The active phase of Russia’s military campaign in Syria is over. Russian President Vladimir Putin told his visiting Syrian counterpart, Bashar al-Assad, on Nov.21 that the operation against terrorists in Syria is coming to an end, with the focus shifting to a political process. The Russian president ordered a partial withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria during a visit to the war-torn country on Dec.11. Now the time has come for diplomats, not guns, to talk.
Russia’s victory in Syria is one of the main events of this century and, probably, the only example of successful military operation achieved in a short period of time with positive results, paving the way for negotiation process.
When the operation was launched in September 2015, President Bashar Assad was on the verge of collapse, his forces losing on all fronts. It was predicted that Russia would slide into a protracted conflict, which would be sapping its resources while producing no results. Many believed that Russia’s military was incapable of sustaining a long-term deployment far from Russia’s shores.
Those predictions were wrong. The operation is a success story. Syria has not turned out to be a quagmire for Russia, no rerun Afghanistan. Doomsayers have been proven to be wrong.
The Syrian government has become stronger and is firmly in power, the Islamic State is routed and the remnants of jihadist rebel forces control only a part of the Idlib province being reduced to insignificance.
The victory was achieved with very limited forces employed. No significant deployments of Russian troops have taken place. The casualties are minimal – 41 men in two years. The Aerospace Forces group was estimated at 30-50 combat aircraft and 16-40 helicopters on average. The operational tempo was very high during the active phase – up to 100 sorties delivering around 250 strikes. As of late September, the Airspace Forces had flown 30,650 combat sorties in Syria delivering around 92,000 strikes against 96,800 terrorist targets. 53,700 terrorists had been eliminated. All in all, Russia has lost three airplanes. One was hit by a Turkish plane and two aircraft carrier-based airplanes –Su-33 and MiG-29K – were lost as a result of accidents, not enemy fire. Russian drones have flown about 15,000 sorties.
Special forces teams have been active ever since the start of the Russian operation in Syria. They not only call in air and cruise missile strikes but also take part directly in armed clashes with terrorists.
The Russian forces have been well-supplied by cargo planes landing daily and ships arriving at the Mediterranean ports of Tartus and Latakia.
As a result, terrorist formations have been cut off from supply routes. And financial flows as illegal oil shipments had been stopped.
The training provided by Russian advisers has greatly enhanced the Syrian personnel’s professional skills, enabling the government forces to score one victory after another. Russian support personnel and special operators often accompanied Syrian army units in combat. Russia high-ranking officers and generals on train, advice and assist missions often led Syrian troops to victories sharing their experience and expertise. The personnel of the 5th Volunteer Assault Corps – the Syrian Army’s main strike force – was recruited by Russia commanders hand-picking the right candidates and equipped with Russian hardware.
Almost all senior Russian military commanders have received combat experience in Syria. Many have learned how to command joint forces and organize humanitarian operations. As of September 2017, 86% of the Aerospace Forces' flying personnel gained combat experience, including long-range aviation crews: 75%, tactical aviation crews: 79%, military transport aviation: 88%. 89% of Army aviation crews have also served in Syria.
Syria has become a testing ground for Russian weapon systems, many of them offered for sale to other countries. The Aerospace Forces used Su-24M and Su-25 attack aircraft, Su-34 fighter-bombers, Tu-22M3, Tu-160 and Tu-95 long-range strategic bombers, Su-27SM, Su-30SM and Su-35S multirole fighters, MiG-31 interceptors, Mi-8, Mi-24, Mi-28N, Ka-52 combat helicopters, A-50 early warning aircraft, Tu-214R reconnaissance aircraft, Il-20M1 electronic intelligence and electronic warfare aircraft. All in all, Russia has tested over 160 weapons in Syria, with only 10 of them performing below expectations.
The Russian aircraft use the new SVP-24 special computing subsystem to enhance the precision of the strikes. It is installed on Tu-22M, Su-24M and Su-25 combat aircraft. The subsystem uses GLONASS satellite navigation system to constantly compare the position of the aircraft and the target. It measures the environmental parameters and receives information from datalinks to compute an «envelope» (speed, altitude, course) inside which a gravity bomb is automatically released at the precise moment. Even if GLONASS were jammed, the countless sensors would allow the computer to give a targeting solution. As a result, the gravity bombs strike with the same precision as modern guided munitions.
Lessons learned from their Syrian operation are taken home and that knowledge is incorporated. The Syrian campaign showed that Russia’s new advanced Su-34, Su-35S , and the Su-30SM—required minor modifications to their flight controls and engines as a result of combat experience. The problems were corrected on the spot. The performance of the Su-34 using weapons like the KAB-500S GLONASS-guided bomb and guided missiles like the Kh-25ML and the Kh-29L, was impressive enough to earn an award for Sergei Smirnov, the director of the Novosibirsk Aircraft Production Association. Mi-24P helicopters are also engaged, strafing enemy positions at low altitude while firing off flares to avoid being hit by man portable surface-to-air missiles. SU-35s have also been selling particularly well. China purchased 24 of them in November 2015, Indonesia purchased 10 in April 2016, and the United Arab Emirates also bought 10 in March.
Russia's newest Kh-101 air-to-surface cruise missiles – the most modern weapon, with high-precision and high-power, and a decent range of 4,500 kilometers – showed a very high degree of reliability. They were launched by Tu-95 and Tu-160 strategic bombers.
The ability to fire long-range sea and air-launched cruise missiles shows that Russia no longer has to rely exclusively on nuclear weapons.
Among the sophisticated weapons Russia used in Syria, the Kalibr sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCM) launched from surface and underwater platforms against land-based stationary targets located at the distance of more than 1,500 km away, has prompted the keenest interest. Frigates, corvettes and submarines in the Mediterranean Sea and four in the Caspian Sea served as platforms to launch the weapon. The launches from the vertical launch systems (VLS) of the surface combatants and the torpedo tubes of the submarine were smooth. There is no doubt that the usage of the Kalibr missiles during the operation in Syria will drastically increase the export potential of the weapon.
The Krasnopol 152-mm cannon-launched, fin-stabilized, base bleed-assisted, semi-automatic laser-guided, explosive projectile is another weapon to, be mentioned here. The range is 30km. It automatically 'homes' on a point illuminated by a laser designator, typically operated by a ground-based artillery observer. It is fired mainly from Russian self-propelled howitzers such as the 2S3 Akatsiya and 2S19 Msta-S and intended to engage ground targets such as tanks, artillery pieces, and strong-points. The kill probability is 90% to make it a perfect weapon for urban warfare.
The T-90 tank has proven to be a very efficient workhorse. It has survived and remained operational even after being hit by US-made TOW anti-tank missiles launched by terrorists.
The 15Ts56M BPDM, or Typhoon-M anti-sabotage armoured vehicles could overcome any terrain to deliver troops (16 men) and cargo where needed at the speed of 110km/h. The combat experience in Syria has shown that it can withstand direct hits from rocket-propelled grenades. It is also effective for humanitarian operations.
The operation in Syria highlighted the lack of large landing ships. France refused to comply with its contract to sell to Russia two Mistral amphibious assault ships under US pressure to punish Moscow for reunifying with Crimea. Russia has managed to cope with the problem without outside help. Ivan Gren, a large amphibious ship is going through the final trials before joining service with Russian Navy. That’s how lessons learnt translate into deeds.
The experience acquired and lessons learned from using air power, modern technology and special operations will define Russia’s military planning for years to come. The operation has completely turned the tide in Syria. It has deprived the terrorists of a major part of their revenues, severely undermining their capabilities in recruiting new adherents, buying weapons and disseminating jihadist ideology. The success has created the conditions for launching Russia’s initiative to promote a cease-fire between the Syrian government and “moderate” opposition groups. Battlefields have turned into de-escalation zones promoted by the Russia, Turkey, and Iran-led Astana peace process. The hope of Syrians for normal life has been revived. Moscow has turned into the leading mediator to smooth differences between pertinent actors involved in the Syrian conflict. Russia is to host the Syria "Congress of Syrian National Dialogue" this month to bring together all the parties to the Syria’s conflict.
The military operation in Syria has also reaffirmed Russia’s status as a global superpower capable of projecting force far from its own borders. Its regional footprint comes with a degree of clout to make it a key stakeholder in the Middle East. Russia has demonstrated the ability to strike deals with various key players, including Iran, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies, Turkey, Israel, Iraq, Jordan, you name it. In October, the Saudi king visited Moscow. Russia with Cairo to allow its warplanes to use Egyptian air bases. The two nations are concerned about the unstable situation in Libya.
Russia’s strong position in the region was on full display on Dec.11, with President Putin was moving between Syria, Egypt and Turkey in a whirlwind on-day tour. Having won in Syria, Russia is perceived as a pragmatic, savvy, no-nonsense player able to weigh in on regional matters by both diplomatic and military means.