28 October 2020

7 lessons learned by the Russian forces in the Syrian war

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

After 2015, the moment the Russian forces were dislocated to Syria, Moscow was able to truly train its military forces and experiment/ reconfirm, in different environments, the military equipment it had or it planned to use in the future. There were also previous attempts when Russia wanted to prove it could use its military forces the same way US and NATO were doing in the operations theatres in Afghanistan or Iraq. That happened in 2008, quite difficult, against an enemy like Georgia which could not do too much anyway, or in 2014, in Ukraine, which turned out to be better, however in a too predictable field.

Image source: Profimedia

The true attempt was going to be the dislocation of Russian forces in Syria, in a country and a region where friendships and hostilities can hardly be distinguished, where enemies and partners are, sometimes, the same thing, in a middle of a population that follows a different religion, a different culture, a different peace and war approach. And that happened a few miles away from the permanent military bases.

Five years since the Russian operations started in Syria, one can identify some of Russia’s “learned lessons” in this war, which could be useful for a better understanding of this military dislocation and possible consequences for the combat capacity of the Russian forces. These are the forces which are only a few hundred miles away from Romania’s Eastern border.

1. You do not win a war through air strikes only. This is also available for the conflicts wherein there is an obvious difference between the local and the dislocated forces. The aviation blitzkrieg proves to be longer than expected, but also useless, from a certain point of view, if other forces do not interfere. The Russian military is mostly composed of air forces, in the first part of the dislocation. Just like the US’s lately interferences in some regional conflicts, after the operations started, they had to dislocate also land forces, special forces, coast artillery, but also military police and civilian contractors.

2. The expeditionary forces asked for logistics and equipment that Russia did not have in 2015. Russia interfered in Syria due to political reasons but also due to the need to improve its capabilities in a field wherein it was lagging behind comparing to its NATO enemies. The Russian army was prepared for a war carried on its own soil or in the immediate vicinity. The contemporary conflicts proved, however, that the national interests are defended even miles away from the national borders. That requires special logistic capacities, transport methods, special equipment and even a different planning. How useful would have been the helicopter carriers Mistral, the ones that were directed by the Ukraine crisis from Russia to other beneficiaries of France’s exports! Seeking solutions involved deep changes and asked for the cooperation of all force categories. An impressive ship contingent, the “Syrian Express”, has supported the supply operation of the forces. As it did not have enough carrier ships, Russia got some from Turkey, its dual-citizenship partner. The naval express was doubled by and air express, which used the Iranian air corridor to launch missile attacks or air strikes by the strategic aviation. In 2018 only, they executed 342 naval transports and 2278 air transports, which provided 1,6 million tons of equipment, munition and food. The concurrent use of the two logistic capabilities can be used as well in different strategic directions, as this is one of the most valuable lessons learned by the Russian forces in this conflict.

3. The presence of Russian advisers was, most likely, more important than Russian forces’ actual participation to operations. The approach was different than the one of the US and NATO forces, which built counseling structures in Afghanistan and Iraq with representatives being dislocated from different units and different partner countries. The dislocation depends on positions, hence, any rotation requires a period of time for the one taking over the position to communicate the problems and also some time for him to accommodate to the position.

The Russian army has dislocated general staffs and Russian teams to the large units and Syrian commands, following the same format used in their origin units. This allowed teams’ cohesion and the experience they gained can also be used afterwards, when they get back to their bases. When they entered Syria, the Russians discovered that, in fact, there was no actual Syrian army, but the fight against the rebellious forces was being carried in isolated groups, by commanders that were relying on the loyalty of the tribes they where originated from, by the Hezbollah forces.

Changing the operations’ development, rebuilding the Syrian units, increasing the combativeness of the Syrian fighters were the main successes of the Russian interference through counselors. Their approach was organized and the first months of their dislocation was dedicated only to reorganizing the Syrian forces and keeping the territory under control.

Then, through a combination of land offensives on different directions, talks with local leaders who have changed camps, air strikes which blocked the usual rebellious counterattacks they have managed to take over the large-scale control of the Syrian territory.

That’s something that around 50.000 Russian military have experienced so far, many of them coming from Western and Southern regions, those to be placed on the positions Russian expects to be militarily attacked.

4. The Russian forces conducted unconventional operations, which were flexibly approached. As they do not have their own expeditionary forces, the dislocated Russian forces were, in general, the land forces, professional military with a classical training experience. In Syria, however, the missions were increasingly different and challenging: they conducted patrols, they used drones to monitor and they protected themselves against enemies’ drones, protected oil facilities, they demined territories, build bridges for military purposes, which continued to be, then, used for civilian needs, fought in villages, attacked objectives hidden in the underground facilities. For all these missions, they used the available forces and subunits with different practice like military police, sappers.

5. Some weapons and equipment proved to be useful. But not that many. The same happened with some tactics practiced at home (although such training is quite realistically practiced in the Russian army, given the lack of materials that is still defining some forces and units). Some examples to that end:

-the artillery support of the offensive operations was, as always, a strong element of the Russian forces. But the targets’ identification was not conducted by helicopters. Drones were more effective, more silent even allowing longer observation missions. And, of course, cheaper as well.

