Putin’s Attack Helicopters and Mercenaries Are Winning the War for Assad
Taking advantage of a ceasefire, the Russian strongman is doubling down in Syria — not withdrawing.
The George W. Bush parallel was lost on very few analysts when Vladimir Putin proudly announced that he was withdrawing a significant amount of Russia’s forces from Syria because their “mission is accomplished.” The announcement came just four days after the Atlantic published an overview of “The Obama Doctrine,” wherein U.S. President Barack Obama told journalist Jeffrey Goldberg that Russia was “bleeding,” “overextended,” and that Putin had made a terrible mistake. In both Syria and Ukraine, Obama argued, the Russian ruler had pursued policies that made his country weaker.
“The notion that somehow Russia is in a stronger position now, in Syria or in Ukraine, than they were before they invaded Ukraine or before he had to deploy military forces to Syria is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of power in foreign affairs or in the world generally. Real power means you can get what you want without having to exert violence,” the U.S. president said.
Yet there was Putin, proudly proclaiming the opposite. According to him, Russia could draw down its mission in Syria because it had achieved its goals. The White House, and the U.S. intelligence community, appeared completely surprised at the announcement of Russia’s drawdown. Once again, Vladimir Putin had defied American expectations and seemingly came out on top.
Putin’s announcement was filled with lies and distortions, but one glaring truth underscored his words — unlike Bush’s now-infamous declaration from the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, the Russian president indeed may have accomplished his mission.
Over the past two months, a coalition of international fighters — including Hezbollah militiamen, elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps troops, and Shiite militias sent from Iraq — have bolstered Bashar al-Assad’s depleted army. Supported by a massive Russian bombing campaign, the combined force seems to have broken the backs of the anti-Assad rebels, pushing them out of key areas that had threatened the Syrian regime. Rebel groups that were rapidly advancing just weeks before Russia’s air campaign began have been in full retreat. Rebel battle lines that had held for years were smashed, disorganized, or surrounded.
Most of this was accomplished in the northern part of the country around the city of Aleppo, Syria’s prewar financial capital, but Assad has also gained ground in the south, in Daraa province, which borders Jordan. Contrary to the predictions of Obama, Russia has not been bled to death in Syria. Putin achieved exactly what he set out to do — and then left.
Or did he?
Since the abrupt announcement of Russia’s departure from the Syrian battleground, it has become clear that Moscow is once again defying expectations. Putin’s first mission — the crushing of the Western-backed moderate Syrian rebel groups — was largely accomplished, but Moscow is not yet done in Syria. It has just moved on to the next goal.
The first stage of Russia’s mission in Syria, which began militarily last September and diplomatically in 2011, was to ensure that a popular uprising was crushed, a democratic movement discredited, and a Shiite puppet state propped up. The next stage seems to be more focused on not just Assad’s survival, but also the restoration of the Syrian state’s power. And what better way is there to strengthen a government than to ensure it has plenty of fossil fuel to sell on the open market?
Russia’s involvement in Syria is steeped in mythology and misconception. The latest myth that needs dispelling is that despite Putin’s often repeated claim that he has withdrawn the bulk of his troops from Syria, Moscow has barely reduced its forces at all. The U.S. military estimates that Putin has only pulled out about 20 percent of its fixed-wing aircraft — fast-moving, long-range jets that could return to the country on short notice.
There are even signs of new Russian weapons in Latakia, where Moscow maintains a large, and recently revamped, forward-operating base. The Russian Defense Ministry released videos of these aircraft taking off from the Hmeymim air base, about 10 miles southeast of Latakia, and sharp-eyed analysts noticed two types of attack helicopters that had never been seen on the Russian air base before. The Mi-28 “Havoc” is a potent attack helicopter, boasting a formidable array of rockets, or missiles, and the 30 mm Shipunov 2A42 autocannon, capable of ripping through armored vehicles. It’s similar in many ways to the U.S. AH-64 Apache attack helicopter — a reliable weapon for supporting ground troops and defending entrenched positions. The second new arrival, the Kamov Ka-52 “Hokum,” is the updated companion to the Mi-28. While the Mi-28 was designed during the Cold War, the Ka-52 first took flight in 1997. It can be equipped with rocket pods or an array of high-powered antitank missiles, and it is armed with the same 30 mm gun as the Mi-28. Its heavy armor, ability to run on a single engine should the other get damaged, and its considerable firepower allow it to fly ahead of its older peers, providing valuable reconnaissance for the rest of the fleet to coordinate attacks. The Mi-28 has a long enough range to be effective against rebels in Idlib and Aleppo and can be equipped with fuel pods that extend its range further. The Ka-52, however, is more than capable of hitting targets from the Turkish border north of Aleppo all the way to Palmyra in central Syria and Daraa in the south, all while equipped with a full load of rockets or antitank missiles.
