The previous post in our Putin in Syria blog can be found here.
Novaya Gazeta has published an article today, September 21 on how the Russian military is weighing all the possibilities for delivering a strike on ISIS in the coming week. The Interpreter has made a full translation of the article:
Events in and around Syria are rapidly developing. On Friday [September 18], the first direct telephone conversations in seven months between the defense ministers of Russia and the US took place. Sergei Shoigu and Ashton Carter spoke for about 50 minutes. According to White House spokespersons, the conversation was about those areas where the interests of the countries coincide. Evidently, the reference was to combating the terrorist threat.
On the same day, Syria’s armed forces made its most powerful bombing in recent times in the area of the city of Palmyra seized by ISIS militants. (ISIS is a terrorist organization whose activity is banned by court order in Russia.) The Islamists, in turn, executed 56 Syrian military POWs.
The world is on the threshold of great changes.
Novaya Gazeta sources in the offices of military planning and troop deployment of the RF Armed Forces report that Russian specialists with experience in planning operations under conditions of modern maneuvered war with a low concentration of forces are studying the possibility of demonstrating the instruments available to the Kremlin for armed combat in Syria. According to one source, “the operational situation in Syria to some extent is similar to the armed conflict in the ATO zone” [a reference to Ukraine’s Anti-Terrorist Operation–The Interpreter].
The main idea consists of implementing some action confirming the seriousness of Russia’s intentions either on the eve of, or immediately after President Vladimir Putin’s speech at the UN General Assembly on September 28. Options are being reviewed for an air missile strike; a local ground operation of Syrian forces with the support of modern war technology serving our military (a raid, the seizure of an important facility, and so on); a series of artillery strikes. The main and indispensable condition is the effectiveness and visibility, and not the scale.
President at the UN
On the eve of the Russian president’s speech, in which he is highly likely to call international terrorism in the person of ISIS humanity’s main enemy, and propose instead of confrontation the unification of forces, the views of Western military on the Syrian conflict are distinguished by a certain ambivalence. Everyone acknowledges that without a ground operation, the problem of ISIS cannot be resolved even partially, but they dispute the capacities of Russia and do not wish for an increase in its role in this conflict. Air strikes on the terrorists’ positions are being conducted constantly by NATO countries, but substantial changes in the operational situation are not recorded.
In answer to Novaya Gazeta‘s question, can any success be achieved without concentrating an operationally significant group of Russian Armed Forces in Syria, the minimal number of which Western specialists define as several thousands, our sources noted that from the military perspective, this is an extremely non-trivial task. The operation may be conducted in coordination with armed formations of other sides (the armies of Syria and Iran, Kurds, Alawites, Christians and so on) but without experience of cooperation and firm trust between commanders it is difficult to achieve success. Therefore, according to our source, “if there is no firm assurance of success, it is better not to start.” And “although the best minds have been brought in to the planning, it is not a fact at all that the strike will be delivered.” Such a failure would cause significant damage to the Kremlin’s diplomatic offensive in proposing to bring international efforts in Syria to a new level.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
The following is a cross-post from the Oryx Blog.
Amid a range of reports of sightings of Russian military personnel and
equipment used in combat in Syria, Russia’s role in the conflict
escalated sharply with the confirmation of Russian aircraft and armoured
vehicles being flown in by the dozens. Coinciding with the renovation
of Hmeemeem/Bassel al-Assad IAP for use as a Russian military base, Il-76
strategic airlifters or (more likely) Il-78 aerial refuelling planes
have been sighted escorting military aircraft such as the Su-30SM and
Su-24M2 over Syria, together with An-124 strategic airlifters reportedly
carrying at least two Mi-17 and two Mi-24/35 helicopters amongst a
range of other weaponry.
The airfield, formerly housing around a dozen Syrian Arab Air Force
(SyAAF) Mi-14 and Ka-28 naval helicopters until their departure in
recent weeks, is swiftly being expanded both in size by the
construction of new helicopter pads and a taxiway as well as in its
defensive structure to cope with the influx of Russian aircraft and
equipment and help secure the base from any future rebel offensive.
Although this expansion was previously noted by various media, it was
not until the 19th of September that satellite imagery confirmed the
presence of Russian fighter aircraft sitting unprotected on the runway,
their shelters not having been built yet.
