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How Russia Made History in Syria

Efficient and deadly weaponry, specific training for allies, combined intelligence reconnaissance and high-profile groups of spetsnaz on the ground changed the tide of the war

This post first appeared on Russia Insider

The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and its allies are liberating Syria bit by bit, demonstrating that they are the only force capable of defeating Islamic State (IS) and Al Nusra (AKA Al Qaeda) on the ground. A sum of factors explains the recently achieved victories.

Palmyra, a strategic and symbolic town was retaken from Islamic State after more than a year under siege. This success was possible thanks to the meticulous preparations of ground and air operations.

<figcaption>ТОS-1A is a Russian 24-barrel multiple unguided thermobaric rocket launcher</figcaption>
ТОS-1A is a Russian 24-barrel multiple unguided thermobaric rocket launcher

The Baghdad joint information center once again continues to be an important factor in the war against terrorism. High-level coordination between Moscow, Damascus, Baghdad and Tehran has proven to be a key component in ensuring success over an operational area encompassing Iraq and Syria, displaying deep links and interdependencies.

An important factor considered essential in the planning involved in order to start retaking Syria was the effort made to obtain a military assessment of IS’s hardware. Experts from Russian, Iranian and Syrian intelligence conducted investigations into what IS was able to accumulate in five years of war in both Iraq and Syria. Evaluations of IS’s arsenal incorporated everything from armored personnel carriers (BMP-1, American captured Humvees, MT-LB, MRAP), to tanks (T72, T55, captured American M1A1M Abrams), anti-aircraft artillery ( 2S1 Gvozdika, ZSU-23-4 Shilka ), and multiple rocket launchers (BM-21 Grad).

Following this evaluation, specific hardware as well as training was given to the SAA by Russian advisers over the preceding months. In this way, Russia changed many aspects of the battlefield. They organized joint-exercises to teach the SAA how to use the more than 2,500 anti-tank guided weapons delivered to Damascus, such as the 9K115-2 Metis-M and 9M133-Kornet.

This new level of preparation helped open the front lines against IS/Nusra. Kornet and other anti-tank weapons inflicted heavy losses on the radical Islamist side. This factor, combined with Russian coordination and close air support, paved the way for decisive ground assault like the one on Palmyra, launched simultaneously from four different directions.

Russia has proven to be the ideal partner for Damascus, providing intelligence, training, air support, the upgrading of weapons, and new and advanced hardware.

Russia has shown that it has very specific weaponry for different battlefield environments. This mix of features has helped the Syrian Arab Army in the desert (Palmyra), cities (Aleppo, Damascus, Homs), and mountains (Aleppo and Latakia province). Keeping in mind that mountainous combat is extremely difficult  (think Afghanistan), Russia’s weapons once again made the difference.

If liberating Palmyra was all about the training and combat planning, the mountains of Latakia and Homs required Russia to bring in a nasty machine to do the job: the TOS-1 Buratino. This beast can fire a full salvo of 24 unguided thermobaric rockets that will cover an area of more than 200 by 400 square meters, leaving nowhere to hide. Once again, the Russian contribution proved to be a key element in fighting the rebels and terrorists.

Another important decision that was made was to provide the Syrian Army with training in the use of T-90 tanks in the Aleppo Province for urban close combat. As I wrote in a previous article:

“The T-90MS and its outstanding capability to destroy incoming TOW and M79 missiles appears to be perfect for a theater of war like the one in Syria. In 4 and a half years of conflict, more than 9,000 BGM-71E3B TOW and M79 anti-tank systems have been introduced in the country. Their capability to easily penetrate T-55 and T-72 tanks is the main reason why the Syrian Arab Army has had so many problems gaining ground in the south part of the Aleppo province. The great advantage of the T-90MS is its reactive armor and defense systems. It comes equipped with reactive armor blocks like the Kontakt-5, and a system such as the Arena-3 that detects, intercepts and detonates missiles at a distance of 2-3 m from the target makes this tank unique and a much needed upgrade for the Syrian army’s capacity to achieve important victories on the ground.”

We must also remember the impact and importance that attack helicopters had in the initial phase of the Russian intervention, when the Russian airbase at Khmeimim was being established.

The Latakia province at the time was still full of rebels who posed a credible threat. Mi-24 and Mi-28 helicopters performed full scale operations and aerial engagements, cleaning up the entire area. This helped secure the Latakia province and expand the airport in a relatively short period of time. Furthermore, close air support provided from KA-52s, KA-50s, as well as Mi-24s and Mi-28s, have always helped ensure important advances by troops on the ground throughout the country.

Russia’s intervention in Syria has proven to be decisive, not only for the close air support provided but also for the important assistance in planning and carrying out strategic decisions based on signal and human intelligence, something that Moscow has a clear advantage vis-a-vis other countries involved. This also explains why so many leaders of IS/Al Nusra and the other rebel groups have been specifically targeted from the air. The kind of technology Russia has displayed in Syria has even brought unprecedented comments from Washington specialists worried about Russia’s improvements in warfare.

Moscow has demonstrated with unequivocal force that the modernization of its armed forces, initiated by Putin 15 years ago, is rapidly closing the gap with western powers. The real breakthrough Russia displayed in Syria is how an important military complex can work effectively thanks to the absence of wide-scale corruption. Without an enormous US-style military-industrial complex to feed, Moscow can focus on and prioritize projects that are needed immediately, making decisions on what processes are better to be implemented within a short space of time.

What most impresses observers is the efficiency of Russian actions in Syria. Moscow is clearly demonstrating a military doctrine that is coherent and consistent in developing all aspects of modern warfare in an equal and proportional way. 

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