Since intervening in the Syrian civil war in late 2015 and effectively saving Bashar al-Assad’s embattled regime, the Kremlin reveled in the seeming power and competence of its Armed Forces and special services. But this illusion — reinforced by the ostensible success of simultaneously keeping the Ukrainian military bogged down for seven years in a war of attrition in Donbas — gave Russia’s top military-political leadership unfounded confidence that a quick, easy victory over Ukraine would be possible. Instead, within weeks of launching its massive re-invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, the undeniably poor showing of the Russian Armed Forces seemed to indicate that, to some extent, they were held hostage by their experience of the war in Syria.
In fact, “the commander-in-chief’s favorite war” — as the Syrian campaign was known in Russian military circles — had for years not been going smoothly for Moscow. Suffice it to recall that the triumph of the first assault on Palmyra in March 2016 was quickly offset by a defeat in the Tabqa area; while the Russian troops’ storming of East Aleppo led to a subsequent failure in Palmyra, which military intelligence special forces and Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group private military company (PMC) then had to assault a second time.
So it was rather telling that as Russia’s battlefield troubles continued to compound in Ukraine this past spring, many of the generals who were dismissed from their positions for their failures had previously received the highest state awards for their role in the Syrian campaign. And as the invasion turned into protracted positional and attrition warfare, which the Kremlin is unable to wage with a peacetime army, news then emerged about the imminent reduction of the Russian military presence in Syria. Often such reports were speculative in nature and allegedly pointed to a deliberate transfer of strongholds in Syria to pro-Iranian formations. One way or another, there are several factors that may explain the changes in the Russian military presence in Syria and its future.
Keeping the possibilities open
First, analysis of Russian activities and positions in the Syrian theater may easily be muddied by the fact that the intensity of fighting in Syria among all belligerents, but especially between the regime and opposition, had been decreasing for a long time. To avoid casualties, Russian officers prefer to limit their engagement in the Syrian regime’s raids against Islamic State cells in the Syrian desert. This is in line with the Russian leadership’s long-standing plans, announced back in 2021, to make the Khmeimim airbase a permanent station for troops, thus permitting a reduction in travel time and expenses for personnel serving in Syria. That said, even after this year’s invasion of Ukraine, Moscow has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to take anti-crisis measures in Syria.
In July, the Russian military command moved an additional battalion of paratroopers and air-defense assets to Qamishli and deployed aviation near the Idlib zone at the time of heightened Turkish rhetoric about a new operation in northern Syria. As of December, fighter jets and helicopters are still based there. Moscow also authorized strikes against Syrian opposition forces near the U.S. presence in al-Tanf. In addition, in June 2022, the Federal Security Service (FSB) special forces in Syria carried out a number of anti-terrorist operations, which resulted in the death of one Russian officer.
Nor did the Russian military cancel the practice of combat training in Syria this year. For example, the notorious joint flights of Syrian and Russian aviation before the invasion of Ukraine (the winter training period for Russia and Syria runs from December to April) were also conducted in June (the summer period is from June to October).
A second factor complicating the analysis is that the number of Russian aircraft is not easy to track using open-source intelligence (OSINT) methods. Notably, the Khmeimim airbase has indoor air hangars, which makes it difficult to count aircraft if relying on private satellite imagery. Moreover, helicopter squadrons are dispersed throughout the Syrian regime’s network of airfields to, for example, provide fire support to Assad’s forces or to cover Russian-Turkish patrols. At least 30 Russian-Turkish joint patrols have been conducted near Kobani since the re-invasion of Ukraine.
On the whole, the Russian command in Syria continues to operate a roughly mixed air regiment (Mi-8, Ka-52, Mi-35 helicopters, and Su-24, Su-34, and Su-35 aircraft), maintaining pressure on the anti-regime opposition in Idlib. Just in September, Russian aircraft conducted at least eight airstrikes of varying intensity in the region (on Sept. 1, 8, 10, 15, 18, 27, and 30). The Russian military also deploys Iskander operational-tactical missile systems and TOS-1A multiple-launch rocket systems (MLRSs) at the Khmeimim base and continues the practice of deploying Tu-22M3 nuclear-capable bombers there.
