In-Depth: Examining Russia’s Military Presence in Syria


Pictures of Russian troops in Syria have brought Russia’s role into the public spotlight. While Russia’s ministers downplay their military’s role, Analyst Sean Crowley takes an investigative approach to catalogue the evidence against them.


 

Allegations of Russian military involvement in Syria are the latest claims in a series of suspicious activities coming from Russia and its allies in the region. A Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman has said that it’s no secret that Russia is operating “military specialists” in the country, but claims their role is strictly advisory. The evidence, however, suggests otherwise. Russia is unlikely to give up its last Middle Eastern base out of geopolitical concern, or let one of its closest allies fall to the advancing Syrian rebels; the question is, how far will Russia go to sustain Assad’s hold over the nation?

 

Background

In August 2014, a United States-led coalition launched Operation Inherent Resolve, a coordinated effort to strike key Islamic State (IS) targets using primarily airpower. Conversely, Russia’s contributions to the fight against IS have consisted primarily – at least on the surface – of supplying weapons to Syria and Iraq, the states in the heartland of IS’s caliphate.

On 4 August 2015 Colonel-General Vladimir Shamanov, commander of Russia’s Airborne Troops (Vozdushno-desantnye voyska; VDV), stated that Russia was ready to provide paratroopers to assist Syria in its fight against IS. Responding to a question from a Syrian journalist, the general said, “Of course we will execute the decisions set forth by [Russia’s] leadership, if there is a task at hand.” General Shamanov also mentioned that Syria and Russia have “long-term good relations” and that “many Syrian experts, including military, received education in the Soviet Union and in Russia.”

Dmitriy Peskov, President Vladimir Putin’s official spokesman, responded to General Shamanov’s statements with almost immediate refutation. Speaking to reporters, Peskov said in regard to General Shamanov’s statement, “No, this issue [sending Russian troops to Syria] has never been discussed in any way. The issue is out of the agenda.” In response to a reporter’s question regarding what would happen if Syria requested troops, Peskov issued a similar response, “No this issue has never been raised.” Further, Peskov emphasized that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad never asked Russia to contribute troops to Syria.

Despite Peskov’s assurances, there is ample evidence that Russian involvement in Syria is escalating. Even President Putin admitted on 4 September that Russia was “looking at various options” when discussing the possibility of deploying troops to Syria. Most officials, however, are toeing the Kremlin line, claiming that Russia is simply maintaining the military-technical relationship it has always had with Syria.

However, evidence shows that Russia’s role in Syria is escalating beyond that of a weapons-supplier and technical advisor. Not only is Russia delivering some of its most advanced weapons systems to Syria, but it is also providing the personnel needed to operate them. There is reason to suspect that these “advisors” are active-duty Russian military personnel as opposed to mere contractors – also present in Syria. Other reports suggest extensive military and intelligence cooperation between not only Russia and Syria but Iran as well as the possibility of Moscow beginning its own air campaign in Syria. All of this indicates that Russia is determined to defend one of its last bastions of influence in the Middle East.

 

Special Delivery

On 20 August, observers spotted the Nikolay Filchenkov, a Russian Project 1171 (Tapir; NATO reporting name: “Alligator”) class landing ship, passing through the Bosphorus Strait at the entrance to Istanbul. The Filchenkov is part of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet based in the Crimean city of Sevastopol. Though the ship’s ultimate destination remains unknown, it was likely heading for Tartus, a major warm-water naval facility in Syria.

Russia has used Tartus since the late Cold War and the port is one of the primary reasons why Moscow is so intent on keeping the Assad regime in power. Russia delivers arms to Tartus on a weekly basis, including shipments of missiles, replacement parts, and ammunition.

The ship’s deck displayed an assortment of military vehicles, including four KamAZ-4350 6x6 trucks, one GAZ-66 truck, and four BTR armored personnel carriers (APCs) concealed by tarps; a wide variety of equipment could potentially have been stored below deck. Ruslan Pukhov, the spokesman for Russia’s arms industry, has stated that the Syrian armed forces mostly need “ammunition, light weapons, communications, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV)” – not military trucks and APCs.

