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Syrian Civil War: Russia To The Rescue

May 21, 2020

Via Wikimedia Commons.

A new report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) provides a broad overview of Russia’s intervention that turned the tide in the Syrian Civil War. Packed with skilled analysis and an abundance of detail, the 116 pages of Moscow’s War In Syria is very useful for either a general audience or serious researchers and is available as a free download. The six main chapters inside it serve as lengthy discussions of Russia’s commitment to its beleaguered ally since the crucial 2015 intervention that saved the Assad regime. The third chapter The Military Campaign gives a chronological account of combat operations organized by Russia that decimated the Syrian “opposition.”

It’s the third chapter of the report that’s most helpful for understanding Russia’s goals in Syria. According to the authors, these were three-fold: stabilize the Assad regime, retake Aleppo from the rebel opposition, and degrade the Islamic State’s territory. Russia, for the most part, succeeded and this is mentioned a handful of times with an emphasis on “a manageable cost in terms of Russian casualties and finances.” The takeaway then is Russia’s deliberate moves in Syria were far more effective than its rivals, Turkey and the US along with the various foreign partners who bankrolled the rebellion.

Compounding this success is the scale of Russia’s deployment to Syria, which relied on two well-known hubs–the naval base in Tartus and Hmeimim, where a small air contingent operated. Remarkably, the air power that nearly crushed the rebellion involved less than a hundred fixed and rotary wing aircraft with occasional support from naval assets and strategic bombers. Russia’s air force may not be rated highly compared to NATO’s but the tempo of operations maintained at Hmeimim, averaging between 40-50 a day, was too much for the rebels. Of course, the air campaign was an opportunity for various Russian aircraft to earn valuable combat experience. The authors suggest rather than state how the Su-57 Felon did fly missions “for a short period of time.”

Below is a useful tabulation of Russian air power in Syria lifted from the report.


The chapter’s best parts are the reconstructions for the three pivotal campaigns Russia launched to recover lost territory from anti-regime forces. The first campaign was “stabilizing the key battlefronts” that took several months from late 2015 until the summer of the following year. Unfortunately, the extent of Iran’s involvement during this phase goes unmentioned. Among the lesser known stories of the Syrian Civil War is how the late Maj. Gen. Soleimani convinced the Russians to intervene and support Iran’s volunteers on the ground. This is never acknowledged in the report but is useful for historical context. Once Russia established air superiority and enlarged the regime’s hold on Damascus and the Latakia countryside the second pivotal campaign was the capture of Aleppo.

Although it took almost a year to complete, from April 2016 until April 2017, the height of the battle didn’t take place until December 2016 when total encirclement and a withering air campaign induced the rebels to arrange a complete withdrawal. The fall of Aleppo served as the war’s great turning point since it reduced the anti-regime factions to small pockets such as Idlib where they are being protected by the Turkish military. With Aleppo back under regime control the third pivotal campaign was the western bank of the Euphrates River–territory belonging to ISIS’ embattled caliphate–with Deir Ezzor/Dayr Az Zawr as the main objective. Russia and its allied did succeed but their advance was blocked by the US-backed SDF who were tasked with finishing off ISIS throughout 2018 until the climactic end to the caliphate in Baghuz.

The Russian presence within Syria is still modest, with at most several thousand troops deployed, and the authors conclude the third chapter by pointing out the risk posed by low-intensity revolts either by ISIS remnants or disgruntled citizens to Moscow’s designs on the country. Moscow’s War In Syria can be downloaded for free here.

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