Aside from the four Su-30SM advanced jet fighters photographed at the
time, video footage shows what appear to be another four Su-24
fighter-bombers closely escorting an Il-78 and possibly four more
Su-27/30 aircraft flying in similar fashion above Northern Homs on the
20th and 19th of September respectively, highly likely heading for
Hmeemeem/Bassel al-Assad IAP in closeby Lattakia as well. Because their
flight to Syria takes them over airspaces closed to Russian military
aircraft, such as that of Bulgaria and Turkey, the jets fly in close
formation next to the accompanying Il-78, thereby avoiding detection by
most radar systems. Another possibility is that the aircraft flew over
the Caspian sea, through Iran and Iraq, a theory which would explain the
approach taken by the planes over Homs but which would seem like a
risky strategy considering the large amount of foreign aircraft
currently active over Iraq and Syria. It is known the first batch of
four Su-30SMs crossed Greek airspace however, so it is likely both
routes are used.
An unconfirmed image from the 18th of September as well as comments made
by a U.S. official on the deployment of four Russian Air Force Sukhoi
jets to Syria suggest at least three batches of aircraft have so far
been flown in: Together comprising four Su-30SMs, four Su-24M2s and
another four as of yet unidentified aircraft, possibly also of the
The Su-30SM brings with it capabilities previously unavailable to the
SyAAF, and will allow the Russian Air Force (RuAF) to closely follow any
offensives or defensive actions. Information acquired can be relayed
back to ground-forces, the Su-30SM thus acting as a flying command
platform. The wide array of both guided and unguided weaponry available
to the Su-30SM makes it an extremely versatile aircraft well suited to
the Syrian battlefield. However, the fact that these aircraft represent
some of the most modern fighters in use by the RuAF, capable of both
ground-attack sorties as well as air-to-air engagements, might allude to
another reason for their choice. Having just concluded the first talks
with U.S. counterparts on the Syrian conflict right before the first
sighting of these fighters, their presence in Syria delivers a strong
message to the world.
Although less capable than the Su-30SM, the stationing of Su-24M2s is
little surprising given the SyAAF is also operating this variant, which
were all recently upgraded from MK standard to M2 standard in Rzhev,
Russia. 819 Squadron, responsible for operating the Su-24M2 in Syrian
service, continues to fly with eleven operational airframes based at T4,
Central Syria. The possible housing of RuAF Su-24M2s at this airbase
would help ease logistics, and making use of the extensive
infrastructure already available there would be a sensible choice.
This combined force has the capability of quickly changing the situation
on the ground by mass bombardments, depending on the ultimate amount of
aircraft stationed in Syria. Any rebel offensive could be stopped dead
in its tracks, or their defences could be blown away during one of
Russia’s or the regime’s offensives.
Other heavy equipment is reportedly being flown in at the same time,
with previous satellite imagery dating back to September 15th reportedly
showing some 26 APC/IFVs, 6 MBTs, four new helicopters and large
amounts of trucks and other equipment scattered across the airfield. Photographs
taken on the 17th of September at Novosibirsk show two Mi-24/35
helicopter gunships and at least one Mi-17 transport helicopter being
loaded into an An-124 transport aircraft (serial RA-82035), which was
subsequently tracked over Syria on the 18th before landing at Mozdok
again in the evening, suggesting an intensive air bridge is currently
active. The presence of Il-76 and An-124 transport planes on the
satellite imagery of September 15th and reports of the dozens of flights
to Syria such aircraft have been making the past month supports this
theory, meaning the current inflow of weaponry might just be the start
of a massive deployment of Russian forces to Syria.
The news of increased military involvement by the Russian Federation in
the Syrian conflict certainly does not come out of the blue: A flurry of
reports ranging from the downing of Russian drones
in late July to the delivery of (likely Russian-operated) Pantsir-S1
air defence systems earlier this month all testify of what is shaping up
to be a major surge in backing for the Syrian regime. Interestingly,
videos first showing a recently delivered Russian BTR-82A IFV, later of an R-116-0.5 signals vehicle and now of two T-55s (one with a North Korean
laser-range finder) in the Lattakia governorate all seem to show
equipment being operated by (or in the last case, simply ridden by)
Russian military personnel, indicating the Russian Army will be directly
involved in combat situations. From these developments it is clear that
Russia will not allow the regime to succumb from rebel offensives, and
despite the fact that the war is far from being fought, it would appear
the reality is that Assad will remain in power for the foreseeable
One Russian contract soldier at the 720th material technical supply station (PMTO) of the Russian Navy in Tartus told Kommersant that at the outset of the Syrian crisis, there were only a few Russians, but now there are more than 1,700 specialists. “They are equipping and guarding the facility, and rebuilding the pier,” he said. The tour of duty for this soldier was three months, after which he expected to be rotated out.
