Understanding Russia's Military Objectives in Syria
Timur Akhmetov- Despite Russia's recent announcement that it is scaling back its direct involvement in the Syrian civil war, which is now entering its sixth year, the overall policy objectives of the Kremlin included an aspect that is often overlooked: namely, the fact that Russia needed to test, demonstrate, and showcase its contemporary military arsenal in order to prove not only that Russia is capable of acting on the global arena, but also in order to convince potential clients to consider Russian technology in the future. In that vein, the introduction of new technologies became one of the prominent features of the Russian military operation in Syria. Officially, Russian actions are limited to deployment of air forces, there is evidence, however, that Russian latest technologies are actively used on the ground by the Syrian army (SAA) and its proxies.
The transfer of military technology between Russia and Syria occurred long before the outbreak of the civil war, with the first installments dating back to the mid-1950s. Russia's Minister of Foreign Affairs1 noted last September that the country's military personnel were in Syria before the active phase of the military operation began, and their presence was associated with the supply of Russian weapons and arms to Damascus.
In its first stage, Russian engagement was primarily focused on rebuilding and reconstruction of available technological resources of the Syrian military machinery. The SAA, with the help of Russian advisors, managed to establish a system of training and provision of their units as well as the maintenance and repair of heavy fighting machines like the T-55 or T-72 Soviet battle tanks, which are widely used by government troops.
According to military expert Victor Murakhovski, newly available infrastructure for servicing heavy military equipment has allowed Syrian troops to considerably minimize their losses and continue to advance in strategic areas with a steady pace, an underlying factor of its success in Latakia and northern Aleppo.2
At the same time, the conflict in Syria allowed some of the latest Russian technologies to be put to the test in real combat conditions, which is particularly important for Moscow in terms of the export potential of military equipment and investment in new R&D projects.
Internet publications reported in early February3 on the successful debut of Russia’s T-90 tanks in northern Syria. These reports not only mentioned the first combat use of these modern tanks, but experts also mentioned the successful use4 of Russian experience in the protection of military equipment vis-à-vis modern anti-tank systems like TOW-2.
There is also evidence that the ad hoc transfer of certain military technologies takes place between Russian advisors and the SAA as well. According to the information portal Military Review, photos of military vehicles equipped with an improvised optical-electronic suppression system began appearing around the internet in late 2015.5 The development of such a system was then necessitated by a sharp increase in anti-tank systems in the hands of Syrian opposition forces.
Russia has also enabled better communications within the SAA through non-military technologies, such as GoPro cameras mounted on military vehicles and tanks. This enables infantry and machine crews to know what each other is seeing in the hazardous environments of urban warfare.
New Russian technologies in the hands of the SAA are not necessarily implemented in a way that ensures optimal usage. A lack of formal training among crew members6, especially in case of highly sophisticated battle machines, and rising expertise of the opposition fighters in the anti-tank warfare tactics may still lead to considerable losses among the Russian made tanks -- particularly the older models that are still used on the front lines of the Syrian conflict.
In that way, Russia helps establish a full-fledged military infrastructure and deploy a number of its latest technologies on the battlefield. At the same time, Russia seems to be inclined to limit its presence and financial commitments to the ongoing campaign using available technologies. Russian newspapers, with reference to an Austrian military journal, draw attention to the fact that the government manages to keep the costs of the military operation to a minimum. One example of these efforts was introduction of the SVP-24.7
This technology allows helicopters and fighter jets, which rely heavily on Soviet made freefall or 'dumb bombs,' to calculate more precise release points and to increase accuracy at a relatively low cost. However, the bombs themselves have been known to cause casualties since they are dependent on a number of factors, including the skill and planning of the actual operators in the field. If the operators fail to account for all the various weather and air patterns at play at the moment, then this technology may not have the ability to prevent unwanted collateral damage.
Despite the negative international media attention given to the civilian casualty rate of the Russian campaign, it should also be mentioned that the deployment of Russian troops abroad and introduction of the latest Russian technologies help the Russian military test its capabilities in real fighting conditions and reveal possible vulnerabilities of their technologies.
The Kremlin's expansive policy has two basic goals: political and commercial.8 Military analyst Alex Kokcharov suggests that "demonstration of military power is aimed at potential arms buyers who may want to see how warheads work in a real combat situation, not only during exercise.”9 The commercial aspect may already be paying off, since the overall share of Russian companies in international arms manufacturing and sales has been steadily rising since 2013.10 At the same time, Russia continues to pay a considerable price for its involvement in support of the Assad regime, and while the technology used may increase the efficiency of the regime's forces for a relatively low cost, it is unclear whether the endeavor will pay off politically in the future. That partly depends on the larger issues of whether the Syrian crisis can be effectively resolved through political means, whether its refugee crisis can be stemmed, and whether global terrorism can be curbed. Most likely, these larger issues will require broad cooperation and consensus building between Russia and its allies rather than simply new military products on the market.
Timur Akhmetov is an independent analyst on the Middle East with special interest in the Russian and Turkish foreign policies. He is currently interning at the MDC and blogs for the Russian International Affairs Council.
1 RIA news agency, “Lavrov: Russian servicemen have been in Syria for many years” [Russian], September 10, 2015.
5 Voennoe Obozrenie (Military Review), “Russian “nestling boxes” successfully “suppress” American TOW-2s” [Russian], February 8, 2016.
6 Viktor Murakhovsky, “What is the chief threat to Russian’s T-90 tank on the Syrian battlefield?” Russian Beyond The Headlines (RBTH), March 2, 2016.
8 An expert on Russia and Ukraine in the IHS Country Risk.
9 Mashable via Russia Today, “Russia turned airstikes in Syria into advertisement of Russian weapons,” [Russian], December 10, 2015.
10 The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), “Global arms industry: West still dominant despite decline; sales surge in rest of the world, says SIPRI,” December 14, 2015.