by Gordon M. Hahn
As noted previously and as evidence is demonstrating, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a partial withdrawal or draw-down of Moscow’s largely air-based expeditionary force. There is a need to reiterate and demonstrate this, since it is very likely that U.S. government, media, and think tanks may begin distorting the facts, claiming that Putin said he was withdrawing but has not. This would be a ‘logical’ stratcomm response to their effort to paint Russia’s air intervention as, among other things it was not, a precursor for another effort of ‘Russian imperialist expansion’, exposed as false by the major draw-down. Recall that Putin early on acknowledged—in a U.S. television interview no less—that the intervention was motivated in good but not in sole part by a desire to help preserve the Bashar Assad regime. This was necessary because it was the handiest force available in the region for leading the fight against the Islamic State (IS) and Al Qa`ida-affiliated groups in Syria and Iraq.
In announcing the draw down on March 14th Putin said Russian forces would “begin the withdrawal of the core of our military grouping” in Syria (http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/51511). Thus, there are ‘non-core’ elements that will remain. Also as is his wont for flexibility, Putin left open the option of stopping the begun withdrawal and returning the contingent if necessary, as I noted earlier (https://gordonhahn.com/2016/03/15/syria-ukraine-and-putins-military-political-tactics-and-strategies/).
Evidence of the Russian contingent’s elements left in place and the kind of role and operations it played before and after the draw-down has emerged since. The most basic functions are to protect Russian bases and other military assets in Syria and help the Syrian army and other forces carry on the fight against Islamist, jihadi and other irreconcilable elements among the anti-Assad rebels. Thus, one task is reinforcement of the forces protecting the Tartus naval base and the Hmeimim air base. From the latter, residual air forces are continuing to fly sorties.
Thus, the Russian Defense Ministry reported that on March 24th Moscow’s air contingent in Syria flew 41 sorties and carried out 146 attacks on targets destroying “320 terrorists, 5 tanks, 6 artillery installations, 2 ammunition depots, and 15 automotive vehicles.” They also supported Syrian troops which had supposedly “entered” Palmyra long held by IS (http://syria.mil.ru/peacemaking_bulletins/more.htm?id=12081151@egNews and https://tvrain.ru/news/vks_palmira-406111/). This is now a strategic point which if taken by Syrian forces would cut an IS grouping in two and open the way for their piecemeal destruction as well as the road to IS’s ‘capitol’ Raqqa and stronghold in Dair iz-Zor setting the stage for a breakthrough to the Syria-Iraqi border now controlled by IS. Again, contrary to Barack Obama administration claims, Russia was and is concentrating considerable force against IS and there is no important distinction to be made between supporting the Syrian army and fighting IS and other jihadists at the present stage.
In addition, Russian special forces, air defense forces, artillery, space and military intelligence, military trainers, bombing target spotters, and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) units have been operating throughout the largely air-based intervention and will likely continue to do so even if air sorties begin to wind down during possible clean up operations further down the road. All this so far has been commanded by ‘Hero of Russia’ recipient and First Deputy Head of the Chief of Staff of the Central Military District, Gen. Col. Aleksandr Dvornikov. He also served as a division commander during the second Chechen war 2000-03 as the jihadists rose to dominate within the Chechen Republic of Ichkeriya radical national separatist movement. (https://tvrain.ru/articles/rossijskoe_komandovanie_rasskazalo_ob_uchastii_spetsnaza_v_konflikte_v_sirii-406028/ and http://rg.ru/2016/03/23/aleksandr-dvornikov-dejstviia-rf-v-korne-perelomili-situaciiu-v-sirii.html).
In a recent interview Dvornikov revealed some of the strategies used to make the pro-Assad forces’ recent gains against the rebels. First, Moscow provided modern military weapons, equipment and training, including those for artillery systems, communications, and intelligence. A network of military advisors with their own managerial apparatus was created and undertook the preparation not just of regular troops but of Kurdish and other volunteer partisan units and their operational planning. They work at all levels, including the tactical. New Syrian volunteer brigades and battalions were formed and now number several thousand. In addition, rebels were deprived of three major oil and gas fields they had taken and used to finance their activities.
He also revealed a Reconciliation Center consisting of some 60 officers has been created and is part of the large infrastructure Russian forces built on the Hmeimim air base. The RC officers are based in provinces and monitoring observance and violations of the ceasefire. Dvornikov says that as of recently 43 armed formations and the councils of elders of 51 population centers have agreed to the cessation of hostilities. He expressed “concern” regarding continuing Turkish artillery attacks on Kurds fighting the AQ affiliate Jabhat al-Nusrah around Aleppo, regarding it as an attempt to undermine the peace process.
Dvornikov also revealed that spetsnaz forces have been operating and continue to operate in Syria. They carry out scouting of prospective targets for aerial bombardment, targeting for aerial attacks, guidance for fighter planes’ forays into farther inland provinces, and “other special tasks.” Asked what forces would remain in Syria after the “basic part” is withdrawn, he answered: “There will remain in Syria the necessary number of forces designated for securing the monitoring compliance with the ceasefire regime and for the functioning of our base for securing air flights at Hmeimim and the base for supplying the Russian Nave at Tartus.”
So far the drawdown is proceeding cautiously from the data released. Thus, some 200 apparently construction and logistics troops and three helicopters and other equipment arrived back in Russia from Hmeimim on March 23rd. (http://rg.ru/2016/03/23/aleksandr-dvornikov-dejstviia-rf-v-korne-perelomili-situaciiu-v-sirii.html).