How Russian Special Forces Are Shaping the Fight in Syria: Can the US Policy on Syria Be Gauged by Their Success?

During the fight for Palmyra, Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) took a photo (above) from the cellphone of a Russian spetsnaz officer reportedly killed in combat and posted it on the internet, apparently attempt to shame Russian forces fighting in Syria or claim some type victory. Instead, by posting the photo, they gave the whole world a glimpse of a few of the courageous Russians who have been gallantly fighting the scourge of ISIS. At Palmyra, Russia was seen fulfilling its promise to defeat ISIS and support Assad.

According to a March 29, 2016 Washington Post article entitled, “How Russian Special Forces Are Shaping the Fight In Syria,” Russian special forces (spetsnaz) operating on the front have remained mostly out of the public eye, but with the seizure of Palmyra in the Eastern Homs Province that is no longer the case. The article asserts Russian spetsnaz have come to the forefront of Russia’s Syria narrative because the battle for Palmyra plays into the rhetoric that Russia intervened to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). Chris Kozak, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War was quoted in the article as saying involvement of spetsnaz in Palmyra “looks great.” He further stated, “. . . their involvement against opposition groups in Aleppo or Latakia doesn’t fit the narrative.” The Washington Post reports it is unclear when Russian spetsnaz began operations in Syria, though prior to Russia’s intervention there, Russian troops had long helped advise and train Syrian forces. Michael Kofman, an analyst focused on Russian military operations at the Washington think tank, the Center Naval Analyses (CNA), told the Washington Post that Russia operates several spetsnaz units in Syria, to include Zaslon, KSO, and detachments of reconnaissance teams. Zaslon is a special purpose group of the Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki (Foreign Intelligence Service) or SVR made up from former spetsnaz troops. For some time, Zaslon has been in Syria providing support for Russian military and diplomatic personnel and standing ready to extract people, documents, or technologies Russia would not want to lose if Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad’s regime began to collapse. KSO or Special Operations Forces Command is the Russian Federation’s equivalent to the US Joint Special Operations Command.

As it was explained in November 30, 2015 greatcharlie.com post entitled “Russia Plays Down Idea of Coalition with West to Strike ISIS in Syria; An Agreement IS Needed on Assad,” use of special purpose forces, spetsnaz, would likely be critical to the Russian effort. Spetsnaz can advise Russian allies, locate and designate targets for air strikes, and engage in direct action against ISIS to include locating and killing specific Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) leaders and conducting raids and ambushes against ISIS units. Kofman says, “Russian special forces are doing a lot of the targeting for Russian airstrikes and a lot of advising for the Syrians.” He said they also provide most of the intelligence on the ground for Russian airpower and help run Syrian operations. Spetsnaz appear to be participating in combat alongside Syrian troops at the tactical level. Kofman told the Washington Post that spetsnaz and advisers on the front line have helped Syrian troops and Assad’s allies consolidate gains and take ground, despite the hype surrounding the detachment of Russian aircraft in the country. He called them the glue that is helping the Syrians fight as a much more capable army.

Dum tempus habemus, operemur bonum. (While we have the time, let us do good.) The massive presence of ISIS in Syria created a predicament for both the Assad regime and the Syrian Opposition. ISIS was eventually recognized internationally as a bloody, murderous terrorist organization, murdering military prisoners, foreign hostages, and innocent civilians. Although the Assad regime supported by Russia and the Syrian Opposition was supported by US, and work was being done on the margins, neither superpower appeared willing or able to do what is necessary to support their Syrian beneficiaries. That all changed in September 2015, when Russia, following Iran, intervened militarily support to Assad. Many worldwide discovered for the first-time that Russia, just as the US, has very capable airpower assets and special forces.   US President Barack Obama stated on October 2, 2015: “An attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire and it won’t work.” Yet, absent a robust US effort with the Syrian Opposition to counter Putin’s move, Russia and its allies found themselves with room for some real open field running in Syria. Indeed, Russia has been on the move, propelling Iranian, Iranian-led, and Syrian forces forward rapidly. The success of spetsnaz units and other Russian forces in Syria has pressed the US to try to mitigate the damage of the prospective “loss” of Syria and failed policy of containing Assad until he could be removed at the negotiation table. The success of spetsnaz provides an interesting measure to gauge the collapse of that policy on the ground.

The Russian state media highly publicized the return of Russian Federation Air Force jets from Syria after Putin’s surprise withdrawal order on March 14, 2016. A percentage of Russian Federation forces were withdrawn. However, Putin had no intentions of abandoning Assad. What occurred at Palmyra should have served to dispel such rumors. The “Syrian Express”, the nickname given to the ships that have kept Russian Federation forces supplied in Syria, shipped more equipment and supplies to the Russian naval base at Tartus in the two weeks following Putin’s withdrawal announcement than it had two weeks prior.

