The Russians in Syria

Dec. 21, 2016


Russia’s military presence in Syria continues to grow despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s March announcement that he would begin to withdraw troops from the war-torn country.

Outgoing Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. told House lawmakers on Nov. 17 that Russia has shown no signs of pulling out of Syria. “They have sustained a presence of their artillery and a deployment of a very advanced air defense system,” Clapper told members of the House Select Intelligence Committee. “Clearly the Russians are there to stay.”

The US and Russia had recently brokered a temporary cease-fire that took effect Sept. 12. It called for a break in Syrian government air strikes against opposition forces, so humanitarian aid could get through to the areas and people devastated by the conflict. US officials had said that if the cease-fire held for seven days, the US and Russia could begin collaborating on air strikes against ISIS.

Air Forces Central Command boss Lt. Gen. Jeffrey L. Harrigian told reporters in mid-September the command was in the preliminary stages of creating an integration center that would enable such joint operations. However, the cease-fire crumbled a few days later when an aid convoy was bombed, killing more than 20 people.

State Department spokesman John F. Kirby said in an early October statement that the US government was suspending its efforts to bring about another cease-fire in Syria, and all US personnel dispatched to establish the joint implementation center would be withdrawn.

“This is not a decision that was taken lightly. The United States spared no effort in negotiating and attempting to implement an arrangement with Russia aimed at reducing violence, providing unhindered humanitarian access, and degrading terrorist organizations operating in Syria, including [ISIS] and al Qaeda in Syria,” said Kirby in the statement.

Russia continued to bolster its airpower in Syria after the cease-fire ended. Although roughly a dozen Su-25 ground-attack jets that were initially deployed to Hmeimim AB, Syria, did return to Russia following Putin’s March announcement, a recent satellite image published by IHS Jane’s shows eight Russian Navy Su-33s and one MiG-29K from the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov parked alongside Russia’s regular contingent of Su-34s, Su-35s, and Su-24s at Hmeimim.

Hmeimim officially became Russia’s first permanent air base in the Middle East—its only permanent air base outside of the former Soviet Union, according to Clapper—after Russia ratified a treaty with Syria on Oct. 7. Russia has operated out of the base, located in Latakia province, since September 2015, so the move was largely symbolic. However, it is indicative of Russia’s desire to project global military power. It came at a time when tensions with Washington were higher than any time since the Cold War.

The same day the air base treaty was signed, Secretary of State John F. Kerry called for an investigation of war crimes committed by Russia and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, following “yet another hospital” attack killing at least 20 people and wounding 100 more. “Those who commit these [acts] would and should be held accountable for these actions. They’re beyond the accidental now—way beyond—years beyond the accidental,” said Kerry. “This is a targeted strategy to terrorize civilians and to kill anybody and everybody who is in the way of their military objectives.”

The Syrian army, aided by Russia, recaptured the devastated city of Aleppo in mid-December. At least 6,000 civilians and rebels were able to leave the city, but many thousands are stuck and fear repercussions from the Syrian regime. There even were reports of mass executions and women and children being burned alive as they tried to leave the war-torn city.

Clapper said Russia is “increasingly putting more pressure on oppositionists in Aleppo, indiscriminately bombing women, children, hospitals.” He said the bombings are likely to continue and are negatively affecting those opposed to the Assad regime “in terms of morale and willingness to continue to fight.”

Despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Russia maintains that its presence in Syria is in reality focused on combating extremism. US officials have repeatedly said that although some of Russia’s air strikes have targeted ISIS forces in Syria, many have benefited Assad’s regime. And the fact that Russia does not regularly use precision guided munitions has led to immense civilian casualties, something the US-led coalition has taken great care to prevent.

Also, in early October, Syria moved an S-300 surface-to-air missile system to Tartus naval base, which Moscow leases from Syria, ringing alarm bells within the anti-ISIS coalition.

“Last I checked, the Russians said that their primary goal was to fight extremism, [ISIS], and [al] Nusra, in Syria. And neither one has an air force,” said Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook on Oct. 4. “So I would question just what the purpose of the system is.”

Russia quickly rebuked such concerns, saying the missile system was to protect the naval base. However, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov admitted that crews operating the advanced air defense systems would not have to utilize the established line of communication between the US and Russia if they wished to use the missiles to protect Syrian troops, reported the Associated Press.

Cook said the line of communication, to reduce the risk to US/anti-ISIS coalition aircrew and Russian aircrews operating in the same areas, had been “effective” (at least up to that point).

During the November congressional hearing, Clapper said he expected Russia to expand its presence at Tartus “to support naval operations in the eastern [Mediterranean].” Russian state media affirmed this, reporting that paperwork had been filed to create a permanent naval base in Tartus. Leonid Slutsky, the chair of the Russian Duma Foreign Affairs Committee, said the naval base would not only have “docking facilities, but also a command and control system, an air defense system, and “anti-submarine defense capabilities,” according to Russia Today.

Clapper’s testimony came roughly one week after Russian state media announced the deployment of the country’s only carrier, Kuznetsov, to the Mediterranean Sea. State media claimed sorties launched from the carrier “forced militants encircled in eastern Aleppo to search for possibilities to escape” and allegedly brought the anti-Assad rebels “to the negotiating table” to discuss a new cease-fire.

But the Kuznetsov has experienced its fair share of problems. Two Russian aircraft operating off the carrier have crashed within a month’s time. A MiG-29 crashed in November, shortly after the carrier’s arrival in advance of an expected Russian and Syrian assault on the city of Aleppo. A few weeks later, an Su-33 crashed into the Mediterranean Sea after attempting to land on the carrier following a sortie in Syria.