Nearly a month ago, the Russian Air Force began its first strikes against opposition forces in Syria. While the stated goal of these strikes was to fight ISIS, based on eyewitness reports and geolocation, it can be determined that the vast majority of these strikes have been against non-ISIS rebel forces in Syria’s northwest, including the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Islamist groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, and the Al Qaeda-linked Jahbat al-Nusra (JaN). Knowing this, it is clear that Putin’s strategy in Syria is not to eliminate ISIS first but rather to focus on the other rebel groups, which more directly threaten the survival of the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. Taking this is the apparent goal of the intervention. How successful has it been? Have tangible gains been made over the past few weeks?
Small Territorial Gains
Following on the back of these air strikes, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) has conducted a number of offensives in Homs, Hama, Aleppo, and Latakia Governorates.
In Homs, regime forces backed up by Russian Mi-24 attack helicopters conducted an attack against the rebel held town of Talbeesa in the Rastan Pocket, north of Homs city. This attack is ongoing and has managed to capture some outlying areas, however it has yet to achieve any conclusive results.
In Hama, the SAA has launched a counter-offensive in the Al-Ghab plain, the scene of heavy fighting with the rebel Jaish al-Fatah coalition earlier this year. Here the SAA has been more successful and managed to capture the towns of Al-Bahsa, Safafa, and Farwa. The offensive is also ongoing at this stage. A separate offensive was also conducted against Al-Lataminah further south in the Al-Ghab plain; however, it stalled after encountering stiff rebel resistance.
In Latakia gains have been more marginal, with a strong SAA push towards Salma facing strong resistance from Jaish al-Fatah forces. While small villages were captured, rebel forces counterattacked and managed to capture the nearby (regime held) town of Dorin.
In Aleppo the SAA has made its strongest showing. Its forces have attacked north from Al-Safira into territory held by ISIS, and have begun to clear a route towards the besieged regime-held Kweris Air Base. Despite slow going, progress has been made and this offensive is continuing. Meanwhile, south of Aleppo regime forces have pushed west, capturing the villages of Haddadin and Abtin.
Significant Material Losses
These territorial gains have come at a significant cost. Most notably, ATGM systems operated by rebel groups have caused significant damage to regime armoured vehicles. Both the US-made TOW missiles supplied as part of a CIA program, and well as Russian Kornet and Fagot missiles captured from regime stockpiles, are more than capable of penetrating the armour of the T-72 tanks operated by the SAA.
On any given day rebel groups upload a large number of videos showing these missiles being used. From this footage, it is possible to estimate that between 5 to 10 armoured vehicles (including tanks, APCs, and self-propelled artillery) are lost per day in these offensives. While at the beginning of the war Syria had one of the largest stockpiles of tanks in the world, these vehicle losses are unsustainable, and in the long run will deplete the SAA’s ability to conduct mobile operations and simultaneous offensives.
One notable ‘victory’ for the Russian air forces operating in Syria, is that so far none of its aircraft have been shot down by rebel fire. Its low-flying helicopters are particularly vulnerable to MANPADS and anti-aircraft artillery. Despite some initial rumours, there has been no confirmation of any losses. This stands testament to the skill and training of the Russian air crews, as much as to the rebel’s lack of sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons.
Given the high cost which the SAA is paying for its ongoing offensives, combined with their slow progress, it is clear that Russia has yet to achieve its strategic goals. The longer these offensives drag on, the more costly they will become, especially as regional supporters of the rebels like Turkey and the Gulf States ramp up their supplies of weapons to the region.
With this in mind, Russia will need to change its strategy in order to achieve its goals. The easiest way for it to do this would be to deploy a significant number of ground troops to the front lines, in order to spearhead offensives with their better weapons, training and morale. Alternatively, and more difficultly, it could tighten its lines of communication with the SAA so as to allow more comprehensive close air support in battles, enabling regime troops to fully leverage Russian air power.
A final face-saving and unlikely option would be for Russia to reduce its commitment to fighting the rebels while simultaneously increasing its number of airstrikes against actual ISIS targets in western Syria, in cooperation with other international players like the US.
Despite this, Russian (and SAA) troops will have a hard fight ahead of them, and whichever option Putin chooses will likely have a profound effect on how the war plays out into the future.