State TV Video Shows Russian Special Forces Fighting on the Ground in Syria, Supposedly Killing ISIS

December 13, 2016
Figures targeted by Russian special forces said to be ISIS fighters. Screen grab from TV Rossiya-1 Vesti Nedelyi, December 11, 2016

Video Shows Russian Special Forces Fighting on the Ground in Syria, Supposedly Killing ISIS

Haaretz and AP have published a video, originally broadcast on Russian TV, of what has been said to be the first confirmed footage of Russian special forces fighting on the ground in Syria.

The footage was aired on December 11 by the Russian TV show Vesti Nedeli, a weekly program on state TV’s channel Rossiya-1 hosted by Dmitry Kiselyov. has published the footage and transcripts of Rossiya-1’s exclusive feature of a spetsnaz colonel describing how Russian forces “liquidate suicide bombers.” [WARNING: GRAPHIC]

President Vladimir Putin and other Russian defense officials have repeatedly said that they are not putting forces to fight on the ground in Syria, but that they are only there to protect Russian airbases and humanitarian aid convoys and to train Syrian and allied forces.

But this footage purportedly shows spetsnaz firing on figures that appear to be militants which Rossiya-1 claims are ISIS fighters (Russia still uses the term “ISIL”). The video shows the Russian spetsnaz firing on a vehicle, then as the fighters inside attempt to escape, they fire on them again until they are convinced that they are dead.

The location of the fighting in Syria is not revealed and we could not determine it from the video. We also cannot be sure if the militants killed are even from ISIS.

It’s important to note that the feature was broadcast just as ISIS fighters were re-taking Palmyra, forcing Syria and Russian forces into retreat, an embarrassment for Russia, which had claimed to liberate Palmyra with great fanfare last May. A broadcast about heroic Russian forces may be intended to distract from the loss of Palmyra, which was recaptured by ISIS this week, even at the risk of finally admitting that Russian forces do engage in combat on the ground.

In this same show, Kiselyov, the Kremlin’s leading propagandist, also picks apart line by line a speech by the British ambassador to the UN protesting against Russia’s veto of a resolution calling for a cease-fire, and questions the British ambassador’s report of a half million people already killed in the war in Syria. 
In other reports this week, TV1 (Channel One), another state news channel, claimed that 300 militants in Aleppo have given up their arms and 2,000 civilians have fled through a humanitarian corridor” and that “the Syrian Army” has “liberated Aleppo,” although the forces taking Aleppo consist of not just the Syrian Army but Russian forces and their allies from Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah. Rossiya-1 further also claims militants are hiding in refugee camps.
It is worth noting that Kiselyov, or for that matter any other TV host, doesn’t warn of graphic footage or shy away from portraying the killing of fighters on the battlefield — they have already been doing this for years with regard to Islamist fighters in the North Caucasus.
The following is a complete translation of the transcript by The Interpreter:
Russian special services [intelligence] have neutralized a gang of ISIL [ISIS] recruiters (an organization banned in Russia). There were just 12 men. They have been taken under arrest. In under a month, this is the second sensational arrest of the enablers of terrorists.
Unfortunately, the world has long ago become transparent for criminals. And our special divisions must fight terrorism not only on the near but the distant approaches. Thus, destroying the bandits in Syria, we protect Russia from them [the link is to footage of militants fighting in Aleppo–The Interpreter].
The militants are firmly entrenched inside. The walls are strong. They are waiting for who dares to attack. They will greet them from ambushes. Our guys hit the target exactly. Snipers are at work. Russian soldiers are on the job. These are the special operations forces in Syria. They have cameras on their helmets and bullet-proof vests wrapped with masking tape. 
The target of the Russian divisions are the radical fighters. Many of them in the Middle East are from the CIS, and at any moment could return to us. It’s a real battle. Ninety meters — and there they are, the very same ISIL fighters, with beards, and machine guns in their hands.
A Russian Defense Ministry special forces colonel recounts:
“These were so-called shakhidy [suicide bombers–The Interpreter], armed with suicide belts. They are well-equipped: communications devices, a radio station, weapons, and an off-loader. Ball-bearings packed with plastique, a detonation wire which was placed in a convenient place to carry out a blast. They severed the detonation wire in order to disable the explosive device. He was prepared to liquidate himself, and was destroyed with the first shot.”
On his helmet are marks from shrapnel. A mine blew up six meters a way. On the tape is the flag of their own Airborne Division (VDV), where he began service. The man in front of the laptop is a commander of the Russian Defense Ministry’s special divisions. The intelligence service of ISIL (an organization banned in Russia) is prepared to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for any information about the Russian colonel. How many people under his command, what vehicle he drives, what time he gets up in the morning, what streets he moves through. But even his wife does not know where the officer is much of the time.
During his entire assignment — and this runs two or three months and sometimes a half year — there is no communication with relatives. Those he can communicate with are the command and a radio operator in a temporary headquarters. The soldiers are almost always in the rear-guard of the terrorist and therefore any emission — from cell phones, tablets, or laptops with Internet — is a beacon to the enemy.
“The warlords usually hide in their strongholds. They can be found in population centers where they hide behind the population,” says the Russian Defense MInistry special division colonel.

There are often only a matter of hours to study the location. As the colonel says:

“One of the most vivid examples — one of the field commanders was destroyed. We obtained information that he was moving between his divisions in an automobile with guards. We went out to a section of the road at night and organized an ambush. We waited for two nights. He appeared only on the third night. After a defeat by fire, the guards tried to leave their leader and escape. They were destroyed by snipers.”
This was back in November of last year when they went out in a group to look for the pilot of the downed Russian Su-24, Maj. Konstantin Murakhtin.
“We were deployed at the end of the searches. He was located in an area between positions, between divisions of the Syrian Army and the militants. The militants were also actively looking for him,” the colonel recalls.
Russian snipers are always nearby in such operations. There is cover, some ruins. Here two are covered with sacks of rocks in an abandoned building. One is a spotter, he has a wide-angle surveillance device, that is, he can see at a distance of a kilometer, for example, not just a window, but the entire headquarters of the militants. The second is the shooter, he has the opposite, a narrow angle, seeing every centimeter in detail. There are often only seconds to hit the target while the militant is in cover.
As the colonel described:
“For days, snipers conduct surveillance of the enemy’s positions and detect the commanders by characteristic signs. Any commander in any division behaves in a certain way. He will definitely have the communications devices, the radio station. He gives the orders to the positions and gestures with his hands. There was a moment when several of the enemy’s machine-gunners would not let the Syrian Army divisions occupy a commanding height. With the help of our snipers, they were destroyed, and the Syrian division successfully completed its mission.”
In order to reach places where you cannot go without losses, to not risk lives, they send in so-called robots.
Some of the militants’ control posts are taken apart right in the middle of the desert. There is a tent, and underneath, catacombs. For such cases, our soldiers have night-vision devices and laser sights. And that’s only what we can speak of. The total equipment is a military secret.
“The most important is our technical superiority. We use thermal imaging systems. The enemy is blind, he walks along and doesn’t see,” says the colonel.
The eyes and ears of the military are the observers. They hunt for covers, climbing up on buildings as close as possible to the front, and the local architecture enables this — on the roofs, there is often a so-called parapet which they hide behind. Behind a protective net, the observers watch for days, from which building the militants have brought out shells, in what direction they went, where the one commanding all of them has gone.
As soon as they discover a target, they will conduct additional surveillance. Mistakes are not allowed. Even in the job of the spotters. They approach the target to a distance of several kilometers and lay somewhere on the side of the road. Then immediately there’s the signal to the pilots.
The spotters, the observers, the snipers, the special task soldiers — before heading out on a combat assignment, they go through training both in Syria and in secret bases in Russia. Operations are honed round the clock regardless of weather conditions, even if there is snow up to their knees.
A large number of combat operations in Syria take place out in the open, where there is practically no cover. Thus, according to the story, in one of the buildings the head of a bandit group is hiding and along with him are several guards. The most important thing is to approach as close as possible without being detected. Now there are only seconds until the destruction of the terrorists.
To land on the water in a wetsuit with an aqualung, swim to the boat undetected and climb up on it, no matter how high the side is, and jump from a height of 4 kilometers with a parachute, in oxygen masks, and with 30 kilograms each of anti-tank systems — this is all a compulsory minimum for spetsnaz soldiers. The divisions report personally to the minister of defense about all operations.
As the colonel emphasizes:
“We sense that behind us is a great state which has equipped us, trained us and sent us to fulfill an assignment. Accordingly, we have a great responsibility to perform these assignments. Our friendly comrades from Syria look upon us like gods, they think that ten men will defeat everyone. We have to fulfill all these assignments exactly on time.”
Heroism, courage, bravery — the full list of merits of the Russian colonel cannot be fit even into a military order. The title of Hero of Russia which was awarded him by decree of the president — he says — is the merit of the entire division. It’s lucky it is commanded by the best.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick