- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The risk of an escalation increased in late September of 2015 when the unpredictable Russian leader Vladimir Putin suddenly involved his nation in the Syrian conflict on the side of Moscow’s long time longtime ally, the embattled Assad regime. Putin decided to bolster both the endangered Assad regime and his own popularity in Russia, where foreign wars have a rallying effect similar to that found in the Unite States.
Russia had long been a key supporter of the Syrian Baathist-Socialist regime. The Syrians provided Russia with its only naval base outside of former Soviet territory, at Tartus, since 1971. Moscow was concerned by the growing threat to Assad posed by a new alliance of non-ISIS Sunni rebel groups in the northwest of Syria known as Jaish al Fatah (the Army of Conquest). This alliance conquered Idlib Province in northwestern Syria soon after its formation in March 2015 and began to encroach on the Alawite coastal homeland towards Latakia [the Assad regime was dominated by members of the Alawite faith, a syncretic offshoot of Shiite Islam]. The Iranians warned Putin that the Assad regime was going to fall and they did not have the means to bolster it.
In response, in late September 2015, approximately two thousand Russian military personnel were flown into a Syrian Army base known as Hmeimim, near the Assad regime–controlled stronghold of Latakia on the northwest Mediterranean coast of Syria near Turkey (they would also operate later from a base known as Shayrat near Homs and their numbers would rise to four thousand). The Russians also dispatched up to fifty aircraft (primarily Su-25 Frogfoot ground attack planes, new Su-34 Fullback medium bombers, and Su-24 Fencer fighter jets) and several Mil 24 Hind attack helicopters to the base. These aircraft would later be supported by larger Tu-22M3 strategic bombers and Tu-160 Blackjack and Tu-95MS bombers [flying from bases in southern Russia].
Then, in a move that caught America and its allies by surprise, on September 30, 2015, the Russians began an intensive bombing campaign against what they claimed were ISIS targets. On October 7, 2015, the Russians also fired twenty six new Kalibr cruise missiles against Sunni rebel targets in Raqqa, Aleppo, and Idlib from warships 900 nine hundred miles away in the Caspian Sea.
But it quickly became clear that the vast majority of Russian bombings were in the west, against the Jaish al Fatah (Army of Conquest) alliance of Sunni rebel groups that was threatening Assad regime territory from territories they had recently conquered in the northwestern provinces of Idlib. The Russians also attacked CIA-backed rebels in Hama and Homs Province to the south.
Among the Russians’ targets were several U.S.-backed Sunni groups in the rebel alliance, such as the Free Syrian Army, Sham Legion, Jund al Aqsa, Jaish al Sunna, Ahrar ash Sham, and Division 13. One U.S.-backed rebel leader whose base was bombed by Russian aircraft bemoaned the toll of the airstrike as follows: “We are on the front lines with Bashar al-Assad’s army. We are moderate Syrian rebels and have no affiliation with ISIS. ISIS is at least 100 kilometers from where we are.”
In what came to resemble a proxy war between Russia and the Americans, the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army (which had previously been marginalized in the Army of Conquest) initially fought back ferociously against a Russian-backed Syrian Army ground offensive using American-supplied TOW (tube-launched, optically-tracked, wire-guided missiles) to destroy Russian-built Syrian tanks in October 2015. But the Russians adjusted and began using Mil 24 Hind attack helicopters, which could not be brought down by TOW missiles, instead.
The CIA-backed rebels, who were forced to retreat, requested anti-aircraft antiaircraft missiles to shoot down Russian and Syrian jets and attack helicopters, but they were not delivered for fear of escalating the proxy conflict further. One Free Syrian Army fighter stated, “We can have most of the weapons we want. But nothing to shoot down the planes.” As a result, the previously advancing Sunni rebels were forced on the defensive and began to retreat on various fronts.
This is excerpted from Counter Jihad: America’s Military Experience in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, by Brian Glyn Williams, by permission of the author and publisher. Copyright 2017 University of Pennsylvania Press.
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