- but helicopters proved more effective when using precision-guided munition, more committed in supporting the land operations. This, however, provoked bigger loses for the rest of the aviation (7 combat aircrafts comparing to 12 helicopters, out of which 6 were lost in the battle, comparing to one aircraft in the same circumstances.

- the use of precision-guided munition was one of the weakest elements of the campaign, as the Russian aviation has few resources to that end, both when it comes to the munition itself, but also the types of aircrafts that could have used it (except for the Su-34, which carries KAB-500S satellite guided bombs), of course, and the lack of air and land methods to identify the targets. And this was dramatically noticed in the civilian loses of the operations or when attacking targets like homes, hospitals, affecting the conflict’s image.

- the Syrian campaign revealed greater equipment reliability, superior maintenance, and less losses for the combat equipment due to failure during operations comparing to the Georgia campaign, for example. One explanation is the fact that a real contingent of technicians and specialists was deployed at the military base in Hmeimim, Latakia, about 25% of the total forces (around 1,200 representatives from 57 weapons companies, military technical repair structures, even researchers from military institutes). If to this "defense industry campus" we add the numerous logistical support structures, we reach a report close to the Western conception where most of the forces are composed of support elements for the fighting elite, which is in a numerical minority;

- operations in Syria have made it possible to test a wide range of equipment in combat conditions, and the results have been seen in contracts aimed primarily at those “winners” perceived to be more reliable for use in contemporary conflicts: fighter aircraft Su-34 and Su-35, possibly the Su-57 stealth aircraft, S-400 systems, Ka-52 and Mi-28N helicopters. But these are just the "stars", a number of other equipment proving its operational reliability.

6. Russian mercenaries got media’s attention. As counterparts of the civilian contractors of other states, Russians were also used in mission wherefore the military forces were either lacking a mandate or were unusual, existing the possibility to provoke political effects which would involve the state they come from too much. Unlike the Western system, where missions are normally protection and security-based, the Russian contractors are more militarized, their missions being actual fight missions. Thus the resemblances with the special forces.

The most eloquent examples are the “Wagner mercenaries”, led by a former GRU’s Spetsnaz brigade commander, Dmitry Utkin (that one whose pen name stays in company’s name). These were seen as a decisive force when taking over the control of the Palmira and Alep cities and their connections with the Russian defence ministry are quite strong.

At times, their numbers came close to the figures for the entire Russian contingent in Syria, but most of the time they were smaller. The organization is, in general, the very image of a large joint unit of weapons: 4 reconnaissance and assault brigades (the level is more of a battalion) with 3 companies of 100 people each, and an artillery battalion with three batteries, each with 100 people, a research and sabotage company - 150 people, a communications company - 100 people, a command and logistical support staff - 200 people.

Although these companies are banned in Russia, some of the mercenaries' commanders have received official honors for participating in the conflict, orders and medals, which gives another perspective to the alleged independence of these structures.

7. “Keep it simple”, the Russian version. Despite all efforts made lately, the Russian military categories do not have, in terms of the equipment for most of the forces and military categories, qualitative equipment like the NATO states have. The disadvantages regarding their technical equipment were managed in the Syrian conflict through simple procedures like flexibility in the decision-making process, going over the equipment problems and coming up with ad-hoc solutions that could also be used in the training of the Russian forces on national territory. They used old-fashioned equipment because they knew their limits, they tested new ones, because the need for automatization and used of robots on the battlefield demanded it. They integrated everything they could in a C2 systems, including with Syrian units, they cooperated a lot with the research structures with the drones’ coordination subunits, they relied on the human component a lot. The equipment’s standardization, bigger than in the NATO forces, has allowed the establishment of a simpler network, more effective in the environment in Syria. Maybe thing would not work out so well in a different environment, but the Syrian armed forces were already matching, in terms of training procedures and equipment, with the Russian ones.

When it comes to political decisions, Russia works following its own framework, the one of a regional power seeking to become a superpower, with actions and reactions, generally predictable, precisely because of this framework.

On the military plan, one of the gains of military involvement in Syria was exemplified by the head of the Russian army, General Valeri Gherasimov, who, in 2013, was saying when referring to the use of forces that “every war is an isolated, unique case” to a 2019 perspective according to which the Syrian actions allowed the “development of a strategy of limited actions for the outside defence of the Russian interests by using expeditionary forces”.

In other words, the isolated case has become a doctrinal source for a new use of Russian forces that will be able to act "in uncoventional circumstances", led by commanders who will make "flexible decisions".

Asymmetric conflicts are now in the Russian doctrinal panoply, with enemies who are inferior in terms of equipment, but have a strong will to fight. The strategic, operational and tactical levels are starting to mix, the objectives no longer depending on them.

In Syria, the civilian-military cooperation was assumed as well as in the procedures and regulations from the Russian military bases. The informational war, the psychological operations are already being conducted, “played” during the recent military drills “Vostok” and “Zapad” and, most likely, in real conditions on the directions where Moscow thinks its interested are being threatened.

Which is not exactly good news for the Western neighbors of Russia, Romania being one of them.

Translated by Andreea Soare