Russia Goes In

Russian Federation forces entered Syria under the leadership of Russian Federation Army Colonel General Aleksandr Dvornikov in September 2015. Dvornikov formerly held the post of First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Central Military District. Supposedly few in Moscow knew Dvornikov had been assigned to Syria and details of combat operations developed and executed under his command remain classified. In an official interview with Rossiyskaya Gazeta in March 23, 2016, Dvornikov explained the situation facing his Russian Military Group in Syria upon arrival in-country as follows: “The terrorists who numbered more than 60,000 occupied around 70 percent of territory of Syria. Gangs had seized control of the major cities of Idlib. Palmyra, and Raqqa. The terrorists controlled a large part of the suburbs of Homs and Damascus, conducted large scale offensives in the province of Latakia and were preparing to surround and capture Aleppo. And the key Damascus-Aleppo highway, joining the south and north of the country, was under constant threat of blockade by the militants. On top of that, the government troops were exhausted after 4 years of hostilities and were holding off the terrorist offensives with great difficulty. The population was leaving the country en masse.” In addition to gloomy Russian assessments, alarms were sounded by Russia’s ally Iran. Allegedly from July 24, 2015 to July 26, 2015, Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)-Quds Force (special forces) Commander, General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani held numerous meetings in Moscow. More importantly, Suleimani met with Putin and Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. According to accounts of the meeting in Reuters, Suleimani outlined the Assad regime’s crumbling situation in Syria. He explained that Syrian Opposition forces were advancing toward the coast, threatening the heartland of Assad’s Alawite sect and endangering Tartus, where Russia maintains its only Mediterranean naval base. This reportedly alarmed the Russians who already understood matters were in steep decline militarily for the Assad regime. Suleimani then placed a map of Syria on the table and explained why there was still time to reverse the situation. Ratio et consilium propriae ducis arte. (Reason and deliberation are the proper skills of a general.)

After Russian Federation forces began operations in Syria, there was a change compared with things antecedent on the ground. In his Rossiyskaya Gazeta interview, Dvornikov outlined advances made by Russian, Iranian and Syrian forces: “Taking control of key regions of the northeast of the province of Aleppo seriously affected the militants’ supply lines and the transfer of reinforcements from Turkey through the corridor between Jarabulus and Azaz. This created the conditions for the crushing defeat of ISIS to the north of Aleppo. What do we have now? We have the liberation of the Kuweires airbase as well as a number of settlements that had been under terrorist control for more than three years. The militants have been completely driven out of the province of Latakia. Coastal areas, in which a significant part of the population of Syria is concentrated, have been cleansed of the terrorists.” With regard to the Hama, Homs, and Damascus provinces, Dvornikov told Rossiyskaya Gazeta: “These provinces are located in the central part of the country. And, for the most part they have been cleared of illegal armed groups. Now a most active process of reconciliation is going on there. From a military point of view, it is very important that the major roads in Syria are under the control of government forces. Generally speaking, during the military operation, Syrian troops—with air support—liberated 400 populated areas. The potential of terrorist groups was halved, they lost the initiative and the territory controlled by them was reduced by 10,000 square kilometers.” Per ardua, ad astra. (Through adversity to the stars.)

Russian Federation forces entered Syria under the leadership of Russian Federation Army Colonel General Aleksandr Dvornikov (above) in September 2015. Dvornikov formerly held the post of First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Central Military District. Supposedly, few in Moscow knew Dvornikov had been assigned to Syria. Dvornikov revealed in an interview that Palmyra’s capture would open up the road to Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, create conditions for reaching and controlling the border with Iraq, and re-establish control over three large oil and gas fields which had previously served as a source of income for ISIS.

The Palmyra Battle

The total number of troops involved in the fight for Palmyra from the Russian, Iranian, Iranian-led, and Syrian coalition of forces was over 5000. Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, General of the Army Valery Gerasimov has been diligent in the deployment of forces to Syria, maintaining a sizeable, capable reserve for operations elsewhere. Russian Federation forces have been deployed economically, to avoid being bogged down in support of its allies, but also to ensure ISIS could be destroyed and prevented from relocating and resurrecting itself. Russia deployed significant numbers of ground forces to work in coordination with air assets. Russian units operating TOS-1 and BM-30 Smerch heavy multiple rocket launcher systems as well as Mi-24 Hind helicopter gunships were utilized in support of operations to retake Palmyra.

The Russian state media highly publicized the return of planes from Syria after Putin’s surprise withdrawal order on March 14, 2016. It was not a hoax. Russian Federation forces were withdrawn however, as analysts informed AFP, the withdrawal was very limited, with estimates ranging between 10 and 25 percent of its forces in Syria. However, Russian activity seemed to have increased. Reuters reports the “Syrian Express,” the nickname given to the ships that have kept Russian forces supplied via the Black Sea Russian port of Novorossiysk to the Russian naval base at Tartus, has shipped more equipment and supplies to Syria in the two weeks following Putin’s withdrawal announcement than it had two weeks prior. Just before the assault on Palmyra, Russia publicly admitted, for the first time since it launched operations in Syria in September 2015 that spetsnaz were on the ground as part of the offensive.

Spetsnaz units have locating and designating ISIS targets for airstrikes in advance of contact with them by Russian, Iranian, Iranian-led, and Syrian ground forces. Russian attack helicopters, as well as spetsnaz serving as sharpshooters, serve as over watch for forces Russian allies, ensuring that even small, unorganized bands of fighters of ISIS would not be able to engage in independent actions to disrupt the ground operations. Dvornikov explained: “. . . Two thousand terrorists, originally coming from the Russian Federation—were destroyed on Syrian territory. Of these, 17 were field commanders.” By targeting Russian members of Islamic militant groups in Syria, Russian forces contributed immensely to the safety and security of their country and its citizens and the international effort against those Islamic militant groups as well. Chief of the Armed Forces General Staff of the Russian Federation, Valery Gerasimov on March 28, 2016 said Palmyra was “liberated thanks to the support of Russia’s air force and special operations forces.”