There are indeed plans to develop the supply station, a source in the Russian General Staff told Kommersant, denying, however any connection between this modernizing of the facility and “preparing a military intervention” (translation by The Interpreter):
“It’s just that the PMTO can accept simultaneously ships of the first (destroyer) and second (large landing ship) rank from the Russian Mediterranean Group.”
Back in August 2010, Vladimir Vysotsky, commander-in-chief of the Russian Navy reported that the port in Tartus could receive heavy ships after 2012, including cruisers and aircraft carriers:
“It will be developed first as a stationing area and then as a base for the Navy. The first stage of development and modernization will be completed in 2012.”
The civil war in Syria delayed these plans several years, says Kommersant.
Kommersant noted Stratfor’s report based on satellite photos claiming that the air strip in Latakia was being expanded and reinforced and that air towers were being erected to receive air traffic, notably heavy transport aircraft. The Pentagon also said they had information that a forward-deployed airbase was being readied in Latakia.
On September 16, the Russian General Staff stated that Moscow is not planning to create a military air base in Syria. But Nikola Bodanovsky, first deputy head of the General Staff said “anything can happen.”
On September 18, presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow was reviewing an appeal from the Syrian government to send Russian forces to Syria to combat ISIS terrorists:
“If there will be an appeal, then in the framework of bi-lateral contacts, in the framework of a bilateral dialogue, naturally it will bee discussed and reviewed. For now it is difficult to say anything hypothetically.”
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said Russian support was limited to deliveries of military vehicles and training of Syrian soldiers. He said Damascus was requesting that Moscow send soldiers to fight shoulder-to-shoulder with Syrian military if that was needed. But Muallem emphasized:
“The Syrian army is capable of combat for now, and frankly speaking, what we need is ammunition and quality armaments in order to oppose the quality armaments that the terrorist groups are using.”
Russian and Syrian military cooperation has a long history, going back to the Soviet era in 1956, and by 1991 involved military aid of $26 billion, says Kommersant. Aid has continued since then with 300 T-72A tanks in 1992-1993 ($270 million); deliveries of AKS-74U and AK-74M machine guns and the Konkurs anti-tank missile system as well as various types of grenade launchers. In the last 10 years, contracts have been signed for the Kornet-E, the Metis-M, MiG29M/M2 destroyers and Yak-130 training planes as well as anti-aircraft systems S-300PMU2, Buk-M2E and Pantsir-S1s (the latter cover the air space over the presidential palace and the air base in west Damascus.
According to a source close to Rosoboroneksport who spoke to Kommersant, the Russian arms export agency, from 2010-211, Damascus received two divisions of Bastion-P coastal missile systems (index K-3OOP) (NATO reporting name SSC-5 Stooge)
There have also been talks on deliveries of T-80U tanks; Su-27 destroyers and other anti-aircraft defense systems but this has not resulted in large contracts yet.
“The ongoing civil war since 2011, pressure from the US, Israel and Turkey and also a banal lack of money has made Syria far from the most convenient partner for military-technical cooperation,” says Kommersant.
According to Kommersant‘s sources, cooperation continues nonetheless; a delivery of 9 MiG-29M/M2 destroyers are scheduled for 2016 and another 3 for 2017. The first batch of Yak-130s are essentially ready to go. No new big contracts are foreseen, say Kommersant‘s sources; all armaments and vehicles are being delivered to Damascus in fulfillment of previously-signed contracts — “only for the battle against terrorism and to protect their borders,” says Kommersant. And as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said, Moscow “never made this a secret.” Such deliveries are “inevitably accompanied by Russian specialists who help install the relevant equipment and train Syrian personnel.”
