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How did the Russian army avoid fatal mistakes in Syria?

The complex ethnic and religious structure of Syria led many to doubt the chances of success of the Russians

Exactly three years ago, the Russian Aerospaces Forces delivered the first blow to the positions of jihadists in the SAR. Since then, attempts have been made annually to sum up the participation of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation in the Syrian war – intermediate, global, political, technical. As a rule, they are all in our favor. But until recently it was believed that the Russian army was “sentenced” to defeat.

There are the wole volumes written on the Syrian campaign of the Armed Forces of the Russia, detailing the work of aviation and rocket forces and analyzing various aspects of the use of a particular type of weapons. These are quite special studies, the audience of which is either narrow professionals, or – more often – men who are passionate about various kinds of “military hardware”. But several strategic aspects that are crucial for understanding what is happening, they are usually not affected.

To begin with, the start of the Russian operation was met in the world and among commentators of the “liberal pool” not even with skepticism (reasonable doubts are always useful), but with enthusiasm for the expected catastrophe. Moreover, some grounds for apocalyptic expectations were nevertheless – that is strength, from the point of view of rational people.

War of infinity.

The main reason for the initial skepticism was based, on the one hand, on the sad experience of Western campaigns in the Middle East, and on the other, on the Soviet experience in Afghanistan. All expeditionary operations of this kind, in whatever political circumstances they were carried out, over and over again led to being drawn into a full-scale war without end, edge and the practical possibility of a comfortable exit. Local players skillfully pulled both the West and the USSR into their internal affairs, which only led to the complication of the political structure of the region. Along the way, the destruction of infrastructure happened – so significant that it led to the emergence of a new social support for resistance. How this resistance was called (Taliban, Al-Qaida, ISIS) and on which ideological platforms it was based was not so important.

The constant build-up of the military presence “on the ground” was recognized as almost an indispensable element for such operations in the Middle East, since no one has abolished the principle of control over the territory, but it has never been able to fully agree with the local ones. It turns out a vicious circle: full-scale intervention is recognized as a harmful side effect of expeditionary operations in the region, reducing all positive effects with time. In theory, it should be avoided by all means, but without the growth of military-political intervention, it seems impossible to achieve success.

From the very first weeks of the campaign, the Russian command and political leadership began to openly demonstrate a policy of minimizing manpower and resources in Syria, which was taken as a visual sign of the Apocalypse: two squadrons of attack aircraft and a company of paratroopers could not save the “perishing anti-people Assad”. Or, over time, an invasion will be required by almost the forces of a full-fledged army with an “Afghan result” at the finish (including the scale of the losses). Or, on the contrary, they fly, bombs and calm down, and in the presidential palace in Damascus some prosaudian emigrant or street mullah will sit down with a unkempt beard and a basilisk look. Both that and another will mean a sharp drop in Russia’s prestige in the world and, as a consequence, “the fall of Putin’s regime.”

However, Moscow not only adhered to the principle of “necessary sufficiency” of forces and means, but also maintained a channel for evacuation, including by political means. This limited the danger of the influence of the Syrian leadership and other regional decision-making forces. In other words, the initial task – the fight against terrorist groups – did not turn into patronage of one or another force in other conflicts, and the ability to manipulate the Russian contingent or Russian influence as a whole was minimized.


A protracted “remote” Israeli-Iranian proxy war is one such threat. It took both purely military and diplomatic efforts to explain to Tehran and Tel Aviv that these are their personal problems, in which Russia will not interfere. At least, it was so until the death of the IL-20, but even now Russian air defense systems will not participate in other people’s fights, but will only fill the balance of forces.

How to do the impossible?

Another reason for reasonable doubt was the remoteness of the theater of operations from the borders of the Russian Federation and the complete lack of experience of the Russian army in organizing such expeditionary operations. At the same time, skepticism was also caused

the integrity of the Syrian troops, and the ability to coordinate with the Iranians. The excessive confusion of the local social and religious structure did not please either. As a result, the “next step problem” quickly arose: what to do with the liberated territories, where to put the population that supported the jihadists, how to establish a peaceful life. It seems that this task is not within the competence of the Russian military, but in a civil war such functions cannot be unambiguously delegated to the winning side. Unexpectedly, such a mechanism was found – the Center for Reconciliation of the Parties and the military police acted as the “governor”. Most surprisingly, the Russian army found a sufficient number of trained specialists with knowledge of the language and regional peculiarities. Considering the scale of destruction in the educational structure of the Armed Forces after 1991, this is truly a miracle. The liberation of Aleppo showed that it is possible to carry out large-scale military operations with minimal forces if it is reasonable to define goals and objectives. A competent target designation allowed us to break the enemy in parts, it is enough just to direct the thought of the Syrian command in the right direction. A case in point: the temporary loss of Palmyra, which cost us both strength and money, and nerves. True, some American and NATO sources, recognizing Russia’s successes in the SAR, continue to refer to the “incomprehensible Russian character.” In 2015-2016, the US and NATO. In general, the region had an overwhelming advantage in the number of combat aircraft (180 vs. 40), but the Russian Air Forces flew up to 75 sorties a day, while the western did not exceed 20. At the same time, the effectiveness of Russian air strikes was several times higher. The Western armies cannot rectify this situation, since the matter is not even in the level of training of pilots, but in psychology and “team-wide consciousness”, expressed in setting clear objectives and determining the factors limiting the combat use of troops. The allegations that Syria acted as a training ground for tests of the latest Russian weapons and working out the interaction of various types of troops, have now become commonplace. But it must be understood that the Russian armed forces were not involved in the operation at the end, but in the process of large-scale internal reform, when it was completely incomprehensible exactly how the Russian contingent would influence the course of military operations. The operation fell into several completely different elements that required unprecedented efforts not only from pilots, service personnel and logistic services, but also unprecedented interaction with civilian services of the ports in creating the famous Syrian express – uninterrupted marine supplies. If all this was worked out before, it was only in written theory. The authority of the Russian army. If we talk about the purely political results of a three-year operation, they are, for example, that at least two major regional players – Saudi Arabia and Turkey – were turned off from the sphere of active influences on intra-Syrian processes and were forced to bid farewell to claims to a leading role in the region. In practice, this was reflected in the refusal of Riyadh and Ankara from actively sponsoring large armed groups that were previously under their patronage. The United States, in turn, was forced to remove the favorite slogan “Bashar must go” from public rhetoric. This reduced the degree of regional tension and led to the signing of a number of agreements on Russian terms. In other words, military success guaranteed a political victory and now we can say that the tasks assigned to the contingent in Syria are generally fulfilled. At the same time, the end of this and the beginning of next year will almost certainly bring the Syrian conflict to a new phase, where ISIS and other groups will no longer be the main factors. The internationalization of the conflict was avoided. But there remains the risk of interference from third countries pursuing more ambitious goals than establishing a regime in the SAR or keeping a regional conflict in a hot condition. The dry result is that the presence of the Russian contingent, even in such a minimized composition, remains the main deterrent to the escalation of hostilities mainly – due to a sharp increase in the authority of the Russian army. It is already impossible not to recognize it, and the criticism of the operation by liberal commentators has gradually turned into a click call, designed for an extremely ideological audience.

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