Regarding the BTRs, Russia dispatched a task force, equipped with several BTR-80s, to oversee the dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles. In either late 2013 or early 2014, the Syrian military also received a shipment of BTR-80s. However, observers have spotted at least one BTR-82A APC in Latakia, the home province of President Assad’s family and, therefore, a bastion of regime support. There is currently heavy fighting in Latakia between government forces and Jaysh al-Fatah (“the Army of Conquest”), a Sunni Islamist coalition that includes the al-Qa’ida franchise Jabhat al-Nusra.

The BTR-82A is a modernized variant of the BTR-80, sporting a 30-mm 2A72 autocannon as opposed to the latter’s 2A42 and KPVT turrets. Additionally, the BTR-82A first entered service with the Russian military in 2013. The BTR-82A seen in Syria had a bort number (in this case “111”) stenciled on the side indicating that it was marked using the current designation system for Russian, not Syrian, military hardware. It also sported a camouflage pattern different from previous BTRs shipped to Syria including the chemical disposal team vehicles, which were painted olive drab and bore no tactical markings.

In addition, audio released by the media arm of the Syrian armed forces features an unknown individual giving orders in Russian to a BTR-82A crew fighting with Syrian Arab Army and Republican Guard units in Latakia. Judging from the audio, the BTR crew used the call sign “Peacock.”

In 2012, then-Russian Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov stated that Russia had sent “military and technical advisors” to Syria. Experts claim that Russia would not use contractors to operate a system as new and advanced as the BTR-82A, therefore making it likely that the individual shouting orders in the aforementioned audio recording was a member of the Russian military embedded with Syrian forces as were the BTR crew members. U.S. defense experts also maintain that the term “advisor” differs in Russian military parlance. In the Russian military, the line blurs between training and combat, and Russian troops often become most acclimated with new weapons systems during actual fighting.

Russia has delivered several other relatively modern military vehicles to Syria such as the GAZ Tigr infantry mobility vehicle. In its efforts to eliminate perceived Syrian threats to its own territory, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) report having destroyed advanced Russian weapons systems including P-800 Oniks (also known by its export name “Yakhont,” and NATO’s reporting name, SS-N-26 “Strobile”) anti-ship missiles and S-300 (NATO reporting name: SA-10 “Grumble”) anti-air (AA) systems.

The U.S. feared Syria would use the Oniks missiles to threaten Western ships transporting supplies to the anti-Assad opposition, enforce a shipping embargo, or to enforce a no-fly zone. The missiles also threatened the Israeli Navy, which feared the missiles could change hands with Hizbullah, the Lebanese Shi’ite militant group also fighting in Syria for the Assad regime.

It is likely that Russia violated a United Nations arms embargo established in August by shipping S-300 missiles to Syria. Russia reached a deal to ship S-300s to Syria in 2007, and both states have confirmed the delivery of some component parts. Israel feared that Syria would target its aircraft with the advanced AA system (the S-300 can track over 100 targets at once), and again dreaded the transfer of sophisticated Syrian military hardware to Hizbullah.

 

Mission Creep

Numerous additional reports claim the Russian military is active in Syria; one places Russian troops in Slanfah, a village 30-km east of Latakia. Their supposed objective was to halt a rebel advance against the predominantly-Alawite (the sect of Shi’a Islam that President Assad and the majority of his government follow) settlement. The Russian forces there are reportedly equipped with modern hardware, and maintain a base at a Park Plaza Hotel nicknamed the “Big Slanfah.” They form a defensive line that starts from Slanfah and stretches as far as the city of Masyaf in Hama. Russia also reportedly plans to construct a second military base in Jablah, a seaside town 25-km south of Latakia and located near Tartus.

Russian officers, both in uniform and civilian clothes, are already in Damascus meeting with their Syrian and Iranian counterparts. They usually convene at the cafes and restaurants in areas such as Yaafour and Sabboura as well as West Mezze, a district in Damascus where the Syrian military’s 4th Armored Division operates a vital airbase.