These helicopters may be sent to defend Russia’s bases in Latakia against enemy threats — which is important since troops and aircraft are still conducting missions from these bases but are doing so with a smaller garrison. But these helicopters may also be deployed in offensive missions, as we’ve seen on several occasions over the last six months. Whereas the Russian mission thus far in Syria has been about brute strength — carpet-bombing, cluster munitions, etc. — the addition of the Mi-28 and Ka-52 enable Moscow to conduct more discriminating counterinsurgency and close air-support missions.
It has now been more than two weeks since Putin announced his withdrawal, and there is more evidence that the Russian presence in Syria has not been significantly reduced. An analysis conducted by Reuters shows that Putin has sent more supplies to Syria since announcing that his mission was accomplished. While it’s likely that a large amount of this cargo is equipment to keep Russia’s bases operational, it’s also testament to the fact that the “drawdown” is just another volley from the Kremlin’s disinformation machine.
The second myth that needs to be dispelled is that Putin and Assad entered into this cease-fire in order to pursue an agenda of peace or political compromise. Instead, Moscow and Damascus are doing what they have done so many times since the start of this conflict — taking advantage of diplomatic developments to advance new goals. Since the end of February, two weeks before Putin announced the Russian drawdown, a cease-fire has been in effect in Syria. And while it is broken everyday by Russian airstrikes and attacks launched by the Assad regime, overall violence has been greatly reduced across much of the country. But a closer look at what the Russian and Syrian militaries have done since gives insight into their real motivation: to ensure Assad is not removed from power anytime soon.
In order to dispel this myth, however, we have to move to a third myth, one that has been proudly echoed by several people currently running for the White House — that Russia’s mission in Syria was about fighting terrorism and destroying the Islamic State. By now, this should have been thoroughly debunked. Somewhere between 80 percent and 90 percent of Russian sorties hit areas where Islamic State forces are not even located. If Moscow wanted to crush the Islamic State, why weren’t its forces bombing positions to the north of Aleppo, near the border with Turkey, since Islamic State fighters could easily slip across the border and reach Europe — or even Russia itself? Why weren’t they striking the Islamic State in the south, in Daraa province, on the Jordanian border, another area the Islamic State was exploiting rebel weakness to expand? At one point, the Russian government bragged that it was bombing Islamic State oil refineries, but an analysis of the videos released by the Russian Defense Ministry revealed that the targets were grain silos and water treatment plants — which one might suppose look like oil refineries to the untrained eye. The truth is: Russia wasn’t attacking the Islamic State. Russia was simply trying to make it look like it was doing so.
Instead, Western-backed rebels and civilians were the ones bearing the brunt of the Russian bear. Meanwhile, Islamic State forces took full advantage of this situation and attacked some of these same rebel groups. And as long as the terrorist group was further weakening Assad’s enemies, it was fine with Damascus. Until, of course, these gains threatened the regime.
Southeast of Aleppo lies a major government base, the Kweres airport, which has been absolutely critical to Assad’s efforts to retake his former financial capital. While Assad was pummeling Aleppo’s non-Islamic State rebel groups before the cease-fire, the militant group was taking advantage of the situation and launching its own offensive against the embattled rebels. This one-two punch was devastating to the Western-backed groups, and the Islamic State was able to make significant advances in Aleppo province. But when the Islamic State got within sight of Kweres air base, a heavy Russian bombing effort ensured that the siege was broken. Islamic State forces were able to advance north of the city, however, an area not vital to the Assad regime at the moment.
When the Western-backed rebel groups had been crushed, a cease-fire was negotiated to stop the fighting. That cease-fire did not include the Islamic State, however, and as soon as the truce was announced, Russian airstrikes immediately shifted focus to bombing Islamic State positions south of Aleppo, which endangered the supply route between Assad’s positions in Aleppo province and the rest of the country.
Taking full advantage of the nominal cease-fire, the pro-Assad coalition of regime soldiers, foreign fighters, and Russian forces launched a substantial effort to recapture the city of Palmyra from Islamic State fighters. On March 27, Assad forces finally secured the city.