Kommersant notes how President Barack Obama said he didn’t have a heads up about a State Department demand to the transit countries of Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey and Iraq to close their air space to Russian planes to Syria. He was upset about it and told his aides to work out a consensus plan to react to Russia’s increased presence in Syria.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mariya Zakharova gave an interview to Reuters complaining that the US was discussing the issue publicly through media; Kommersant said she characterized it “international impudence.”
Yet as Kommersant notes, the White House, Pentagon and State Department all repeatedly criticized Russia for helping the Syrian government; White House spokesman John Earnest called Assad a “losing bet for Russia.” State Department representative Mark Toner said the US would “welcome Russia’s constructive role” in fighting ISIS in Syria. But he made clear that constructive role was ceasing support of Assad; “any (Russian) effort to prop up Assad so he can continue to attack civilians … we would consider counterproductive and detrimental to any kind of peaceful solution,” USA Today quoted him as saying.
Zakharova then retorted in an interview with Rossiya 24 TV that it was the government of Syria, not personally Assad that needed help. If Syria is to avoid turning into a second Libya after the overthrow of Qaddafi, the situation will be more complicated. “An explosion of Syria from within will lead to catastrophic consequences for the region,” and a direct threat to Russia’s national security, she warned.
US Secretary of State John Kerry has had three telephone calls with Lavrov in the last two weeks on combating terrorist and the future of Syria; on September 18, the first telephone since the onset of the Ukrainian war has taken place between US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said the perspectives of the two sides “are close or coincide on the majority of issues under review.” Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said the 50-minute discussion was “constructive.”
Kommersant has also referenced rumors in the German media that last week, a delegation of American intelligence officials visited Moscow, but said it could not confirm this claim.
US and Russian positions diverge on the issue of Assad: the US has said that continuing Russian support means the escalation of the conflict even as it “welcomes” Russian assistance to battle ISIS; Putin has said that Russia will go on “supporting the government of Syria in opposing terrorist aggression, is providing and will go on providing it with the necessary military and technical assistance.” Putin calls on other countries to join him as leading the initiative to unite all regional forces (and that includes Assad’s own) to fight ISIS.
Dmitry Trenin believes cooperation between the US and Russia is “realistic,” says Kommersant:
“The creation of the broad anti-terrorist coalition about which Vladimir Putin is speaking is impossible — the Americans will never agree to make Assad their ally. Yet cooperation between Russia and the US is quite possible in fighting ISIS; for example in the form of coordinating actions so that Russian planes and planes run by the US coalition do not bomb each other. And also in the form of the exchange of intelligence — the enemy, after all, is the same.”
Trenin believes such cooperation must be “transparent”; the US was concerned that Moscow could provide help to Assad in fighting the opposition, some of which the Americans themselves supported. “But once the Russian side assured them that its actions in Syria are aimed at the battle against terrorism, the Americans became more loyal,” i.e. cooperative, he said.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
The video in Oryx’s post was also posted by Ivan Sidorenkoo to his YouTube channel of Arabic videos and discussed by Russian bloggers.
InformNapalm, a regional conflict news blog in the Russian and English languages maintained by former military, journalists, analysts and activists has posted some additional analysis of the BTR conducted by Mikhail Net titled “The Novorossiya-Syrian Team of the Russian Armed Forces”:
It is known that the armored combat vehicles BTR-82A were taken into use mainly by priority Russian military units, motorized rifle and intelligence brigade battalions. In the Southern Military District units these are the 7th occupational military base (occupied Abkhazia, Georgia), the 136th brigade (Republic of Dagestan), the 20th brigade (Republic of Chechnya); in the Central Military District – the 15th ‘Peacemakers’ brigade (Roshchinskiy, Samara Oblast), the 23rd brigade (Totskoye, Orenburg Oblast); in the Western Military District – the 27th brigade (Mosrentgen, Moscow Region).
Mikhail Net found the closest similarity of the BTR was with armored combat vehicles of the 27th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade (OMSBR) (unit no. 61899 based in the Moscow Region).
Pictures of the BTR-82A with camouflage and white board numbers identical to the pattern in the video were found:
InformNapalm was also able to find additional confirmation of the deployment of Russian soldiers to Syria on the Russia social media site Mamasoldata.mybb.ru
Read more at InformNapalm in English.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick