By William Tucker
Chief Correspondent for In Homeland Security
In recent days, international media has been leading with stories covering the initial Russian airstrikes in Syria. Despite claiming that the military action was intended to counter ISIS, Russian aircraft have struck anti-Assad militants with no connection to the infamous terror organization.
On Thursday, one airstrike hit an ISIS target, while the rest were once again levied against anti-Assad rebels. Russian officials have since clarified that all anti-Assad militants are fair game and the goal of the intervention was to support the Assad regime. Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, stated, “At the request of the Syrian government, we’re helping them to fight ISIS and other terrorist groups.”
It is now clear, if it wasn’t previously, that those “other terrorist groups” includes any movement opposed to the Assad regime. Unfortunately, this would seem to include civilians as 36 noncombatants were killed on Wednesday. Early video of the airstrikes do indicate that Russian airstrikes are rather inaccurate, thus we can expect more collateral damage. The airstrikes may not be utilizing any sort of guided munitions, but there is also the possibility that the intelligence provided by the Syrian military is faulty or outdated. Either way the results of the airstrikes thus far are rather lackluster. This does, however, allow for some analysis into Russian military capabilities.
Russia has long relied on armor and artillery in many of its campaigns – Ukraine being a more recent example – but during the 2008 war with Georgia some air strikes were conducted alongside the aforementioned ground systems. These airstrikes in Georgia were rather revealing in two areas of note. First, Russia didn’t conduct any suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD) operations which resulted in the loss of a Tupolev Tu-22MR bomber and several other aircraft, and second, the sites that were hit suggest that Russia suffered from intelligence gaps regarding their targets or guidance issues with their air to ground munitions.
Because of the poor state of the Georgian military, the ground forces moved unimpeded, and as such, close air support may not have been called upon in any significant measure. The Russian military also didn’t have adequate communications gear during the conflict which raises the possibility that ground forces couldn’t have called for air support even if they needed it. In Syria, Russia may not have to worry about SEAD operations, however they have pledged to support the Syrian army on the ground. If these communications and intelligence issues haven’t been adequately addressed, then its possible that friendly fire could be a very real problem for ground forces relying on Russian air support.
Though Russia has claimed it will not use any ground troops in Syria it did call up 150,000 conscripted soldiers the same day that Moscow initiated airstrikes. The Kremlin has denied that these troops will be used in Syria, and that may indeed be true considering the current conflict in Ukraine is quiet, but ongoing;however it is a development worth noting nonetheless. Further reports of troop movements suggest that Iran has moved a large number of its troops to Syria through Lebanon. Though this hasn’t yet been independently confirmed it wouldn’t be outlandish though the numbers that have been suggested may have been inflated.
Iran has dedicated its military and intelligence apparatus to defending the Assad regime in Syria and has fought a protracted war with ISIS in Iraq with the assistance of numerous Shiite militias. Any movement of Iranian military assets to Syria at this point shouldn’t come as a surprise. There are a lot of moving parts in these recent developments and the fact that these militaries that are fighting under the aegis of a Russian coalition haven’t fought together in real world conditions could certainly be problematic not just for the combatants, but also for the civilians that can’t escape the bloodshed.
Watching the effectiveness of the airstrikes is one thing, but communications amongst the members of the Russian coalition and the condition of overall military equipment are other issues worth monitoring. Granted, Russia may not have long term plans for combat in Syria and it is likely they are limited to alleviating some of the more pressing fronts facing the Assad regime, yet even limited combat will be revealing. Russia still has to maintain its aircraft on the ground and the new equipment being delivered to the Syrian military will have to be maintained and supplied as well. For the Syrian army this maintenance of new equipment will be vital and will require a Russian presence for maintenance if not direct support of combat operations. The Syrian military has been hit hard after four years of civil war and will have to be adapted to the new equipment on the fly, as it were, and reorganized to be effective over the long term. A Russian presence in some capacity will be required for this integration.
Ultimately, Russia has been successful in many of its recent military ventures – save Ukraine – not because of a modern and overwhelming military force, rather because it has skillfully used its intelligence arm to force a political change. In most cases the military has simply played a support role. This means that we can’t judge the Russian military by western standards and instead must view Russian military might from a Russian perspective. In essence, can the Russian military meet Moscow’s needs? If the Russian coalition succeeds in changing the reality on the ground and forcing a political settlement that meets Moscow’s interests, then yes, the military is capable enough.
However, if Russia cannot change the dynamic on the ground in Syria, then Russian military capability, at least in this type of deployment could be questioned. Russian will still be able to influence or threaten its neighbors that share a border just as it always has, but adventures far from home in the middle of a declining economy and long term demographics issues will be a thing of the past for Moscow. This Syrian deployment will likely be quite telling.
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