Changes in the forces
However, this does not mean that the war in Ukraine has not affected Russian troops in Syria at all. Immediately after the outbreak of large-scale hostilities in Ukraine, the Su-25 attack squadron was predictably withdrawn from Syria. Russia had long used attack aircraft with unguided S-8 and S-13 rockets, which require short and easy inter-flight maintenance, to directly support Syrian and Russian ground troops. Yet their withdrawal has had little effect on the capabilities of the Russian military. Su-25s were notably withdrawn from Syria for the first time in 2016, before being once again redeployed to the area to support the offensive in East Aleppo. A similar intensification of the fighting today seems unlikely.
Among the more newsworthy changes was the reported August 2022 withdrawal from Syria of a battery of S-300 anti-aircraft surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems, which had been deployed in Masyaf (northwestern Syria, between Tartus and Hama) and which the Syrians were trained to operate. According to one (and most commonly believed) version of events, this step was taken by the Russian military to strengthen the anti-aircraft defense of Crimea — a redeployment Moscow could presumably afford to make since Masyaf remained protected by S-200, S-400 and Pantsir-S1 systems.
However, there are arguments in favor of a different point of view. Russian military experts are aware that the S-300V4 mobile complexes transferred to Tartus in the fall of 2016 were withdrawn from Syria rather quickly because they could not be replaced to cover land forces on Russian territory. However, a stationary S-300PM system previously in service with the anti-aircraft missile regiment in Polyarny (Russia’s Murmansk Oblast) was then deployed near Masyaf. Given the demanding and large-scale process of rearming Russia-based air-defense regiments with S-400s that had been going on for years, Moscow already had a large number of S-300s in storage depots around the country. So it would seem strange and presumably unnecessary for Russia to need to reposition an S-300 system from as far as Syria to reinforce Crimea.
Additionally, the position for the S-300 near Masyaf, just east of Tartus, was originally chosen based on the experience of the S-200VE SAM system on duty in the coastal area. Yet the hilly local terrain and short radio horizon made the operation of S-300s there difficult from a technical standpoint. The specifics of the activities of the Israeli Air Force, which flies at extremely low altitudes using false maneuvers over Lebanon, would periodically provoke false firings of these expensive Russian SAMs. Therefore, it cannot be ruled out that, given the expanding Iranian network of ammunition and missile factories and its actions to strengthen proxy forces after the killing of Qassem Soleimani, Moscow might have preferred to withdraw its S-300s from Syria, under the pretext of strengthening Crimea, in order to eliminate any possibility of unnecessary escalation in the Middle East region in the midst of the war in Ukraine. Moreover, Russia’s purchase of Iranian combat drones this fall has put Moscow in a somewhat dependent position with regard to Iran.
After Feb. 24, in addition to Syria, Kaliningrad Oblast became another logistically problematic region for Russia. To move supplies to the Kaliningrad exclave, the Russian Ministry of Defense withdrew the cargo ship SPARTA III from the “Syrian Express” (the unofficial name given to Russia’s sea-based, Black Sea-Mediterranean logistics route to its military forces in Syria) and renamed it Ursa Major. In general, after Turkey’s (and partly Iraq’s) decision to restrict Russian military flights to Syria and to close the Turkish Straits to warships, Moscow continues to supply its group with civilian merchant vessels without too much trouble. Nevertheless, Turkey’s decision has had a negative impact on the Russian Navy’s ability to operate in the Mediterranean.
