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Russia changes the game: Review of the Russian military intervention in Syria
The Russian military intervention in Syria, which has been ongoing since autumn 2015, has not only changed the situation on the ground, but has also turned the strategic situation in the Middle East upside down. Russia has demonstrated that it has military capabilities in the eastern Mediterranean. With its hesitant stance, the Washington government has Russia one Window of Opportunity opened. It is hardly possible for the USA to force the Russians to give up their operations afterwards, unless they are ready for a massive escalation. The intervention has averted the seemingly inevitable end of the Assad regime and has strengthened the alliance between Russia and Iran, a cause of great concern within the Sunni Arab world.
The Russian military intervention in Syria from fall 2015 has not only changed the local situation, it has also fundamentally altered the strategic balance in the Middle East. Russia has demonstrated that it is capable of pursuing independently military options in the region. Russia was able to proceed militarily in Syria, because the hesitant attitude of the US Administration provided for a window of opportunity. To undo the Russian strategic gains, the US would have to be ready for a major escalation - which seems very unlikely. The Russian intervention has saved the Assad regime from its demise; It also has strengthened the alliance between Russia and Iran, and, hence, has increased the concerns among Sunni Arab states about the future regional balance.
In the war in Syria, which has now lasted almost six years, the Russian military intervention, which has been ongoing since September 2015, is one of the most important developments. This war has already cost the lives of over 470,000 people, he has made around 6.6 million people internally displaced and triggered the most serious refugee movement in decades in Europe. The reason for the war was the sheer survival of the Assad regime. US reluctance gave Russia an opportunity to fill the geostrategic vacuum. The question is: was this military intervention a game changer? Or will it be another example of how military force doesn't pay off?
The active intervention of Russia with armed forces in the Syrian civil war did not come as a surprise to many. Russian military aid for the Assad regime has been around since the 1950s. When Bashar Assad came under domestic political pressure in the summer of 2011 in view of the large demonstrations, Russia was quickly on hand with arms aid. In 2011, Syria became one of Russia's largest arms customers and, in addition to handguns, artillery and armored vehicles, received mainly attack helicopters of the types Mi-17 and Mi-25. Russian technicians and military advisers helped Syria to keep the newly delivered weapons and existing stocks ready for action. Combat helicopters are reactive, flexible and can cover large spaces. They therefore offer an effective means of combating small militias but also of violently suppressing demonstrations. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch then condemned these deliveries, which left no further impression in Russia. It was much more important for the Russian government to ensure that there was no military intervention by the West in Syria. Therefore, Russia improved the already powerful Syrian air defense with defense systems of the type Buk-M2, also supplied a missile defense system for coastal defense and increased the training of Syrian pilots for air combat.
With decades of close military cooperation, it was no surprise that Russian counterinsurgency doctrine was adopted by the Syrian armed forces. This had already been demonstrated in the 1980s when an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood was brutally suppressed. The Russian counterinsurgency doctrine, unlike Western concepts, amounts to a repressive strategy. Western counterinsurgency doctrines propagate the population to win over, protect and remedy the political causes of the uprising. They want to isolate the insurgents and thereby force them to surrender. Collateral damage should be largely avoided in kinetic operations against armed insurgents (for example by replacing aircraft with unguided bombs with high-precision combat drones) so as not to incite the population against their own troops. The Russian doctrine, on the other hand, takes a different path. Here, insurgent fighters are always fought aggressively where they are. Rooms held by the insurgents are under fire with massive artillery fire and bombing from the air, with the protection of the civilian population being deliberately disregarded. The aim is to drive up the war costs not only for the insurgents, but also for the population, in order to make public support for the uprising as costly as possible. Furthermore, the mass resettlement of people in pacified areas is a constitutive element of this doctrine. However, since not all civilians have the opportunity to flee into such rooms in good time and because many of them are considered suspects and come under fire, this doctrine is recognizably lossy for bystanders. This approach is not only highly questionable from a moral and legal perspective, but there is also a risk that the population will become even more radical and run into the arms of the insurgents. Charles Lister, who has dealt extensively with jihadist groups in Syria, argues that this development could be observed in Syria.  The Russian military intervention has also resulted in more opposition groups forging alliances with radical jihadist forces.
