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Syria: What's Next for the Russian Steamroller?

The Russian military has conducted its campaign in Syria in a carefully planned and methodical way in line with Russia's military traditions and the practice of its General Staff

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This post first appeared on Russia Insider

The Syrian army’s offensive, which has resulted in the liberation of Palmyra, provides a good opportunity to the review the situation in Syria since the Russian intervention began in September.

A good starting point are the objectives we attributed to the Russians in an article we published on 7th November 2015.  This is what we said there:

‘“The Russian air campaign is therefore carefully judged and is achieving its objectives.

1. It has prevented the US and its allies carrying out their plan for a bombing campaign that would have resulted in the overthrow of the Syrian government;

2. It has provided time and space for a renewed diplomatic effort paving the way for an eventual political settlement based on Russian ideas.  These exclude the setting up of an Islamist jihadi state on Syrian territory. As the Saker correctly says the US appears to have conceded the point;

3. It has provided time and space for the Syrian army to recover, so that it can eventually go on the offensive, creating the conditions for the political settlement the Russians want to impose; and

4. It is weakening the rebels’ infrastructure, preventing them launching an offensive and weakening them in preparation for the Syrian military offensive which is to come.

Of these four objectives the first is the most important since without achieving it the other three would be impossible.

As things stand, the first objective has been achieved. The US bombing campaign has been called off in a major success for Russian policy.

The other three objectives continue to be a work in progress. “ 

Since then events have moved quickly.

The diplomatic effort (objective 2) has borne fruit with negotiations underway to achieve a political settlement.

The Syrian rebels have at various times since the Russians intervened attempted to launch offensives.  The Islamic State for example launched an offensive that briefly captured the town of Khanasser - cutting the main road to Aleppo - which attracted quite a lot of attention.

The combination of Russian bombing and the revival of the Syrian army has meant that all these rebel offensives have been unsuccessful.  They have all been repulsed, apparently with heavy losses.

Russian bombing has unquestionably weakened the rebels, making it impossible for them to sustain offensives, and making the Syrian army’s offensives towards Aleppo and Palmyra much easier than they would otherwise have been.

One can therefore say that objective 4 has to a great extent been achieved, though it is and will remain a work in progress until the war in Syria finally ends.

Lastly there is little doubt that the flood of new weapons and advisers from Russia and Iran has revitalised the Syrian army (objective 3).   Its conduct in the battles of the last few weeks - and in the offensive which liberated Palmyra in particular - showed a marked change over its conduct earlier in the war.

Whereas the Syrian army previously made up for its manpower shortages by heavy over-reliance on slow-moving tracked armoured vehicles in an excessively tank heavy mix which typically lacked proper infantry and engineering support, today it uses its infantry much more effectively and aggressively, placing many of them in lighter and more fast moving wheeled vehicles, that are better adapted to many of the battles it has to fight.

The heavy concentrations of armour - now beefed up with around two dozen TOW resistant T90 tanks and an unknown number of TOS1 rocket systems supplied by Russia - are by contrast now being used properly where they are needed, in the tough positional warfare against the more heavily armed US and Turkish supported jihadi rebels in the north, around Aleppo and Idlib.

A feature of the new offensives has been the heavy role played in them by the Syrian army’s special forces units - units with picturesque names like the “Tiger Forces” and the “Desert Falcons”.

These units existed before the Russian intervention.  However it is only since the Russian intervention that they have been given their head and are being used properly.

The change in Syrian tactics is visible in the battle to liberate Palmyra.

Whereas the previous Syrian strategy was to encircle rebel controlled towns with heavy armour and artillery so as to starve and shell them into submission - a disastrous strategy in moral and political terms and one which rarely succeeded on its own terms, instead bogging the Syrian army down in attritional warfare which its limited manpower resources meant it could ill-afford - Palmyra was quickly stormed in hand-to-hand fighting by small groups of elite well-trained infantry.  

The task of intercepting Islamic State supplies and reinforcements being rushed to Palmyra was left - as it should be - to the Russian airforce, which tracked and bombed Islamic State convoys trying to reach Palmyra along the main roads - apparently inflicting in the process heavy losses on the Islamic State.  

Heavy tanks and armour seem to have been barely used, with the force that liberated Palmyra numbering no more than 5,000 men.

The success of such tactics depends heavily on good intelligence and effective command-and-control, with good coordination of the movements of the ground troops and of the airforce.

It is here that the presence of Russian and Iranian advisers - drawn mostly from Russia’s Spetsnaz forces and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards - has almost certainly made the vital difference, as has the Russians’ ability to observe the battlefield with aerial drones and other technical means, enabling them to keep the advancing Syrian troops continuously informed of what their enemy is doing.

As for the truce in western Syria its importance is not that it has allowed the whole of the Syrian army to be redeployed to fight the Islamic State in eastern Syria as some have claimed.  

Most of the Syrian army remains positioned in western Syria where it stands ready to defend the Syrian government’s heartlands in Damascus and along the coast and where it is positioning for future offensives in Aleppo and Idlib, where the largest number of most heavily armed jihadis are actually concentrated.