Russian combat ships and support vessels operating in Syrian waters have the option of returning from Tartus to Sevastopol and Novorossiysk, but that is currently a one-way trip for them; vessels that leave Russia’s Syrian naval base in this matter can only be replaced by ships from the distant Northern, Baltic, and Pacific fleets. Thus, the reconnaissance ship Kildin (in July), missile cruiser Marshal Ustinov and missile destroyer Vice Admiral Kulakov (August), as well as the diesel-electric submarine Novorossiysk and reconnaissance ship Vasily Tatishchev (September) have already left the Mediterranean Sea. As of mid-December, nine ships remain in Syria, of which eight are missile ships and one is auxiliary. They make up a task force of ships that has been patrolling the area around Crete since Feb. 24, first to monitor the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier group led by the USS Harry Truman and currently to shadow the aircraft carrier USS George Bush and its escorts. Given the time spent in active service, the missile submarine Krasnodar may soon leave the Mediterranean basin and return to its home base for maintenance and repair, following the missile cruiser Varyag and the large anti-submarine ship Admiral Tributs, which both left the Mediterranean Sea on Nov. 1.
Only six Baltic Fleet and Northern Fleet large landing ships (Kaliningrad, Korolev, Minsk, Georgy Pobedonosets, Olenegorsky Gornyak, and Pyotr Morgunov) remain available to supply the Russian contingent in case of urgent need. They left the Mediterranean Sea after large-scale exercises in early February and entered the Black Sea on the eve of the invasion of Ukraine, so these ships would have the option to deliver something other than fuel to Syria on the way back since Turkey could not legally stop their passage through the Straits under the Montreux Convention.
As for changes on the ground, the withdrawal of the Russian military from a number of Assad regime strongholds in Latakia, for example, which were immediately occupied by Hezbollah fighters, has no particular operational consequences from Moscow’s perspective. Indeed, this was not the first time Russia changed the deployment of its units, handing over certain areas to allied formations, despite the existing contradictions and disagreements with both foreign irregulars and local pro-Iranian formations operating as part of Assad’s forces. For instance, in 2018, quite a few conflicts broke out between the Russian military and Iranian proxy forces in different regions of the country, but this did not stop the Russian command from withdrawing the Russian military police units consisting of Sunni Muslims from East Aleppo. The pro-Iranian Syrian Local Defense Forces exploited those withdrawals to cement their presence there. Given the war in Ukraine, Russian troops will of course refrain from overt measures against pro-Iranian units that would provoke tensions on the ground.
The problems of influence
While the war in Ukraine may not have substantially reduced Russia’s tactical capabilities in Syria, it has clearly undermined Moscow’s broader regional influence. For the Russian soldiers serving in Syria, their country’s local rivalry with Iran and the problems of relations between different ethnic and religious groups are important only in terms of solving assigned tasks, such as achieving a truce, expanding Russia’s zone of influence, etc. The task force of officers involved in the reconciliation of former opposition territories in southern Syria usually includes desk officers from the Russian General Staff, who only recently were given longer tours of duty.
In the summer, Col. Gen. Alexander Chaiko, who had been removed from command of the Eastern Military District and operations in Ukraine, replaced Lt. Gen. Roman Berdnikov as commander of the Russian group of forces in Syria. Berdnikov, in turn, now heads the Western Military District. According to some reports, this change has already had notable consequences on the ground. The new commander decided to sit down in negotiations with the commander-in-chief of the rebel Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Mazloum Abdi, and the two sides agreed to a series of concrete measures to suppress smuggling operations between the regime and the SDF. The new commander immediately decided to prove his usefulness to the Russian army through negotiations with the commander-in-chief of the Syrian Democratic Forces, Mazloum Abdi, and by carrying out a series of concrete actions to stop smuggling operations between the regime and the SDF. According to this author’s sources, Russia’s interference in the established smuggling scheme provoked a conflict between Assad’s forces and the SDF, which the Russians themselves had to hastily resolve — especially given the importance of cooperation between them in the face of the threat of a new Turkish operation.
