A month back I wrote a post arguing that Russia had accomplished it’s primary mission in Syria and was going to pull out; I was wrong. On May 18th, the Washington Post reported that a Russian contingent had been sent Palmyra and opened up a forward operating base. Again, I was wrong, Russia has planted it’s boot firmly in Syria.
The Russian presence is broad and deep. Near the coasts and Damascus, Russia had not backed down. Putin retains aircraft and troops that are still flying air support missions for the Syrian Arab Army and allied militias. In a recent article published in War is Boring, Russian ground troops were estimated to number from 10 to 15 thousand, preforming every task from logistics and maintenance to artillery support and rear guard duties.
Russia has made only a tactical shift; trading in their strategic bombers and high speed fighters for helicopters. With air bases in Al-Shayrat and Tiyas, these helicopters have been flying close air support missions in support of pro-regime forces throughout central Syria.
Following the “liberation” of Palmyra, the Russian military has set up a new base there as well. Janes Defense has reported several BTR-80 and 82A armored vehicles are operating in the area along with several Pantsir S1 air defense systems. According to Tom Cooper’s (WIB) article these vehicles are part of a battalion sized contingent of the 74th Motor Rifle Brigade stationed in the city.
Instead of a pullout Russia appears to have changed tactics. Russian artillery, air support and motor rifle battalions are now supporting Assad’s troops up close.The presence of Pantsirs and BTRs indicates Russia’s intent on stretching it protective shield in Syria and not just carving out a small state for Assad. Everywhere regime forces go the Russian’s are there to provide support for them.
The likely cause of this shift was the ineffectiveness of Russia’s previous strategy of high altitude bombing. Recall that month’s ago the Russian air force was using gravity bombs and cruise missiles to fight Assad’s enemies. The problem was that Assad took little to no ground during these bombardments, with rebel forces repelling their assaults after the strikes.
The new strategy appears to be more tailored to countering Assads unique problems. Assad’s army is a mess. The regime has serious trouble actually fielding units capable of offensive operations. When they do launch an offensive there is no guarantee that they will be able to capture or hold ground.
This has led to a shift to closer support of ground troops by Russia.With mechanized forces shadowing Assad they can act as a brake to keep Assad’s gains from slipping away and provide closer support. If the SAA does get pushed back, the Russians will be waiting to stop their advance. ISIS will then be fighting Russian regulars not the SAA.
The U.S found itself in a similar situation fighting ISIS, reverting to tactical airstrikes in support of local forces instead of exclusively focusing on ISIS infrastructure and weapons. even heavy bombers like the B-52 have been employed to provide CAS, destroying fighting positions and VBIEDs.
The Pantsirs on the other hand, are an area where Putin hasn’t shifted. Putin is well aware of the SAA’s vulnerability to American air power. Should a more American hawkish President (*cough* Clinton *cough*) take the reigns after Obama leaves, the Syrian army and allied militias could be targeted. Locally based Pansir-S1 systems would massively complicate such a strike.
While the Russians are shielding regime forces, how far the Russian’s will take this strategy is unclear. As the Islamic State’s territory shrinks in Syria, Russian and American proxies are getting closer and closer together.With Assad’s forces currently in the planning stages of an assault on Deir Al-Zor,things could get a lot more tense. If Russia continues to backup Assad’s forces like they have, Russian shadow forces could also come dangerously close to American special operators in northeastern Syria.
The end game for Russia’s strategy is unknown. The rebellion has been going on for over five years and is rooted in legitimate grievances against a brutal dictator that many countries in the region would like to see dead.
While America has concentrated on using local forces, Russia has relied on Assad’s forces and allies like Iran to reconquer lands held by populations hostile to them. Without a real political solution or support from the locals it’s hard to see how the fighting could end. Even if ISIS and the rebel groups lose all of their territory, the grievance still remains.
Given Assad’s limited ability to govern without the help of outside forces, I can’t see how he would be able to control the inevitable insurgency that would arise from a “unified” Syria.