It was precisely one month after the Russian airplanes stationed at Syria’s Bassel al-Assad airport, also known as Hmeymim, near Latakia, began to drop bombs on the terrorists in Syria, when representatives of 19 countries gathered in Vienna and agreed on the fundamental provisions for a political settlement in that country, which has spent five years plagued by a war foisted upon it by outside forces. The operations by Russia’s Aerospace Forces have not only been successful militarily – they have precipitated a major political triumph.
Russian assistance to Syria arrived in the nick of time. By the fifth year of the war, the Syrian army had been significantly weakened by heavy fighting against the «moderate opposition» – which had been armed by the Americans and their allies – and Islamic State (IS) militia groups. According to some estimates, by the summer of 2015 Bashar al-Assad possessed no more than 80,000 armed troops still loyal to his government.
The war had also depleted the Syrian army’s stockpiles of military equipment. T-72 tanks were a common sight in photos of the fighting taken between 2011 and 2013, but now the footage from Syria shows T-55 and T-54 tanks, most of which were in storage before the war. Only a quarter of the airplanes and even fewer helicopters remain of the army’s pre-war fleet.
Judging by reports published in the media, Moscow seems to have begun to supply the Syrian armed forces with new armored vehicles, jeeps, etc., back in 2013. But in the summer of 2015 Russian military and technical assistance to Syria expanded significantly.
At that time, less than a quarter of the country was under the control of forces loyal to the government – this included Damascus, its suburbs, most of the regions bordering Lebanon, the strategically important Mediterranean coast where the ports receive Syrian-bound military and humanitarian assistance, and also several small enclaves throughout the country.
The notorious «moderate opposition» currently holds two major regions: one on the Israeli-Syrian border and the other adjacent to Turkey, where anti-government forces have seized major cities such as Aleppo and Idlib. IS militants control a large swath of the country, most significantly – the Euphrates river basin. In addition, a number of important supply lines in central and eastern Syria are under the control of the Islamists. They have captured the now virtually nonexistent border with Iraq as well, where they also hold a number of regions. The group Jabhat al-Nusra has blocked the road between Damascus and Aleppo, in the area of Idlib. And lastly, a significant portion of the Syrian-Turkish border is under the control of Syrian Kurdish militias.
While Russia’s Aerospace Defense Forces were attacking the militia groups, as well as their strongholds, headquarters, and fuel depots, preparations were underway on the ground for a counteroffensive by the Syrian army. On Oct. 8, it was announced that the newly created Syrian Army’s 4th Assault Corps had begun an offensive in the northern province of Hama, the al-Ghab plains, and the mountains of northeastern Latakia. On the night of Oct. 12, the army took the offensive in the suburbs of Damascus and in the provinces of Aleppo and Homs. The army’s actions were carefully coordinated with the actions of the Russian group, which increased its number of flights (averaging 70 per day by Oct. 12, they continued to increase over the following weeks).
According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, Russian planes have flown 1,391 sorties in the last month. Strikes have been launched against 1,623 militant targets, including 249 command and communications centers of various levels, 51 training camps, 131 warehouses, 35 manufacturing facilities, 371 military positions, and 786 camps and bases.
From a military-strategic point of view, the actions of Russia’s Aerospace Defense Forces have helped to eliminate the danger of the militia groups breaking through to Syria’s Mediterranean coast. One problem was solved – no longer was there a threat to the Russian naval facility in Tartus that receives material and technical supplies or to the Hmeymim air base through which aid is delivered to the Syrian armed forces. The commanders of the Russian Navy recently announced that dredging operations at Tartus are almost completed, which will enable large vessels to enter the port. This will allow more aid into Syria, and Tartus itself will become more strategically significant.
From a military-political point of view, the actions by Russia’s aviation have stabilized the position of the Syrian army, frustrating the plans of those who were counting on its defeat and Syria’s subsequent dissolution as a state.
A resolution to the larger problem – which would entail the complete defeat of the terrorists inside Syria, the creation of an environment conducive to peaceful life, and the beginnings of the country’s reconstruction – is still far off, but what’s most important is that the tide has turned on the Syrian front. The terrorists have begun to relinquish their positions.
Iran is providing the Syrian government forces with additional manpower. In late October thousands of soldiers and officers from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) began to move into Syria. They will continue to train new Syrian divisions, and some of them will be directly involved in the military operations to liberate the country.
In a nutshell, we can say that the use of Russian aircraft in Syria has been unexpected and effective. Foreign military analysts have also given high marks to the actions of the Russian naval fleet, which used warships in the Caspian Sea to successfully launch Kalibr cruise missiles against terrorist targets. NATO no longer holds a monopoly on noncontact combat operations or the use of cruise missiles.
And there’s another point that should be noted. When attacked by Russian planes and Syrian tanks, some gangs of militants began to retreat back into populated areas, trying to hide among the civilian population. Faced with this situation, the Russian military commanders decided to refrain from using combat aircraft against urban targets. Instead, the attacks were continued using Mi-24 helicopters that can fly at low altitudes, targeting terrorists with the precision of a Swiss watch. This makes it possible to continue the liberation of the occupied regions of Syria and to prevent terrorists from gaining a foothold in the cities, while at the same time avoiding casualties among the civilians that the militants are trying to use as human shields.