Offering an example of the type of fighting in which Russian forces have been engaged, a Russian spetsnaz officer, Aleksandr Prokhorenko, was killed while directing airstrikes upon himself when surrounded by ISIS fighters near Palmyra according to the Russian military on March 24, 3016. (He reportedly had been working in Syria for just a week.) ISIS took a photo allegedly from his cellphone and posted it on the internet in an apparent attempt to shame Russian forces fighting in Syria or claim some type victory. (The causality is really unknown. The thinking behind ISIS decisions is hard to decipher.) Instead, by posting the photo, the world was given a glimpse of a few of the courageous Russians who have been fighting gallantly against the scourge of ISIS in Syria. Certainly, most people in the world are united in thinking ISIS must be destroyed. Quem metuit quisque perisse cupit. (Everyone wishes that the man whom he fears would perish.)

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appointed Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Brigadier General (Sartip-e Yekom) Mohammad Jafar Assadi (above) as the IRGC commander in Syria. Russian-Iranian military cooperation on Syria was established in July 2015. Iran has deployed several thousand (IRGC)-Quds Force (special forces) officers and advisers to Syria, mobilized pro-Assad shabihas (militias) into the National Defense Forces to fight alongside the Syrian Armed Forces, and brought in Shi’a volunteer brigades from Iraq and Afghanistan, and Hezbollah units from Lebanon.

Concerning Syrian forces, many of them, to include nearly 1000 Syrian Marines and National Defense Forces militiamen, were brought up to Palmyra from Latakia, Aleppo, Qunetta Provinces. This movement of troops was enabled by the “cessation of hostilities” that began on February 27, 2016 that stemmed from the Geneva III Peace Talks on Syria. Those forces linked-up with hundreds of fighters from Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraqi Shi’a militias, and even Afghan Shi’a Liwa al-Fatimiyoun. Iran deployed the IRGC to support coalition forces in the operation. Russian-Iranian military cooperation on Syria came into effect via an agreement in July 2015. Both countries agreed to inject support into the Syrian Armed Forces to counter Assad’s accelerating losses. Joint operations rooms have been set up to bring the allies together, along with the Iraqi Government, which is supportive of Iran’s actions in Syria. (One joint operations room is in Damascus and another is in Baghdad.) Iran, itself, had already deployed several thousand Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)-Quds Force (special forces) officers and advisers to Syria. They have mobilized pro-Assad shabihas (militias) into the 70,000 strong National Defense Forces, to fight alongside the Syrian Armed Forces, brought in Shia volunteer brigades from Iraq and Afghanistan, and Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon. Many IRGC officers and advisers have been killed fighting alongside their allies in Syria. After a meeting in Tehran between Putin and Iran’s Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on November 23, 2015, the decision was made to step up coordination between the two countries on Syria. A senior Iranian official told Reuters, “What was agreed was Iran and Russia would pursue one policy which will benefit Tehran, Moscow, and Damascus.” Reportedly, Khamenei appointed IRGC Brigadier General (Sartip-e Yekom) Mohammad Jafar Assadi as the IRGC commander in Syria. He is known as Abu Ahmad in Syria.

Large deliveries of Russian heavy artillery and multiple launch rocket systems also had an impact on the frontlines of the Syrian Army, Hezbollah, and the Shia militias. That equipment included: 152-milimeter MTSA-B guns, BM-27 Uragan and BM-30 Smerch rocket launchers, and TOS-1A Solnitsa rocket launchers.

The offensive proceeded as a three pronged frontal assault similar to previous regime directed operations against Palmyra in the Eastern Homs Province, displaying little to none of the sophisticated operational design that characterized the recent campaign in Aleppo Province. Dvornikov explained in his Rossiyskaya Gazeta interview that the capture of Palmyra would “open up the road to (IS strongholds) Raqqa and Deir Ezzor and create conditions for reaching and taking control of the border with Iraq.” Syria’s military on Sunday also confirmed that the battle for Raqqa—the de facto capital of the jihadists—is the plan. Dvornikov also noted that “control was re-established over three large oil and gas fields, which had previously served as a source of income for the terrorists.” As important, a barrier has been created for several critical regime-held oil and natural gas fields that provide electricity to Western Syria. Further, ISIS’ ability to project force into Western Syria from the Euphrates River Valley was reduced.

Russian, Iranian, Iranian-led, and Syrian forces have not been holding on anywhere. After Palmyra, they pushed onward toward Deir Ezzor province, an Islamic state bastion. They also pushed toward the so-called capital of the Islamic Caliphate, Raqqa, and other ISIS-held towns along the way.

Possibilities: Battle of Annihilation?

Despite laying mines and setting booby traps for advancing Russian-led forces, it seems learning how to retreat has been a difficult experience for ISIS. One might have expected counterattacks to cover its withdrawal. Assad regime troops have not been holding on anywhere and after Palmyra, they pushed onward toward Deir Ezzor province, an Islamic State bastion. They also pushed toward the so-called capital of the Islamic Caliphate, Raqqa, and other ISIS-held towns along the way. The day following Palmyra’s capture, a Syrian military source said “The army was concentrated around Al-Qurayatayn.”

Russian, Iranian, and Syrian military planners and commanders, of what is essentially a Russian-led coalition, must recognize that beyond Palmyra, fights with ISIS could become more intense as ISIS fighters observe their so-called Islamic Caliphate being reduced. This may be especially true for the battles of Deir Ezzor and Raqqa.  ISIS fighters will be desperate to hold on to their Caliphate and demonstrate their will to resist and the capabilities of their group knowing the world would watching. The effects of such intensified efforts must be mitigated.