Witnesses have spotted Russian and Syrian soldiers jointly manning a checkpoint in Damascus’s Shaghour district; the Russians were armed and wore different fatigues than their Syrian counterparts. An opposition website reported that Russian and Iranian troops deployed to the Damascus neighborhoods of Baramkeh, al-Basha, and Tanzem Kfarsouseh. Iranian personnel have already turned the Venezia Hotel in al-Basha into a military barracks. There are also reports of Russian troops in Zabadnai, a city 45-km north of Damascus. Iranian forces and Hizbullah are already aiding the Syrian military in defending this city against rebels. 

These reports are relatively recent and hardly the first indicating a covert Russian presence in Syria. In May 2013 Russia reportedly dispatched Zaslon (“Screen”) spetsnaz (special operations forces) units to Syria. Established in 1998, Zaslon operates overseas under the command of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (Sluzhba vneshney razvedki; SVR) – specifically Directorate S, the agency’s undercover division – to conduct assassination and hostage-rescue missions.

Numbering around 280 in total, Zaslon operators tend to avoid the spotlight, often deploying in either civilian clothes or the uniforms of other outfits such as embassy security details. Zaslon commandos reportedly provided security for former SVR director Mikhail Fradkov when he visited Damascus in 2012. Moscow may employ Zaslon operators to evacuate key Russian nationals from its embassy as well various civilian and military installations should the situation in Syria deteriorate enough. Russia may also use them to remove sensitive documents and high-tech equipment that it does not want to end up in rebel or Western hands.    

Additionally, Russia is providing the Syrian regime with satellite imagery. Reportedly, this is for monitoring the deployment of U.N.-sponsored international forces in Syria, however Russia is known to have already undertaken intelligence operations against international observers from Syrian soil. Russia supposedly plans to deploy not only an independent task force to Syria but a joint task force including personnel from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (the Russian and Central Asian equivalent of NATO). The organization will meet on 15 September in Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe.

 

Mixed Signals

In October 2014 the Free Syrian Army (FSA) raided a Russian listening outpost in Tal al-Hara, located just south of the Quneitera border crossing with Israel. Russia maintains at least three listening posts in Syria named Center-S, S-2, and S-3. Center-S was reportedly the outpost seized by the FSA. The facility served as a signals intelligence (SIGINT) decryption site operated jointly by Syrian intelligence and the Osnaz division of Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate (Glavnoye razvedyvatel'noye upravleniye; GRU).

At the facility, Russian and Syrian analysts worked together to decipher and record radio conversations between members of virtually every known anti-Assad rebel group. (Captured documents indicate Syrian Brigadier General Nazir Fuddah, “commander of the first center,” demanded that analysts record all “terrorist” communications.) Russian-gathered information, therefore, likely led to the assassinations of various rebel leaders by Syrian air strikes. Russia also provided upgrades to the facility to give not only Syria but Iran greater situational awareness in the region. When finally upgraded, Center-S’s electronic surveillance capabilities covered all of Israel and Jordan as well as a significant portion of Saudi Arabia.

A video tour of the facility posted by FSA fighters on YouTube shows documents on the walls written in both Arabic and Russian as well as the logos for both Syrian intelligence and the GRU’s 6th Directorate. Photographs capture visits to the facility by high-profile Russian officials including Counselor to the Russian Minister of Defense L.K. Kudelina and the chief of the Main Directorate of International Military Cooperation of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. Documents also list the names of the facility’s Russian commanders; their surnames are illegible but all are colonels.

Another interesting discovery is that the facility’s maps display not only the positions of rebel forces but also of IDF units including those operating in the country’s Northern Military District. The focus on Israel was reportedly encouraged by Iran who felt that the facility focused too much on the Syrian Civil War and not enough on espionage against the Jewish state.

 

Mercenaries and the Donbas Connection

In January 2013, anti-Assad rebels killed Sergey Aleksandrovich Berezhnoy, a Russian judge, in Damascus’s Daraya district. Berezhnoy was supposedly “vacationing” in Syria when he died and was accompanied by journalists from the pro-Russian Abkhazian Network News Agency (ANNA) which has embedded with the Syrian military throughout the Civil War. The Kremlin often uses the term “vacation” as a cover for combat operations undertaken by its active-duty forces in eastern Ukraine and it may have had a similar use here; Berezhnoy was a GRU veteran and fought in several post-Soviet conflicts including the one in Georgia’s breakaway, pro-Kremlin Abkhazia region.

