is a global, quasi-Islamic fanatic millenaristic sect. By its very nature it is resilient to human casualties. It lacks a developed economy or infrastructure, which means that attempts to fight it with airstrikes and special operations are unlikely to succeed. IS can be defeated only in a lengthy and bloody ground war to recapture IS territory, occupy it and mop up the region. Having combat boots on the ground would be vital in this war.

The combat value of the Iraqi army, created with US assistance, proved to be low after a series of shameful setbacks and loosing much of its cutting-edge weapons. Only the intervention of the Iranian army, the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution and the Shia militia helped prevent a looming catastrophe. Attempts by the US to train and equip certain units of the Syrian opposition were even more discouraging, since they ended with most trainees joining the Jabhat al-Nusra front or voluntarily surrendering.

Meanwhile, US allies among Persian Gulf monarchies have become entangled in the war against the Houthi rebels in Yemen, where their armed forces also proved to be highly ineffective. In Yemen, people wearing slippers and shabby national costumes fired old Soviet-era missiles at state-of-the-art tanks and armored vehicles imported from the US or Europe. Videos of this kind are frequently posted online and are reminiscent of the footage from the First Chechen War.

Meanwhile, Islamic State is growing into a formidable threat not only to the Middle Eastern countries, but also to other regions such as Central Asia. IS has strengthened its influence in Afghanistan and in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. It came as shocking news in April of this year that Colonel Gulmurod Khalimov, former commander of Tajikistan’s OMON special police who was trained in Russia and the West and was highly respected in his country, joined IS.

Tensions in Tajikistan have been fueled by differences between the authorities and the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan. A recent evidence of instability was an armed insurrection led by Deputy Defense Minister Abduhalim Nazarzoda, who was supported by a number of military personnel.

The remaining terrorists from the Russian North Caucasus have accepted IS control.

The IS expansion has been halted recently, but the very survival of that pseudo-state, which controls a large territory and has safe [training] bases, is dramatically increasing the threat of destabilization in the Middle East and Central Asia and the risk of large-scale terrorist attacks in Europe (including Russia), South Asia and China.

Ensuring the security of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, which have close ties with Russia, is highly important for Moscow not only because they are members of Russia-led integration groups. More importantly, the Russian-Kazakh border is completely transparent and very difficult to protect technically. Kazakhstan has a 39,000-strong army, of whom about 20,000 are in the land forces and are unlikely to properly respond to a large-scale regional crisis. In a worst-case scenario, Russia will have to send its troops to defend Kazakhstan’s southern border. In other words, there is a looming threat of a large war, which Russia may have to wage alone or with China’s assistance.

Russia has two options: to fight IS in the Middle East now, or do it in the Caucasus and in Central Asia later. It’s obvious that it must fight this war away from the borders of the former Soviet Union and so avoid large-scale land operations, and hence large casualties.

The army of Syrian President Bashar Assad is an effective military force with considerable combat experience, although it has suffered a number of losses. It must fight this war to the bitter end, for a victory by IS and other radical Islamic groups would result in the genocide of Alawites and Christians.

The Syrian army’s major losses in manpower can be compensated by the inflow of pro-Iranian fighters and by Iranian troops. That army is now the only organized force capable of waging large offensive operations in that region. At the same time, additional arms deliveries and other technical assistance, if coordinated with Iran’s efforts, would strengthen the Iraqi army and so contain substantial IS forces. The support by Kurdish militia will be useful too.

Unlike the US and allies’ air groups, Russia’s aircraft provide direct support and will act in coordination with the Syrian land forces and so will have a bigger influence on fighting.

Even if Russian military involvement boils down to air and missile strikes, the use of reconnaissance and electronic countermeasure systems, Russian forces are still liable to sustain casualties. For example, Islamic State and other anti-government forces in Syria wield a considerable number of man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS). Su-30SM and Su-34 fighters, and Su-24 bombers, which have already been deployed at the Latakia air base, can launch precision-guided munitions. Theoretically, this could minimize the time spent within range of MANPADS. Upgraded Su-25SM ground-attack planes can also use these weapons, but we don’t know which Su-25 versions are being deployed in Syria. It appears that Russia has much fewer precision-guided munitions than the United States and leading NATO countries. Consequently, one cannot be sure that all or most missions will involve the use of these weapons systems. Some military aircraft may be lost. One should not rule out possible terrorist acts and special operations against Russian forces either. However, we must choose between limited casualties today and many thousands of casualties during a hypothetical large war in Central Asia later on, and this choice should be understood with clarity.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.