Russian air assets, along with air assets of its allies, should engage in a feeding-frenzy against ISIS. ISIS fighting positions in front of the Russian allies must continue to be degraded with close air support as well as unrelenting artillery onslaughts. ISIS fighters must face certain death if they hold their positions or be killed or captured once driven out of their positions. In tandem with the hot pursuit of ISIS by Russian and allied forces on the ground, airstrikes could support efforts to divert fighters of destroyed or displaced ISIS units away from their lines to locations where “kill zones” could be established. The attrition rate of ISIS should be increased by having aerial platforms that allow for stand-off attacks with anti-personnel weapons remain in near 24-hour use on targeted defenses and targets of opportunity such as isolated ISIS units in the desert.

The tempo and volume of Russian air strikes targeting ISIS leaders—and other rogue Islamic militant groups when identified—should be increased exponentially. Command centers and any gathering places of ISIS leaders, must not be allowed to exist. If possible, they should be struck simultaneously to throw the groups into chaos and confusion and make it very difficult for them to regenerate. Locations hit by airstrikes where ISIS might attempt to recover anything equipment or gear must be hit again to halt those recovery efforts. The communications of ISIS should be either destroyed or disrupted by other technical means permanently destroying any surviving leaders’ abilities to control over their units. Known and suspected assembly areas and rally points for ISIS units must be attacked from the air. In units left rudderless, acting without coordination, hopefully unit cohesion will begin to suffer, and they will lose their effectiveness completely. Small unit leaders should be left with the choice to allow their fighters to die in place or make a dash for the Euphrates, where along with other units, they should be consumed through a coordinated plan by Russian, Iranian, Iranian-led, and Syrian forces for annihilating any last ditch defense. Life should be made unlivable for ISIS in Syria.

Russian air assets could support raids and ambushes by spetsnaz units. Spetsnaz units should be issued portable GShG-7.62 rotary machine guns to give them the capability to kill ISIS fighters at a high rate in kill zones, raids, and ambushes as well as destroy any ISIS counterattacks. Spetsnaz units will likely need to operate vigorously at night when ISIS fighters might try to conceal movement. As directed by Moscow, individual spetsnaz units, in a special reconnaissance role, could continue to go into ISIS controlled areas, locate, and kill specific ISIS fighters from Russia, or when directed, take prisoners. Some spetsnaz must be dedicated to fighting other Islamic militant groups in Syria such as the Al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra.

Russian, Iranian, and Syrian military planners and commanders likely recognize that beyond Palmyra, fights with ISIS could become more intense, as ISIS fighters observe their so-called Islamic Caliphate being reduced. This may be especially true for the battles of Deir Ezzor and Raqqa.   ISIS fighters will be desperate to hold on to their Caliphate and demonstrate the capabilities and will of their terrorist group. The effects of such intensified efforts must be mitigated.

Caliphate Redoubt in Syria?

Six months after US and United Kingdom forces landed in Normandy in June 1944 during World War II, it was thought by senior German military commanders and hypothesized by Allied military planners that the Nazi government would be moved to a mountainous area of southern Germany and Austria. From there, a determined force could hold out for some time, complicating the situation for any occupying force in Germany. Allied planners referred to that area hypothetical defensive zone as the National Redoubt. It was discussed among German military planners as the Alpenfestung. While the idea of the Alpenfestung was investigated, it was never created. Instead, rumors were deliberately spread by a special unit set up by the German Minister for Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels to keep a redoubt idea alive. Yet, not being complacent, Allied military commanders ordered bombing raids to reduce locations that would be critical to operating the redoubt. It is difficult to say what ISIS leaders would do if Raqqa and Deir Ezzor fell. While there are no mountain ranges on the line of march of Russia and its allies to set up an Islamic Caliphate redoubt in Syria as imposing as the one conjured up by both sides in Germany, luck might have it that Iraqi military commanders in ISIS might try to set up a “line of death” east of Deir Ezzor along the Khabur and Euphrates Rivers, and Syria’s border with Iraq. The goal of that theoretical defensive line would be to forestall the ultimate collapse of the Islamic Caliphate in Syria and to inflict as many casualties among Russian-led forces as possible with a suicide defense. Real luck would come if reinforcements were rushed in where available in Iraq. (Though, US-led, and Iranian-led, forces have caused ISIS inside Iraq considerable problems, making any effort to move units from there to reinforce a redoubt in Syria dubious.) If Russian-led forces observe a redoubt being formed, it would present them with the opportunity to deal a tremendous blow against ISIS from which it would never recover. With overwhelming firepower, using every means of combat support and reconnaissance and surveillance for targeting available, the entire ISIS force could be annihilated. All ISIS commanders, planners and fighters in the defense would need to be destroyed much as near entire Japanese forces were destroyed following island battles in the Pacific during World War II. Acribus initiis, incurioso fine. (Zealous at the commencement, careless toward the conclusion.)

Russian air assets, along with those of Russia’s allies, should engage in a feeding-frenzy against ISIS. ISIS fighting positions in front of the Russian allies must continue to be degraded with close air support as well as unrelenting artillery onslaughts. Airstrikes could be directed at diverting ISIS fighters of destroyed or displaced groups away from the frontlines to locations where “kill zones” could be established. Targets of opportunity in the desert should be destroyed. Russian air assets could support raids and ambushes by spetsnaz units.

The Way Forward

When Putin went into Syria in September 2015, he did so not only to fight ISIS, but to “stabilize the legitimate authority” of Assad. To that extent, he wanted to defeat ISIS or, at a minimum, reduce its presence in Syria to a size and strength incapable of forcing Assad from power, nor subsidize efforts of the Syrian Opposition Movement to maneuver with US and EU assistance to undercut Assad. So far in Syria, Putin has effectively left no doubt with the Russian people, but also the world, that he is a leader who is able to respond effectively to security issues and that Russia is a global power. The ejection of ISIS from Palmyra was a major achievement on top of all of its success in Syria. Russia was seen fulfilling its promise of defeating ISIS and supporting Assad. News of the event has garnered unenthused recognition from the Washington and European capitals.