Such measures allow Moscow to demonstrate that it remains an active player in the Middle East region, despite the fact that experienced Russian military personnel — primarily army intelligence officers, military advisors, and pilots — were apparently withdrawn from Syria to Ukraine. Therefore, Russia, amid the collapse of its forces in Ukraine, has tried to replace them in Syria with personnel without combat experience. It also still maintains some presence of Wagner PMC mercenaries and even periodically recruits small groups of Russians to work in the region.
Even before Moscow staged “referendums” in several Ukrainian oblasts on acceding to Russia and prior to the Kremlin’s announcement of “partial” war mobilization, efforts to recruit Russian officials to work in the newly annexed Ukrainian territories intensified. The activities of PMCs, too, have been growing. In the near future, this trend can be expected to become systemic in nature and is likely to affect the quality of the deconfliction line between Russia and the international coalition forces in Syria. Thus, after the public recognition of Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin as the founder of the Wagner Group, Russia is likely to eventually legalize PMCs to maintain influence in annexed territories, as well as in the Middle East.
At present, the Russian defense ministry is already working on an initiative that would allow peacekeeping missions to be manned “on a voluntary basis by any servicemen who have received special training.” Considering that peacekeeping operations can be carried out not only under the aegis of the United Nations but also under the aegis of regional organizations, it is quite possible that, in the future, Moscow may switch to the practice of deploying troops in buffer zones using not only contract soldiers (kontraktniki).
That said, the dire (for Moscow) situation on the Ukrainian front, where Russian troops are no longer advancing but have to defend themselves under a Ukrainian onslaught, is likely to undermine Middle Eastern states’ interest in Russia as a “balancer” or as a partner with which to diversify one’s economic and political portfolio. Moscow appears to have grasped this and has recently undertaken new efforts to strengthen its diplomatic presence in Arab countries, including at the expense of diplomats expelled from Europe.
It has long been a truism, accepted both inside Russia and elsewhere, that Russian foreign policy is based on the power component and that its diplomatic maneuvers often resemble special operations with a certain amount of improvisation. But the war in Ukraine revealed the utter failure of Russia’s military and special services mobilization system. Hence, it will be extremely difficult for the Kremlin to conduct a dialogue in the region from the ostensible position of strength it had enjoyed previously.
This implicit weakness is already undermining Russia’s influence in its neighborhood: since the start of the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, serious conflicts erupted between the former Soviet republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan as well as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Moscow does not benefit from any major on-the-ground change in Syria since even after the U.S. reduced its presence in the country in 2018, Moscow still had to urgently redeploy several battalions of military police to eastern Syria. While Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is interested in mediating between Ukraine and Russia to cultivate domestic political capital ahead of the upcoming June 2023 elections, the Turkish-Russian conversation about the situation in Syria may become hot again in the future. And this is notwithstanding the fact that, earlier this year, Turkey had, at the request of the Kremlin, lowered the temperature of its rhetoric regarding a potential new operation against the Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG) in Syria
Furthermore, regardless of the outcome of the conflict in Ukraine, it will be extremely difficult going forward for Moscow to maintain the same volume of export orders for weapons and military equipment to the Middle East and elsewhere. In part, this is because of the numerous new sanctions targeting Russia’s defense industry and arms sales. But additionally, Russian weapons producers must currently prioritize orders from the Ministry of Defense to fulfill the state armament program and make up for military equipment lost during the war in Ukraine. This factor has a direct impact on the situation in Syria and negatively affects regional players’ willingness to negotiate with Russia rather than behind its back.
Maintaining the threat
Russian-Syrian relations were mainly conducted behind closed doors even before the outbreak of the 2022 war in Ukraine. But there is an important factor that could lead to the stagnation in bilateral relations. Russia’s economic projects in Syria have tended to involve opaque companies close to the Kremlin, while Russian regions, some small organizations and the defense ministry were involved in providing construction services and delivering humanitarian aid. After the re-invasion of Ukraine, however, the Russian Ministry of Defense stopped reporting any additional deliveries of aid or construction supplies for the so-called second phase of Syria’s post-conflict settlement. And after the annexation of the Donbas territories, all Russian business efforts will certainly be focused on supporting these occupied Ukrainian regions, and not Syria.