ANNA has additional ties to both Russian intelligence and the unofficial veteran community of Russia’s post-Soviet separatist wars. A hacker collective calling itself Sholtai Boltai (“Humpty Dumpty”) intercepted emails between ANNA journalist Olga Kulygina and Igor Strelkov (alias: Igor Girkin). Strelkov was a major player in the pro-Moscow insurrection in Donbas, and claims to be a former Russian Federal Security Service (Federal'naya sluzhba bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsii; FSB) colonel (though Kiev and the EU believe he is former GRU).

In one email, Kulygina asked Strelkov to vet a “volunteer” to serve as a bodyguard for “Marat” in Syria. “Marat” referred to Kulygina’s colleague at ANNA, Murat Musin, who wrote a series of pro-Assad articles with her. In September 2014 Kievan forces arrested Kulygina in Ukraine and accused her of being a Russian agent. This claim may not be unsubstantiated as there are photographs taken of her in Slavyansk – located in Donbas – brandishing a Kalashnikov rifle.

As in Donbas, there are reports of Russian mercenaries operating in Syria. However, their treatment by Russian authorities is in stark contrast to that given to their comrades in eastern Ukraine. Mercenaries are technically illegal under Russian law, but the Kremlin has given considerable leeway to Russian citizens who volunteer to fight for pro-Russian separatists in Donbas. (Conversely, Russian citizens who fight for pro-Kiev militias are often subject to prosecution.) Officially, Russia prohibits the use of contractors/mercenaries in Syria, and in October 2013 the FSB actually detained members of a mercenary group called the Slavonic Corps upon their return to Russia.

The Slavonic Corps operated under a contract from the Moran Security Group, a St. Petersburg-based private security company. Its CEO, Vyacheslav Kalashnikov, is a lieutenant colonel in the FSB reserves. Under the contract, the Corps’ mission was to protect infrastructure critical to the Assad regime, namely oil fields. In October 2013, 267 Slavonic Corps members came under siege from 2,000 to 6,000 rebel fighters in Sukhnah, a town east of Palmyra on the road connecting Homs to Deir Ezzor. With six men wounded and two in critical condition, the mercenaries retreated to their base, a large field between Latakia and Tartus.

Why the FSB would detain these mercenaries upon their return to Russia and not the ones fighting in Donbas remains unknown as they are all fighting to advance Russian interests. It could be that the Kremlin fears public backlash from revelations that Russia is increasing its military involvement in a country where there is not only a war but virtually no ethnic Russians.

 

Putting on Air Support

Russia reportedly flew an “expeditionary force” to Damascus to prepare for air combat missions over Syria. This force has already turned a Syrian air force installation into its forward operating base (FOB) complete with prefabricated housing for at least 1,000 personnel and a portable air traffic control center. Observers also reported an Ilyushin Il-76 (NATO reporting name: “Candid”) military airlifter making flights to and from Damascus using the call sign “Manny 6.” This aircraft could be delivering the expeditionary force which includes “advisors, instructors, logistics personnel, technical personnel, members of an aerial protection division, and pilots.” There have also been three flights in recent days from Antonov An-124 (NATO reporting name: “Condor”) transport planes which are larger than the aforementioned Candid. 

U.S. officials reported that Russia asked for clearance flights into Syria for unstated reasons. Washington also asked Greece to not allow Russian supply flights over its territory. Moscow asked Athens for permission to use its airspace but chose an alternate route. Bulgaria has also refused Russian access to its airspace. In addition, defense and intelligence sources in Sofia reported that even though the Russian government classified the cargo on these transports as “humanitarian” – another common cover term used by Russian elements in Donbas – there were indeed weapons on board. Maksim Suslov, the spokesman for Russia’s embassy in Tehran, recently confirmed that Russia received permission from Iran to use its airspace for flights into Syria. 

A Twitter account linked to Jabhat al-Nusra posted photgraphs which purport to show relatively modern Russian military aircraft flying over Syria’s Iblib province. Aircraft photographed include Sukhoi Su-27 (NATO reporting name: “Flanker”) and MiG-29 (NATO reporting name: “Fulcrum”) air superiority fighters, a Su-34 (NATO reporting name: “Fullback”) strike fighter, and a Yakovlev Pchela-1T UAV. Russian UAVs are reportedly already a common sight over Syrian skies.