Ad mores natura damnatos fixa et mutari nescia. (Human nature ever reverts to its depraved courses, fixed and immutable.) Some might speculate that Putin may choose to forestall backing the attacks on Raqqa and Deir Ezzor as the UN Talks in Geneva may reach a result that would keep Assad in power and serve Russia’s interest. However, Putin’s decision making manifests a sense of pessimism regarding human nature. Interactions with the West have been a struggle, Russia is still being sanctioned over Ukraine. Putin most likely expects to encounter some machinations from Western capitals that would cause Russia’s interests to be subordinated by their own. He very likely felt he had encountered something of that nature during UN Talks on Syria in Vienna on November 14, 2015 when Kerry is said to have proposed allowing all Syrians, “including members of the diaspora,” participate in the national elections. Kerry seemed to be betting that if Syrians around the world participated in the vote, Assad would never be able to remain in office. In part to counter such moves, Putin has sought to significantly shape the situation on the ground by supporting the combat operations of Syrian Armed Forces along with forces Iran has brought to, or organized in, Syria. Once all of Russia’s goals on the ground are achieved, Putin would seek to finalize some political arrangement for Syria. What may be shaping up is a race by the US-led and Russian-led anti-ISIS camps to take Raqqa and to establish their will in Syria.

After Five Years of War in Syria, UN Passes Resolution on Talks: Can Russia Shape Those Talks on the Ground?

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin remains confident about Russia’s intervention in Syria. He has outlined Russia’s objectives there and is providing the Russian Federation Armed Forces what they need to achieve them. UN Security Council Resolution on Syria 2254 calls for talks, but leaves the matter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s presidency open and allows for continued action against ISIS and other Islamic militants. That leaves Putin able to use the forces of Russia and its allies in Syria to help Assad remain in power.

According to a December 18, 2015 New York Times article entitled “After Five Years of War in Syria, UN Passes Resolution on Talks,” the UN Security Council, by a vote of 15-0, adopted a resolution calling for a cease-fire and a peace process that holds the distant prospect of ending the Syrian civil war. It was reportedly the result of a long term effort of the US and Russia to find common interests to stop the violence in the war-torn country. However, although a plan was agreed upon unanimously on December 18th, sharp differences remain between the US and Russian positions. Russia’s key demand is that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad be allowed to remain in power. It is a position also supported by China and Iran. For the US, removing Assad from power in Damascus is a requirement. The resolution makes no mention of whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would be able to remain in power or run in any future elections. In truth, what the plan will mean on the ground is uncertain. As US Secretary of State John Kerry stated with humility on December 18th at the UN Security Council, “No one is sitting here today suggesting to anybody that the road ahead is a gilded path. It is complicated. It will remain complicated. But this at least demands that the parties come to the table.”

UN Security Council Resolution on Syria 2254 essentially calls for the following: a ceasefire must be established and formal talks on a political transition must start in early January 2016; groups seen as “terrorists,” including the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and the Jabhat al-Nusra, are excluded; “offensive and defensive actions” against such groups, referring to US-led and Russia airstrikes, can continue; UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon should report by January 18, 2016 on how to monitor the ceasefire; “credible, inclusive, and non-sectarian governance “ should be established within 6 months; free and fair elections” under US supervision to be held within 18 months; and, the political transition should be Syrian led. As a Member of the Permanent Five Members of the UN Security Council, Russia’s role as a party to November 18th Syria meeting was essential, but hardly prosaic given its ties to Syria. As a matter of fact, Russia has a congenial relationship with the Assad regime unlike other Permanent Five Members. Russia has been working closely with Iran to provide the Syrian Government with military support. Indeed, Putin went into Syria both to “stabilize the legitimate authority” of Assad and to fight ISIS. While the administration of US President Barack Obama has been engaged in a desultory effort to remove Assad since 2012, Putin recognized the US would keep working against Assad regime until it fell or ISIS, too strong for the Syrian Opposition to contend with, took control in Syria. Putin has not forgotten the results of the Obama administration’s support of rebels in opposition to Libyan President Muammar el-Gaddafi, a friend of Moscow. Multinational forces under NATO command, mandated to impose a no-fly zone under UN Security Council Resolution 1973, exceeded their mission, destroying pro-Gaddafi forces as part of Operation Unified Protector. Gaddafi’s regime fell; he was killed. To Putin, it was a cunning deceit and dark tragedy. He does not want anything similar to occur in Syria.

Long before factions of the Syrian Opposition might establish among themselves common facts, presuppositions, and policies for the UN Talks, and before the first vote is cast in UN monitored elections, Russia and its allies may take steps to lengthen Assad’s tenure as president. Russia, is a very capable military superpower. Indeed, Russia could shape the situation on the ground by supporting the Syrian Armed Forces along with forces Iran has brought to, or organized in, Syria. Deliberate progress is being made toward that goal. A large military offensive, purportedly being organized, may allow Syrian, Iranian, and Iranian-led forces to regain control of a large portion of Syrian territory. The Syrian Government might work to “ensure” the political perspectives of local political leaders, administrators, and the civilian population, in reclaimed territory were supportive of Assad. Diplomatic efforts at the UN Talks by Russia and Iran would be conducted in conjunction with the military activity. Perhaps UN Security Council vote, rather than create an agreement for Assad’s removal and transition to a government favorable to the US, EU and some Arab States, may have instead convinced Russia and Iran that shaping events on the ground militarily in Syria is the best way to secure their interests. Principiis obsta (et respice finem). Resist the beginnings (and consider the end). Putin’s decision to go into Syria was not made overnight. Since 2012, he has watched the international community fumble and Syria crumble. He has long considered Russia’s military capabilities and the possibility for their successful use in Syria. He knows what he wants to do and how to do it. He will not become subsumed by Syria. If Russia were to act with more force and increase the pace of its operations in Syria, the Russian Federation Armed Forces would become a decisive factor in Syria and, correlatively, in the UN Talks.

