Rus­sia’s mil­i­tary con­tri­bu­tion is un­likely to turn the tide

Forces must grap­ple with ag­ing equip­ment and a weak Syr­ian army

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY AN­DREW ROTH AND THOMAS GIB­BONS- NEFF an­drew.roth@wash­post.com thomas.gib­bons-neff@wash­post.com Gib­bons-Neff re­ported from Washington.

MOSCOW — Rus­sia has tri­umphantly plunged into Syria’s fouryear-old civil war with an ex­pand­ing cam­paign of airstrikes. But the of­fi­cial eu­pho­ria here masks a nag­ging ques­tion: What can a lim­ited de­ploy­ment of Rus­sian air power ac­tu­ally ac­com­plish?

In the short term, Rus­sia’s mil­i­tary will pro­vide des­per­ately needed air sup­port and boost the morale of Syria’s bat­tered army. The Syr­ian mil­i­tary will likely go on the of­fen­sive against mod­er­ate and Is­lamist rebel groups, in­clud­ing the ex­trem­ist Is­lamic State.

But un­less it is sig­nif­i­cantly strength­ened, Moscow’s con­tri­bu­tion is un­likely to be decisive in the war, an­a­lysts said. Although Rus­sia boasts that its mil­i­tary is stronger than it has been in 25 years, its forces still grap­ple with ag­ing equip­ment and have a weak part­ner in the poorly trained Syr­ian army. There is also tepid sup­port among the Rus­sian public for a lengthy con­flict.

Rus­sia is a long­time ally of Syria, but its de­ploy­ment marks a mile­stone for a coun­try that has largely lim­ited its mil­i­tary ac­tions to parts of the for­mer Soviet Union. Like the U.S. cam­paigns in Syria and Iraq, the new Rus­sian of­fen­sive is at­tempt­ing to weaken an Is­lamist in­sur­gency by us­ing air power.

“This has no com­par­i­son in the history of mod­ern Rus­sia,” said Evgeny Buzhin­sky, a re­tired Rus­sian lieu­tenant gen­eral and se­nior vice pres­i­dent of the PIR Cen­ter, a Moscow think tank that fo­cuses on in­ter­na­tional af­fairs.

Rus­sia has fought small ground wars in re­cent years, but “it is the first time when Rus­sia fol­lows the United States,” he said. “Bomb­ing from the air to in­flict as much dam­age as possi- ble. Those are your tac­tics.”

Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin has said he will not send ground troops to Syria. Nonethe­less, Rus­sia risks tak­ing ca­su­al­ties and be­com­ing bogged down in a bloody Mid­dle East war. Pres­i­dent Obama pre­dicted Fri­day that Rus­sia would be­come stuck in a “quag­mire” in Syria.

“We are ba­si­cally novices in this type of war,” said Rus­lan Pukhov, a de­fense ex­pert and di­rec­tor of the Moscow-based Cen­ter for Anal­y­sis of Strate­gies and Tech­nolo­gies, in an in­ter­view. “And when you are a novice, you are doomed to com­mit some kinds of mis­takes. Hope­fully not deadly ones, but ob­vi­ously there is a risk of ca­su­al­ties.”

Ac­cord­ing to U.S. of­fi­cials, Rus­sia has sent 12 Soviet-era Su-24 and Su-25 fixed-wing air­craft to sup­port Syria’s ground troops, as well as four cut­ting-edge Su-34 strike fight­ers. Rus­sia also has dis­patched four Su-30 multi-role fighter jets that are de­signed to en­gage other air­craft as well as ground tar­gets. Ac­cord­ing to some U.S. pilots, the Su-30 would be a ca­pa­ble ad­ver­sary against any coali­tion air­craft.

The air­craft will aug­ment a Syr­ian fleet of even older Sovi­etera jets, which lack sen­sors to carry out night mis­sions, Buzhin­sky said. Syria is short of skilled pilots for those air­craft.

Rus­sia has also de­ployed 16 he­li­copters, a mix­ture of gun­ships and trans­ports, to help the ground troops.

A Rus­sian mil­i­tary spokesman said Satur­day that the coun­try’s forces had flown 20 sor­ties into Syria in the pre­vi­ous 24 hours. That brings the to­tal num­ber of Rus­sian flights this past week to at least 52.

Eye­ing pos­si­ble peace deal

The Syr­ian army’s rapid loss of ter­ri­tory this past sum­mer largely prompted Rus­sia’s sud­den in­ter­ven­tion, ac­cord­ing to an­a­lysts. Aided by the new fire­power, the Syr­ian army is now ex­pected to take the of­fen­sive.

Vladimir Yevseyev, an ex­pert on Mid­dle East mil­i­tary is­sues at the In­sti­tute of World Econ­omy and In­ter­na­tional Re­la­tions in Moscow, said Syr­ian forces would prob­a­bly at­tack in the coun­try­side of Hama and Homs prov­inces, parts of which are un­der the con­trol of an as­sort­ment of mod­er­ate, Is­lamist and al-Qaedalinked rebels.

Rus­sian airstrikes in those ar­eas in re­cent days an­gered the U.S. gov­ern­ment and its al­lies, which ac­cused Rus­sia of claim­ing to tar­get the Is­lamic State while it re­ally wanted to strengthen Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad against other rebel groups.

