- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
The Syrian army and its allies are close to pushing anti-government rebels out of Aleppo as thousands of civilians flee the fighting, leaving the regime of Bashar al-Assad close to taking the smoking ruins of the country’s second-largest city.
Moscow’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed the Syrian army was holding fire Thursday, allowing civilians to leave the city before government forces fight their way through the last remaining rebel neighborhoods, with Russian aircraft providing cover overhead. Activists in the city reported continuing airstrikes and rocket assaults on Friday however, despite the Russian claims.
The fall of Aleppo will mark a major victory for both Assad and and his ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose 15-month intervention in the Syrian civil war was launched to prop up the faltering Assad regime under the guise of fighting the Islamic State.
But there was another reason for the campaign of Russian air strikes and special operations support: providing Moscow with a venue to show off its newly modernized military hardware.
After years of mouldering away under post Cold war budget crunches, Putin has spent billions to modernize the Russian arsenal, churning out new tanks, submarines, drones, cruise missiles, and fighter jets that have pounded both Syrian rebels as well as Ukrainian troops in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region.
Speaking with senior military officers at the Kremlin on Wednesday, Putin said that the military should use those experiences to “equip the Army and the Navy with prospective weapons” for future fights.
While many are focused on the Russian armor and sorties, some in the U.S. defense establishment have noticed another sign of Russian progress: their ability to work through local forces in Ukraine and Syria, allowing Moscow to exert influence while keeping deployments small, costs down, and troops away from the front lines.
“The Russians have become quite adept at working with proxy forces,” a senior Defense official told FP. ”In Ukraine, it’s obviously the so-called separatist forces – Russian trained, Russian equipped, in some cases Russian commanded,” over which “they exercise an exquisite command and control.”
In Syria, U.S. officials have seen small groups of Russian special operations forces “work quite effectively” with Assad regime troops and the Iranian Qods Force and Hezbollah. “That’s been their M.O. in the Donbass and in Syria,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The ability of the Russians to work so effectively through partners — some of which are separated by language — has impressed some analysts, given how difficult it is to work with other nations, let alone foreign militia groups.
“This is something the U.S. has had trouble with, even people we’ve worked with for ages, like our NATO allies,” said Olga Oliker, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Russia has had long relationships with the Iranians and Syrians, which makes some interaction easier, particularly when it comes to coordinating Russian planes flying air support for ground offensives by Syrian and Iranian-backed forces.
“They rely a lot on the Syrians and Iranians for targeting information, and the country that provides that information has a lot of power,” added Oliker, resulting in a dynamic in which the Russians are likely unable to confirm who they’re bombing.
Russian forces realized early on that while they could change facts on the ground, their intervention came too late to save a Syrian army which had been ground down by constant combat and desertions. “The Russian military has been frustrated by both the Syrian army which exists in name only, and Iranian forces pursuing their own objectives,” said Michael Kofman, a research scientist at CNA Corporation.
But by deploying aircraft, helicopters, and launching cruise missiles at rebel targets, Moscow has “turned Syria into both a weapons testing ground and a large operational exercise,” from which their military and defense industry have been gaining invaluable insights, Kofman said. The combination of militia forces, Russian private military contractors and special forces provide a potent mix for the Russian way of war — a war being fought against American and Western backed forces in both Ukraine and Syria.
But there have been other benefits for Moscow.
Russian weapons sales have been on the rise for the past several years, and Moscow’s interventions in Ukraine and Syria have offered a valuable marketing platform to sell foreign clients on its technologies that come cheaper than equipment made by NATO nations, and without western world’s political strings attached.
In July, Putin noted that exports of Russian-made weapons and military equipment reached $4.6 billion for the first half of 2016, and “we should continue to highlight the demonstration of our weapon manufacturers’ achievements.”
One unexpected demonstration that was subsequently touted by Russian officials came in February, when Syrian rebels fired an American-made TOW missile at an advanced Russian T-90 tank. The missile hit it squarely in the turret but failed to destroy the tank, and in a video posted by the rebels, a Syrian soldier could be seen climbing out of the turret after the smoke cleared.
But other aspects of the Russian intervention haven’t always gone as planned, exposing the limits of its military might. Over the past month, two fighter planes have crashed into the Mediterranean while trying to land on the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, which itself has become an Internet meme for the black smoke belching from its smokestack and the tugboat it is forced to deploy with due to frequent breakdowns.
Another Russian Su-24 fighter was shot down by a an American-made Turkish F-16 after it allegedly strayed into Turkish territory in November 2015, with one pilot managing to survive the crash. During the rescue mission, a Russian Mi-8 helicopter was damaged by ground fire, then blown up by Free Syrian Army rebels with a U.S.-made TOW missile. The incident was filmed by the rebels and promptly posted online.
Photo Credit: VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP/Getty Images