Russia on the Ground in Syria

Gaius Seutonius Tranquillus, a Roman historian who wrote during the early Imperial era of the Roman Empire, wrote in De Vita Caesarum that Rome’s first emperor, Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus (Augustus Caesar) abhorred haste and rashness in a military commander.  He preferred that actions be taken with an appropriate balance of urgency and diligence. Rushing through to execute tasks often led to mistakes and sustained results are not achieved. Accordingly, one of his favorite sayings was festina lente (hasten slowly). Many in the West complained from the start of operations by the Russian Federation Armed Forces in Syria that they were ill-fated, immediately bogged down, or inappropriately conducted. On September 30, 2015, US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter stated about Moscow’s military involvement in Syria, “The Russian approach here is doomed to fail.” Obama stated on October 2, 2015: “An attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire and it won’t work.” At a December 18, 2015 news conference, Kerry stated in an effusion of sentiment that 80 percent of Russian airstrikes were hitting Syrian Opposition groups fighting Assad’s forces and not hitting ISIS forces. Putin’s decision to go into Syria was not made overnight. Since 2012, he has watched international community fumble and Syria crumble. He has long considered Russia’s military capabilities and possibilities for their successful use in Syria. He knows what he wants to do and how to do it. Putin in no way wants support Syrian Opposition forces in their effort against Assad so it would make sense for Putin to pace Russia’s actions against ISIS, to learn the landscape and ensure the Syrian Opposition gained no advantages. To that extent, it should have been expected that he would not hesitate to disrupt the Syrian Opposition’s activities where he could. Regarding costs for the Syria operation, so far, Putin has well-managed them. Vasily Kashin, an analyst at the Center for Analyses of Strategies and Technologies in Moscow, explained: “All available data show us that the current level of military effort is completely insignificant for the Russian economy and Russian budget.” Senior administration and intelligence officials in the US, in anonymity, agree with that assessment.

Once in Syria, Russia began using many of its latest weapons systems. New systems used have included: the sea-based Kalibr 3M-14 cruise missile, launched from surface ships and submarines from as far as 900 miles away from their targets; the air launched KH-101 cruise missile; and, the Sukhoi Su-34 strike fighter. On December 19, 2015, Reuters quoted Putin as saying: “We see how efficiently our pilots and intelligence agents coordinate their efforts with various kinds of forces—the army, navy, and aviation; how they use the most modern weapons.” However, Putin continued, “I want to stress that these are by far not all of our capabilities,” adding, “We have more military means. And, we will use them—if need be.” Putin seemed to imply that Russia may ramp up the size and speed of its operations in Syria. By acting more robustly and increasing the tempo of its operations, the Russian Federation Armed Forces would certainly be the decisive factor on the ground in Syria and, correlatively, in the UN Talks. Both the ISIS and the Syrian Opposition would find it difficult to hold territory in the face of a superpower-sized onslaught organized by Russia and its allies. Seizing the maximum amount of land possible may very well enable the Syrian Government to influence the political landscape thus furthering Putin’s goal of keeping Assad in power. Heartened by the Syrian Armed Forces ability to fight back, some Syrians living in towns and cities reclaimed by their government might find cause to support Assad, lessening the possibility of his removal a bit more. Protectio trahit subjectionem, et subjectio protectionem. (Protection draws allegiance, and allegiance draws protection.)  A Russian Federation Air Force Tupolev Tu-95 Bear H Bomber (above) fires a KH-101 air launched cruise missile at a target in Ildib, Syria. By supporting the Syrian Armed Forces along with forces Iran has brought to, or organized in, Syria, Russia might shape the situation on the ground there. If a massive offensive is eventually conducted by Syrian, Iranian, and Iranian-led forces, in territory taken, the Assad regime may try to “ensure” local political leaders and administrators, and local residents were supportive of Assad.

The Importance of Russian-Iranian Cooperation

Per sequar! (Do your part, I will do mine!) Concerning its diplomacy on Syria, Iran has decided to step up its coordination with Russia. The decision was made after a meeting in Tehran between Putin and Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on November 23, 2015. A senior Iranian official told Reuters, “What was agreed was Iran and Russia would pursue one policy which will benefit Tehran, Moscow, and Damascus.” Russian-Iranian military cooperation was decided upon much earlier. An agreement for a joint Russian-Iranian military effort in Syria came into effect in July 2015. Both countries agreed to inject support into the Syrian Armed Forces to counter Assad’s accelerating losses. Joint operations rooms have been set up to bring the allies together, along with the Iraqi Government, which is supportive of Iran’s actions in Syria. (One joint operations room is in Damascus and another is in Baghdad.) Iran, itself, had already deployed several thousand Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)-Quds Force (special forces) officers and advisers to Syria. They have mobilized pro-Assad shabihas (militias) into the 70,000 strong National Defense Forces, to fight alongside the Syrian Armed Forces, brought in Shia volunteer brigades from Iraq and Afghanistan, and, of course, Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon. Many IRGC officers and advisers have been killed fighting alongside their allies in Syria to include: IRGC-Quds Force Brigadier General (Sartip-e Yekom) Hossein Hamadani; IRGC-Quds Force Brigadier General (Sartip-e Yekom) Hadi Kajbaf; IRGC-Quds Force Brigadier General (Sartip-e Dovom) Reza Khavari; IRGC-Quds Force Brigadier General (Sartip-e Dovom) Mohammad Ali Allahdadi; Brigadier General (Sartip-e Dovom) Hamid Mokhtarband; and, IRGC-Quds Force Colonel (Sarhang-e Yekom) Farshad Hasounizadeh.