Although the Syr­ian army could prob­a­bly take back ar­eas close to its strong­hold in the coastal city of Latakia, Yevseyev said, a more am­bi­tious of­fen­sive to seize large swaths of ter­ri­tory, in par­tic­u­lar from the Is­lamic State, could take months to pre­pare.

But Rus­sia prob­a­bly isn’t seek­ing such long-term goals and in­stead will prob­a­bly try to bro­ker a peace deal, he said.

“Rus­sia can­not take back the whole Syr­ian land,” Yevseyev said. “Rus­sia wants to take out some of these rad­i­cals and then move on to peace­ful and or­ga­nized talks in Geneva.”

Alexei Pushkov, head of the for­eign af­fairs com­mit­tee in Rus­sia’s lower house of par­lia­ment, told a French ra­dio sta­tion on Fri­day that Rus­sian strikes were ex­pected to last for a few months. “In Moscow, we are talk­ing about an op­er­a­tion of three to four months,” he said.

Rus­sia has sta­tioned Su-30 jet fight­ers as well as sur­face-to-air mis­siles at its bases on the Syr­ian coast, rais­ing con­cerns at the Pen­tagon that Rus­sia is field­ing equip­ment de­signed to counter the U.S.-led coali­tion.

The Is­lamic State “doesn’t have so much as a crop duster,” said a se­nior De­fense Depart­ment of­fi­cial, speak­ing on the con­di­tion of anonymity to dis­cuss sen­si­tive mil­i­tary is­sues. “This equip­ment is there to de­ter” the United States, he said.

A per­son close to the De­fense Min­istry in Moscow said that de­fend­ing air­fields from en­emy avi­a­tion is stan­dard prac­tice and that “the Amer­i­cans would do the same.” He also spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity.

Soviet-era planes

Rus­sia faces sev­eral lim­i­ta­tions in what it can ac­com­plish with its forces in Syria.

One is the age of its equip­ment. Although some of the ground at­tack planes in Syria are state of the art, most were de­signed in the Soviet era and were later retro­fit­ted.

“I re­mem­ber both of them from the Afghan war,” said Alexan­der Golts, a mil­i­tary an­a­lyst based in Moscow, re­fer­ring to the Su-24 and Su-25 planes used by the Sovi­ets in that con­flict in the 1980s.

In re­cent years, Rus­sia has poured hun­dreds of bil­lions of dol­lars into a mil­i­tary re­form and mod­ern­iza­tion pro­gram that Golts called the most sub­stan­tial in the past cen­tury and a half.

The re­sults of those in­vest­ments were ev­i­dent dur­ing Rus­sia’s an­nex­a­tion of Crimea in March 2014, when well-equipped air­borne troops seized cru­cial Ukrainian in­fra­struc­ture overnight.

But it even­tu­ally be­came clear that the Rus­sian forces were still dogged by old prob­lems. When Rus­sia in­creased air pa­trols and bomber flights along the borders of NATO coun­tries this sum­mer, it lost five planes in two weeks.

Rus­sian sor­ties will be lim­ited by the need to per­form main­te­nance on the planes in the desert en­vi­ron­ment, Golts said. The pilots will also need rest pe­ri­ods.

And some of the war­planes and he­li­copters could be vul­ner­a­ble to shoul­der-fired sur­face-toair mis­siles, or MAN­PADS. Although the rebels don’t have many of them now, they may ac­quire more as they adapt to the new threat.

If he­li­copters are used ex­ten­sively by the Rus­sians, the MAN­PADS “could have a sig­nif­i­cant op­er­a­tional im­pact,” said Matt Schroeder, a se­nior re­searcher at the Geneva-based re­search or­ga­ni­za­tion Small Arms Sur­vey.

The risk to Rus­sian troops is not lim­ited to the air force. Rus­sia has brought in hun­dreds of marines and air­borne troops to pro­vide se­cu­rity at its main base in Latakia, which is just sev­eral dozen miles from the front lines. Pen­tagon of­fi­cials be­lieve that Rus­sian ad­vis­ers are act­ing as spot­ters on the front lines, al­low­ing closer co­or­di­na­tion be­tween ground and air troops but putting Rus­sians closer to dan­ger.

Western of­fi­cials say many of the Rus­sian planes are us­ing un­guided ord­nance, or “dumb bombs,” mak­ing Rus­sian airstrikes less ef­fi­cient.

A re­port on the state-owned Rus­sia-24 tele­vi­sion sta­tion showed an Su-24 air­craft in Syria fit­ted with an un­guided OFAB 250-270, a frag­men­ta­tion bomb that re­leases shrap­nel over a large area when it ex­plodes.

“If you’re us­ing just dumb bombs, that’s go­ing to in­crease the num­ber of civil­ian ca­su­al­ties and de­crease the ef­fec­tive­ness of the in­ter­ven­tion,” said Dmitry Goren­burg, a se­nior an­a­lyst with the Cen­ter for Naval Analy­ses, a U.S.-gov­ern­ment-funded think tank for the Navy and Marine Corps.

KHALIL ASHAWI/REUTERS

Men ride a mo­tor­bike while a boy runs along­side at a site hit overnight by what ac­tivists said were airstrikes car­ried out by the Rus­sian air force. The site is near a camp for dis­placed peo­ple on the out­skirts of al-Ghadfa, a town in the south­ern coun­try­side of Syria’s Idlib province.

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