The Assad regime is clearly not thrilled that Iran and Russia view Syria as a link in their respective containment strategies (Iran’s so-called “Axis of Resistance” of mostly Shi’ite regional forces in the first instance, and Russia’s rivalry with the Western alliance in the other), even though this role provides, among other things, protection for the regime’s massive drug trade. Overall, Damascus seems to be sending various signals to Moscow in an effort to maintain the Kremlin’s focus. On the one hand, Assad visited the United Arab Emirates soon after Russia’s re-invasion of Ukraine, without coordinating with Moscow to help ensure his personal security. The Syrian leader also finally appointed Maj. Gen. Abdel Karim Mahmoud Ibrahim chief of the General Staff after four years of vacancy. This step was obviously related not only to the fact that Russia and Iran have phased out their control of the regime’s troops but also because, amidst Moscow and Tehran’s developing strategic alliance in the Russo-Ukrainian war, it has become difficult or even impossible for Assad to benefit from the previous Russian-Iranian competition for influence over his own military and political elite. On the other hand, Assad rather quickly recognized the “independence” of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics (DPR, LPR), demonstrating to Moscow that Damascus is ready to take steps that not even any of Russia’s Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) allies dared to take.
In this context, it makes more sense to ask not how the war in Ukraine affects Russia’s strategy in Syria, but how the collapse of the Russian military and political system will affect the Kremlin’s perception of Syria as a proxy to confront the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). It is clear that Tartus and Khmeimim are important to the Kremlin to continue logistical operations in the Middle East and Africa as well as to demonstrate Russia’s commitment to its allied obligations. Moscow has long sought to establish a permanent security challenge to the Alliance from the southern direction through the permanent deployment of modernized Tu-22M3M long-range bombers carrying X-32 cruise missiles and MiG-31K fighter-interceptors armed with Kh-47M2 Kinzhal hypersonic missiles.
However, all this had relevance at the time when Russia could speak the language of ultimatums. Now, the situation has changed dramatically for the Kremlin, with the intensifying consolidation of European society and the militarization of Ukrainian society. Therefore, Moscow may try to shift its tone away from threats and toward more convincing demonstrations of force, all the while being privately sensitive to the true combat readiness of the Russian Armed Forces.
From a pragmatic point of view, the Russian leadership is faced with the task of abandoning previous actions that create the illusion of combat effectiveness: in other words, not tank biathlons (in which Syrian tanks also took part) but the extent to which the Russian bases in Khmeimim and Tartus can still pose credible threats to Russia’s enemies. For example, Moscow may give up serial production of the modernized Tu-160M supersonic bombers. Their concept is utopian because of the extreme visibility of these aircraft to radar; a U.S. aircraft carrier group would never allow them to approach within launching distance of missiles. Moreover, Russia had not laid down any major planned naval projects, except for some small missile ships and boats, prior to launching its re-invasion of Ukraine this past winter. Finally, the scale of losses of Russian armored vehicles in Ukraine — an extremely important element of the army due to Russia’s long land borders — has been truly profound. Taken together, the Kremlin is no longer in a position to be able to pose any serious threat in the wider Black Sea region or the Eastern Mediterranean, even in the long term.
Of course, Moscow can continue to claim that it intends to contain NATO in the Mediterranean region, which, given the combat duty schedule of U.S. naval vessels, is effectively on the periphery of Washington’s military planning. In the key Pacific region, where the U.S. military’s task is to contain China, Russia is only nominally present and sometimes has to plug its obvious defense gaps by demonstratively launching submarine-launched missiles toward the U.S. coast. Yet such theatrical operations aside, Moscow clearly faces a steep uphill climb to rebuild its reputation and real military capabilities, both in the Middle Eastern region and more generally.
Anton Mardasov is a non-resident scholar with MEI's Syria Program and a non-resident military affairs expert at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) focusing on Syria, Iraq, and extremist organizations.
Photo by DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images
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