On February 13, 2013, the initial IRGC commander in Syria, IRGC-Quds Force Brigadier General (Sartip-e Yekom) Hassan Shateri, was assassinated. Renowned IRGC-Quds Force Commander, General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani then took control of the Syria operation, flying often into Damascus. Once the decision on the joint Russian-Iranian effort was made, Suleimani visited Putin and Shoigu in Moscow in July 2015. He outlined the deteriorating situation in Syria for Assad’s forces, but also explained time remained to reclaim the initiative. Putin decided that it was time to act. Suleimani took on a central role in the coordination of Russian, Iranian, and Syrian activities on the ground. Reportedly, Suleimani was injured by a TOW missile fired by Syrian Opposition rebels on November 12, 2015. In diplomacy on Syria, Iran has decided to step up its coordination with Russia. The decision was made after a meeting in Tehran between Putin and Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on November 23, 2015 pictured above. Russia and Iran will pursue a singular policy designed to benefit Moscow, Tehran, and Damascus.

Military Action

According to Russian defense and military officials, Russia’s airstrikes have targeted leaders of ISIS—and other Islamic militant groups such as Al-Qaeda linked Jabhat al-Nusra—when identified. Command, control, and communications centers of ISIS have been struck throwing the process of directing ISIS units into confusion. Training centers have been destroyed. Fighting positions of ISIS positions in front of the Russian allies have been degraded with close air support as well as very heavy strikes by Russian ordinance. Presumably they will provide close air support for an eventual ground offensive by Russia and its allies. (Ground forces utilized would primarily be Syrian and Iranian though.) Since air operations began, Russian fighter jets have conducted almost as many strikes daily as the US-led, anti-ISIS coalition has been carrying out each month in 2015. Russia has also conducted night strikes with damage assessment by drones.

Reportedly, commanders of the Russian Federation Armed Forces believe the military objective of any ground operations in Syria should first be to create a regime stronghold in what is referred to as “Useful Syria” (Suriya al-Mufida) from Damascus up to Aleppo through Homs. That would require Russia and its allies to sweep up the Western part of Syria. It would take pressure off Latakia, a pro-Assad, Allawite heartland and locale of an important airfield and take pressure off Tartus, a long-time Soviet then Russian Federation Navy port that is important to naval operations in support of Syria. After reaching Latakia, Russia and its allies might turn toward Idlib. Part of the force could push farther north to gain control of the Syrian-Turkish border west of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party’s (PYD) territory, blocking the US coalition and ISIS from access to it. In an additional phase of their offensive, Russia and its allies may press eastward. A key objective would be to take Palmyra from ISIS and the oil and gas resources around it. Another key objective would be to push beyond Aleppo to retake the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, which is the official capital of the so-called Islamic State in Syria. Moving that far out, some believe Russia may seek to co-opt the Syrian Kurds’People’s Protection Units (YPG) to help assist in the offensive. Russia has begun to increase the intensity of its attacks in all of the locations mentioned. Su-34 and Su-24 fighter-bombers have primarily been used on command posts, stores of weapons, oil products, and workshops where weapons for suicide bombers are made that are situated along prospective axes of advance of Russia and its allies. Bunker busting BETAB-500 bombs have been dropped from Su-34s near Raqqa with the goal of eliminating command posts along with underground storage facilities for explosives and munitions. Large numbers of ISIS fighters have been eliminated due to such strikes. The above map from the renowned Institute for the Study of War reveals the general pattern of Russian airstrikes and cruise missile strikes in Syria. Both ISIS and the Syrian Opposition would find it difficult to hold territory in the face of a superpower-sized onslaught by Russia and its allies. Putin likely wants pro-Assad forces to take the maximum amount of land possible west and north in “Useful Syria” and eastward in Raqqa and Palmyra, to broaden the Assad regime’s area of control and political influence.

To enhance mobility and firepower for offensive action, Russia has transferred dozens of powerful, well-armored, T-90 tanks to the Syrian Army, particularly those fighting in Aleppo and near Damascus. The T-90s will also be used to enhance the combat power of the combined Syrian, Iranian, and Hezbollah forces poised to take Palmyra from ISIS. The T-90s were first delivered to the Syrian Republican Guards 4th Armored Division, commanded by Assad’s younger brother, General Ali Maher Assad. The T-90s will replace a large portion of the Syrian Army’s 500 tanks which are mostly Russian T-72s which are vulnerable to TOW missile systems provided by the US to Syrian Opposition fighters. The pace of the deliveries will be determined by the time needed for Russian instructors to train Syrian tank crews on the T-90. Large deliveries of Russian heavy artillery and multiple launch rocket systems have also had an impact on the frontlines of the Syrian Army, Hezbollah, and the Shia militias. That equipment includes: 152-milimeter MTSA-B guns, BM-27 Uragan and BM-30 Smerch rocket launchers, and TOS-1A Solnitsa rocket launchers. Russia and its allies have placed a steady onslaught of fire from those systems and from tanks on their opponents’ positions daily. If a major ground offensive gets underway, artillery attacks will surely intensify. Quae non prosunt singular multa iuvant. (What alone is not useful helps when accumulated.) To enhance mobility and firepower for offensive action, Russia has transferred dozens of powerful, well-armored, T-90 tanks to the Syrian Army, particularly those fighting in Aleppo and near Damascus. The T-90s will also be used to enhance the combat power of the combined Syrian, Iranian, and Hezbollah forces poised to take Palmyra from ISIS. The T-90s will replace a large portion of the Syrian Army’s 500 tanks which are vulnerable to TOW missile systems provided by the US to Syrian Opposition fighters.