The importance of the truce is that it has provided the respite the Syrian army needs to re-equip and retrain in western Syria in preparation for these offensives, whilst releasing the better trained and more mobile and lightly equipped special infantry units like the Desert Falcons and the Tiger Forces to take the battle to the Islamic State in places like Palmyra.

The liberation of Palmyra now sets the scene for the lifting of the siege of the eastern desert city of Deir ez-Zor, whose heroic defence by the Syrian army under the command of General Issam Zahreddine - a member of Syria’s Druze community - in a 2 year siege is one of the great unsung stories of the Syrian civil war.

The lifting of the siege of Deir ez-Zor will bring the Syrian army within striking distance of the Iraqi border, cutting the Islamic State’s territories in Syria in two and putting the Syrians - and the Russians - in a position where they can intercept the Islamic State’s communications between the territories it controls in Iraq and its Syrian capital at Raqqa.

It will also bring a vast stretch of Syrian territory - albeit mainly desert - back under Syrian government control, ending the claim the Syrian government only controls a small fraction of Syria’s territory.

It should also in the process finally bury any plan for the partition of Syria on sectarian lines through the setting up of some sort of Sunni state in the east of the country.

With these latest moves it is therefore possible to get an overall sense of what the Russian battle plan in Syria has been.  

There have been four distinct stages, which the Russians have followed in their typically methodical way.  They suggest the sort of careful planning which is typical of the Russian General Staff:

Stage 1

This stage lasted from the start of the campaign in October until mid November.

This was a period of consolidation, with the US plan to set up a no-fly zone thwarted and with the territories remaining under the control of the Syrian government including especially Damascus and Latakia province finally secured.

During this period most of the Russian bombing raids were concentrated in the west of the country provoking criticism in the West that Russia was not bombing the Islamic State.

It is in fact standard practice for the Russians to secure their base area before launching an offensive, and during this stage that is what they were doing.  That is why most of their bombing raids during this period where concentrated in western Syria rather than against the Islamic State further east.

Stage 2

This stage lasted from mid November to mid January.

This was the period of the first Syrian army offensives and was a period of major escalation, with the Russians throwing heavy bombers (14 TU22M3s and 6 TU95s and 5 TU160s) into the campaign.

This led to massive round the clock bombing, allowing the Syrian military finally to regain full control of Syria’s two central cities of Homs and Hama - the focus of the original anti-government protests of 2011 - and to regain control of much of the countryside around Damascus.

It was also during this stage that the first steps towards lifting the siege of Aleppo were taken with the lifting in November of the siege of the Kuweires air base near Aleppo.

The key point about the Russian bombing during this period is not the sheer number of bombs that were dropped.

It is that the Russians because of their far superior flight and guidance systems were able bomb continuously round the clock, day and night, in all weathers, giving the rebels no respite whilst flying from altitudes where the rebels’ anti aircraft systems couldn’t reach them.

Experience in previous conflicts shows that it is this sort of continuous bombing which - together with its accuracy - paralyses movement, interrupts supplies and causes exhaustion to set in and morale to collapse.

It was this heavy bombing that set the scene for Syrian army’s advances over the following weeks.

Though it was the strategic TU95s and TU160s with their cruise missiles that attracted most of the attention, the heavy lifting was probably actually done by the TU22M3s with their free fall bombs.

Stage 3 

This stage lasted from mid January to the beginning of March.

It witnessed the major Syrian army offensive that led to the lifting of the siege of Aleppo and the effective encirclement of most of the rebel forces there.

It ended with the truce which has brought peace to most of western Syria - permitting the withdrawal of the greater part of the Russian aerial strike force based in Latakia.

At the end of this stage the Syrian government’s hold on the populous coastal regions in the west of the country was finally and fully secured.  It became clear that the Syrian government could not be defeated militarily, making possible the negotiations which are finally underway between the Syrian government and its opponents in Geneva.

Stage 4

This is the stage which is underway now, with the truce releasing the remaining Russian aerial assets still left in Syria and the elite forces of the Syrian army to take the battle to the Islamic State in eastern Syria.  

This stage will probably end within the next week or so with the lifting of the siege of Deir ez-Zor and with the Syrian army reaching the Iraqi border.

Future operations

It is likely that there will be further stages in combat operations after this.

A mixture of diplomatic and military means will probably be used to restore full Syrian government control of the part of Aleppo which is still under rebel control.

There will however have to be a Syrian army offensive to liberate the city of Idlib and Idlib province.  Most of the rebel fighters there are jihadis impervious to negotiation and compromise.

Lastly a Syrian army offensive is almost certainly being planned to retake the Islamic State’s capital Raqqa.  

This could be a multiple-pronged affair involving Syrian troops advancing towards Raqqa along the main roads from Aleppo (once it is fully secured) in the west, from Hama in the south west, and along the Euphrates river by road from Deir ez-Zor in the south east.

By that point the Syrian war - and with it the military part of the Syrian conflict - will be almost at an end, with a political settlement close.

It is impossible to say at this stage how long this process will take.  However events have moved faster in Syria since the Russian intervention in September than anyone expected.

One way or the other it is likely most of the fighting in Syria - and the main part of the war - will be over before the end of the year.  

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