The Syrian military is already in full retreat in Iblib province which borders Latakia. However, an Iranian news outlet reported that the Syrian air force bombed rebel forces, including Nusra fighters, on 2 September. This was around the same time the aforementioned pictures of advanced Russian aircraft appeared on the Nusra-linked Twitter account. Russia also reportedly had plans to sell MiG-29s, Yakov Yak-130 (NATO reporting name: “Mitten”) trainer aircraft (which can be converted into combat aircraft), and MiG-31 (NATO reporting name: “Foxhound”) interceptors to Syria. However, MiG CEO Sergey Korotkov denies such sales.

Other responses to the alleged military buildup from those close to the Kremlin were typical.  President Putin’s press secretary, Dmitriy Peskov, assured reporters that Russia was not planning to conduct air strikes in Syria. In response to Greece and Bulgaria’s actions, Vladimir Djarbarov, vice president of the Russian foreign affairs council, reiterated the supposed “humanitarian” nature of the cargo on Russian transport planes. He also mentioned that the majority of Russia’s flights to Syria travel via routes over the Caucasus and Iran, and that access to Greek airspace was not particularly vital.

 

Peace in Our Time…On Our Terms

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is adamant that President Assad’s departure cannot be a condition in any effort to end the Syrian Civil War. Conversely, the U.S. sees President Assad as a major factor in the war’s continuation. These diametrically opposed views will likely make it difficult for the U.S. and Russia to cooperate on combating IS, and achieve a reconciliation in their post-Crimea relationship. Moscow has trusted the Assad family with maintaining Russia’s now last remaining military base in the Middle East since the rule of President Assad’s father, Hafiz al-Assad, and it is unlikely that the Kremlin is willing to take the chance of a government they are not familiar with ruling Syria.

Not only does the Assad regime offer Russia a military footprint in the Middle East but it also offers a solution to the IS problem. Russia wants the caliphate crushed before its influence permeates too far into Chechnya and the Muslim-majority former Soviet republics. (Some jihadist groups in these regions have already pledged allegiance to IS.) The U.S. worries that increased Russian involvement will only exacerbate the Civil War. Secretary of State John Kerry warned that an escalated Russian presence could increase refugee flows as well as the chances of confrontation between Russian forces and the American-led coalition.

As previously stated, Russia’s determination to prop up the Assad regime has also made it a strategic and military bedfellow with another one of Syria’s major allies: Iran. On 24 July, travelling on the commercial Air Iran flight #5130, Iranian Major General Qassem Suleimani arrived in Moscow at 0650 hours to meet high-level Russian officials. The general reportedly met with President Putin and Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu, and though it is unknown what they discussed it is likely that their conversations concerned Syria.

The U.S. State Department considers General Suleimani a terrorist and a supporter of terrorism as he is the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) al-Quds (“Jerusalem”) Force which handles training for Iran’s Shi’ite terrorist proxies in the Middle East. Proxies trained by his commandos are reportedly responsible for over 500 American deaths. Observers have spotted him Iraq aiding Shi’ite militias in their battle against IS. By welcoming General Suleimani to Moscow, Russia, a member of the U.N. Security Council (UNSC), knowingly violated a travel ban and UNSC resolutions forbidding the general from leaving Iran.

President Putin announced on 4 September that Syria would hold new parliamentary elections that would install a power-sharing government and a “healthy opposition.” Iran is also drafting its own peace plan to end the Syrian Civil War. It is highly unlikely, however, that either plan would allow for the removal of President Assad or his loyalists. The survival of the Syrian regime is critical for both Russia and Iran; Moscow needs a military presence in the Middle East and Tehran needs a strong Shi’ite ally in the predominantly-Sunni Muslim world. As of now, President Assad is the only notable figure in Syria willing to provide both sides with what they desire even though Russia and Iran’s ultimate strategic goals are vastly different. In fact, by aiding President Assad’s fight against the Sunni-dominated opposition threatening his rule, Russia may inadvertently strengthen Shi’ite hegemony in the Middle East.

 

Picture courtesy of Flickr.