What has made fewer headlines, however, is that Russian ground forces played a significant role in the offensive. Just three days after the cease-fire was announced, Putin hosted a memorial service for four Russian soldiers who had been killed in fighting in Syria before the “withdrawal.” Nearly at the same time as Putin was holding the memorial service, the Islamic State was circulating a video of two recently killed men whom it claimed were Russian Spetsnaz, or special forces. An analysis of the equipment seen in the Islamic State video does suggest that the men were indeed Russian military, though another theory also circulated — that the soldiers were contract fighters, mercenaries working for either the Kremlin or Assad.
In fact, in 2013, it was discovered that a group of Russian mercenaries, the “Slavonic Corps,” were fighting the Islamic State in this area. Just two days ago, the St. Petersburg news agency Fontanka, which first broke the story about Russian mercenaries in 2013, published a major report of a new group of Russian “private military contractors” (PMCs) formed out of the remnants of the Slavonic Corps. The report details how a PMC group, named ChVK Wagner (after Hitler’s favorite composer), has been fighting major battles in both Ukraine and Syria — including near Palmyra. The more than 900 mercenaries in the group were reportedly each being paid 240,000 rubles a month (around $3,500), but 50 percent of their volunteers have been killed or wounded since the group was formed. When asked why they would take such a high risk for so little money, one of the fighters told a Fontanka reporter, “Have you been traveling outside your Petersburg recently? Beyond Moscow and Petersburg, there’s no work anywhere.”
The soldiers said that their company of mercenaries was leading the battles in Palmyra, directing artillery and airstrikes, and taking the brunt of casualties in each battle until Syrian special forces “merrily” joined the fight when it was already over — with “Russian state television crews with cameras at the ready to interview them.” The use of mercenaries significantly lowers the human and financial costs of Russia’s intervention. Still, mercenaries and attack helicopter sorties are not free. It’s indisputable that the Russian Air Force played a major role in the victory over the Islamic State in Palmyra, which suggests that the area has become a priority for the Assad regime and its ally in Moscow.
So, why Palmyra? The city is famous throughout the world for its ancient ruins, which have been threatened or destroyed by Islamic State occupiers. But Palmyra is strategically important for very different reasons. It is an oasis in a desert, a city that sits on the middle of a long road that travels from Syria’s capital all the way to the Iraqi border. This region is scarcely populated, which has allowed the Islamic State to move almost unseen between central Syria, its strongholds in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, and Iraq’s Anbar province. The road is a significant security threat to Assad, because it allows the Islamic State to strike Homs or Damascus. But it has also been largely ignored by the Assad regime for a large part of the conflict since both the Islamic State and the regime have had more urgent missions elsewhere.
Palmyra, however, is positioned near the largest natural gas fields in Syria. In 2013, the Slavonic Corps were deployed to this area to defend those fields but suffered heavy losses. Throughout 2014, the Islamic State launched several attacks against the Shaer gas field, Syria’s largest, and at times has controlled at least parts of Shaer, as well as several lesser fields. The two sides have been locked in back-and-forth combat in the area ever since. But events elsewhere forced a tactical retreat of government forces. In the summer of 2015, Western-backed rebels were advancing in Idlib province and threatening Latakia province. At the time, some analysts were again predicting the regime’s collapse. Palmyra, located 120 miles from Latakia province and in the middle of a desert, was just not a priority for the Assad regime. When the Syrian military repositioned its forces to the northwest regions of the country, the Islamic State took advantage of the situation and conquered Palmyra. Now, with the rebels broken and parts of the conflict frozen, the regime and its allies can focus on their “reach goal” of ensuring that Assad is both militarily and economically protected.
It is hard to imagine the Assad regime ever being powerful enough to recapture the entire country, certainly not without a significant amount of outside help. This has led to some speculation that Putin, by withdrawing his troops, has somehow betrayed Assad. But Russia has never prioritized Assad retaking all of Syria. Instead, it has always been Russia’s goal to protect the Assad regime from collapse and prevent a pro-democratic (and potentially anti-Russian) government taking its place. And in the furtherance of that goal, Moscow seems content to play a game wherein Assad’s primary enemies — including the moderate Western-backed opposition, the Islamic State, and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units — are too busy fighting one another to turn their attention to the Syrian regime. Russia’s airstrikes have accelerated that process and stressed America’s credibility with its allies.
At the moment, Russia is content to embarrass the West and ensure that a friendly government reigns in Damascus and Tehran. And for the foreseeable future, that’s exactly what Putin has achieved.
Photo credit: MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/GettyImages