A Future Syrian-Iranian Fretwork

With the intermeshing of Iranian forces with the Syrian Armed Forces and the National Defense Front, a picture emerges of what Syrian Armed Forces and what Syrian communities along the axis of the Iranian-Syrian ground attack might look like in a year. One might recall what occurred in Bosnia and Herzegovina once the war ended in 1995. Particularly after 1994, members of the IRGC, IRGC-Quds Force, Iranian Army and Ministry of Intelligence and Security, referred to as “volunteers,” were folded into the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Indeed, a few thousand Iranians became part of the 3rd Corps of the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which greatly enhanced the force’s capabilities and the army’s overall combat power. The Iranian troops settled in many towns and cities in the Muslim-Croat Federation. The extraction of foreign fighters from the postwar Bosnian Federation Armija, and the Federation in general, was mandated by the national government in Sarajevo about a decade after the war due to international pressure. In Syria, the IRGC, IRGC-Quds Force, the Iranian Army, and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security will do much to influence the outcome on the battlefield but also will likely do much to help the Assad regime influence the result of elections despite UN monitors, by helping to “create support” for Assad and “coping” with regime opponents.

The Assad regime likely has a limited degree of influence within the Syrian diaspora worldwide, including among refugees in massive camps in Jordan and Turkey or on their own elsewhere. Kerry is said to have proposed allowing all Syrians, “including members of the diaspora” participate in the vote at a UN meeting in Vienna on November 14, 2015, betting that if Syrians around the world can participate in the vote, Assad will not be able to win. Russia and Iran would hardly allow the situation to slip from their hands so easily. They likely believe that they can cope with that issue in the coming UN Talks. If Assad’s presidency is not viewed as legitimate by the international community following an election, due to any administrative difficulties that may arise or due to actions by the Assad regime or its allies on the ground, the impact on Assad would be minimal. By now, Assad has become inured to the hardship caused by UN sanctions and isolation stemming from the international community’s scorn. Moreover, Assad is, albeit, the “ward” of Russia and Iran. If problems arise, they will cover him. If Russia and its allies can gain control of a good portion of Syria, future threats of an externally orchestrated regime change by force will be precluded. Amicus certus in re incerta. (A sure friend in an unsure matter.) Expectations for talks established under UN Security Council Resolution 2254 may not be based in reality. The picture painted at the UN Security Council was of a factionalized, difficult Syrian Opposition that has suddenly become homogenized. Putin anticipates nothing satisfying from the UN Talks. He sees there is a danger that Russia’s interests will not be served. Rather than wait to be disappointed, Putin will likely seize the opportunity to shape the situation Syria to meet Russia’s interests and those of Tehran and Damascus.

The Way Forward

Fantasies of a future that is desired can become a substitute for reality. Somehow, those on the UN Security Council have anesthetized their consciences to the realities, difficulties, of working with the Syrian Opposition Movement. Indeed, things antecedent have been forgotten. The Obama administration decided to provide the Syrian opposition its support with the hope that Assad could be pressured to the negotiating table by Free Syrian Army advances and eventually agree to step down under a settlement. However, very rapidly, Syrian Opposition leaders discovered the entire taking on the Syrian Armed Forces and their allies was enormous and they found themselves well out of their depth. Simply keeping the opposition together politically has proven very difficult. Foreign diplomats must regularly act as mediators to hold the Opposition’s diverse groups together. Opposition military leaders have not shown any greater ability to unify their forces. Now, new talks have been set up under UN Security Council Resolution 2254. The UN Security Council now paints a picture of a Syrian Opposition that has become homogenized and is ready for talks. One should anticipate a future that is reality based. Perhaps what the UN Security Council is waiting for regarding the talks will not be worth waiting for. Sero venientibus ossa! (Those who are late get the bones!)

The art that moves Putin’s mind is not easily deciphered. His intuition likely tells him there will be plenty of debate and confusion at the UN Talks. Yet, he is likely more concerned that the process will not serve Russia’s interests. Putin will not standby for that and will try in advance of UN monitored elections to shape the situation in Syria to secure Russia’s interests and those of Iran and the Assad regime. Under UN Security Council Resolution 2254, offensive and defensive actions by the US-led, anti-ISIS coalition and Russia can continue. For Putin, that means Russia and its allies will be able to act “unimpeded” on the ground. Russia’s moves in Syria will not bar it from working on the talks alongside the other Permanent Five Members of the UN Security Council. Rather, Russia will be involved fully. With matters such as Libya in mind, its’ diplomats will narrowly focus on what best suits Russia and its allies. If Putin gets his way, there will be little left in Syria for the US to be satisfied with. The drama of the Obama administration’s failed interaction with Putin is nearly played out as the end of its second term nears. Kremlin observers allege Putin feels the administration has been marked by weakness. He will try to take advantage of the situation while it lasts.