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New Russian Weapons Have Changed the Military Balance in Syria

On the spot report from top British journalist describes a revitalized Syrian army successfully using advanced weapons supplied by the Russians.

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This post first appeared on Russia Insider

Six months ago, terrorist groups and their "moderate" comrades were closing in on Damascus. Now the Syrian army is less than 100 miles from Raqqa, the so-called "capital" of the Islamic Caliphate. What changed? Since entering the conflict in September, Russia has equipped the Syrian army with some of the most advanced weapons on earth.

Writing in the Independent, Robert Fisk chronicles the critical role Russian weapons and training have played in reversing Syria's precarious military situation:

<figcaption>The ferocious T-90</figcaption>
The ferocious T-90

You can see the Syrian army’s spanking new Russian T-90 tanks lined up in their new desert livery scarcely 100 miles from Isis’s Syrian “capital” of Raqqa.

There are new Russian-made trucks alongside them, and a lot of artillery and – surely Isis’s spies are supposed to see this – plenty of Syrian soldiers walking beside the perimeter wire beside Russian soldiers wearing floppy military hats against the sun, the kind they used in the old days in the summer heat of Afghanistan in the 1980s. There’s even a Russian general based at the Isriyah military base, making sure that Syrian tank crews receive the most efficient training on the T-90s.

Fisk highlights that while Russian hardware has tipped the scales in Syria, on-the-ground Russian training and advising has also been paramount to the Syrian army's recent successes:

Syrian officers have been shown how the new T-90 anti-missile system causes rockets to veer off course only yards from the tanks when fired directly at them. Is this the weapon that might defeat the mass rocket assaults of Isis and Nusra? Perhaps. Even more important for the Syrians, however, are the new Russian night-vision motion sensors, and the electronic surveillance-reconnaissance equipment which enabled the government army to smash through the Nusra defences in the mountainous far north-west of Syria, breaking the rebel supply lines from Turkey to Aleppo.

In an army that has lost well over 60,000 dead in almost five years of hard fighting, Syria’s officers have suddenly discovered that the new Russian technology has coincided with a rapid lowering of their casualties. This may be one reason for the steady trickle of old “Free Syrian Army” deserters back to the ranks of the government forces, depleting even further David Cameron’s 70,000-strong army of “moderate” ghost soldiers. Intriguingly, since the start of the war in 2011, a far higher percentage of Syrian police and political security personnel have gone across to Bashar al-Assad’s enemies than have soldiers in the regular army. There have been 5,000 security personnel defections out of a total force of 28,000 police.

The Russians are in a unique position among Syrian ground forces; they can train the Syrians how to use the new tanks and then watch how the T-90s perform  without having to suffer any casualties themselves. Originally, there were plans to recapture Palmyra, the Roman city already partly vandalised by Isis, but the difficulties of the flat desert terrain have persuaded the Syrians that offensives in the north to cut off all rebel routes from Turkey into Syria will be far more worthwhile.

And of course, all of this has infuriated Turkey:

No wonder the Turks are now laying down shellfire amid Syrian forces along their mutual border. The Russians, of course, find it far easier to train men to fight in cities or mountains – environments in which they themselves have fought – than in deserts, in which no Russian military personnel have had experience since Gamal Abdel Nasser’s war in Yemen. 

Even if the ceasefire falls apart, it's clear that Syria has been a major testing ground for new Russian weapons and military tactics: And it's been an overwhelming success.


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