The war that the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad began against its own people in the summer of 2011 and which soon turned into an armed uprising by parts of the population against its rule was waged by the government in a brutal and repressive manner from the start. All information and tips from the Syrian war zone indicate this strategy. The high number of internally displaced persons and the dead bears eloquent testimony to the effects of this form of insurgency suppression. As a result, the associated brutality strengthened the more radical forces among the insurgents, especially the Islamic State and the al-Nusrah front.
Despite continued massive support from Russia and Iran, including the dispatch of advisers and technical personnel, the Syrian government came under increasing pressure. The Assad regime's troops and militias resorted to increasingly brutal and perfidious tactics to improve their situation, including massacres, barrel bombs, poison gas and the inhumane treatment of prisoners. The result was that the Russian contingent of consultants grew. Even if official Russian authorities were largely silent, the relevant troop movements did not let themselves be concealed and were picked up in the media.
The transition to open Russian military intervention in September 2015 came after a previous request for help from the Syrian government, whose situation became increasingly desperate. The operation was intensively prepared in the summer of 2015. First a stationing contract was signed with the Syrian government. Then first a contingent of army and air defense units as well as logisticians were shipped to the port of Tartus in order to set off from there to the Hmeimim air base near Latakia. Since then, the air force base has been used exclusively by the Russian Air Force and is accordingly protected. It can hold up to 50 aircraft. At the end of September 2015, Russia relocated extensive air force units to Syria, which flew in via Iranian and Iraqi airspace. Since then, the Russian military contingent in Syria has comprised around 4,000 soldiers and an unknown number of private military service providers. Since September 2015, 34 fighter planes have been stationed at the Hmeimim air base near Latakia, including four multi-combat aircraft of the type SU-30, a dozen tactical fighter-bombers of the type SU-24 ("Fencer), a further dozen ground-attack aircraft of the type Su-25 (" Frogfoods ") ) and six other SU-34 heavy fighter-bombers. In January 2016, several SU-35 fighters were stationed in Hmeimin, whose task it is to protect the flights of fighter-bombers and ground attack aircraft. Previously, after Turkey shot down an SU-24 in November 2015, the most modern Russian air and missile defense system S-400 was stationed at the air base. With the defense system and the SU-35 interceptors, Russia has air superiority in Syrian airspace, theoretically as far as Turkey.
The main task of the Russian soldiers should be to support the Syrian troops in ground operations. However, special forces were soon dispatched to Syria, which were apparently also supposed to take on tasks of direct combat support. This was supported by the fact that Mi-17 and Mi-24 helicopters were brought into the country right from the start. The former are troop transports, the latter are attack helicopters. But it was obvious that private security services were flown in quite soon, whose job it was to carry out "sensitive" missions for which regular troops should not be used. Armored vehicles, artillery and rocket launchers were also brought to the Russian air force base.
Since September 2015, the Russian military intervention has gone through three phases: in the first phase until February 2016, a massive wave of attacks attempted to enable the Syrian government troops and the militias and foreign troops allied with them to gain extensive territorial gains. In the second phase, the air strikes were scaled back, at least in terms of self-portrayal, and attempts were made to use political means to soften the front of the regime opponents by separating the “healthy opposition” (Putin) from the terrorists (IS, al-Nusrah and other Islamists). For this purpose, armistice agreements were drafted together with the USA, but they failed. A third phase began in autumn 2016, in which the aim is apparently to force a military decision in favor of the Assad regime, at least in the west of the country.
At the beginning of the Russian military intervention in Syria, this was denounced by the US government as a further step in the escalation and compared by US Defense Minister Ashton Carter with “pouring oil on the fire” of the conflict. The reaction of the Arab world followed the familiar political lines of tension. While in Syria politicians welcomed Russia's approach as the right step, others referred to the Russian intervention as "occupation".
2 The first phase of military operations
On September 30, 2015, the first attacks by the Russian air force, requested by the Syrian government, took place in the area around Homs and around Hama. The declared aim was to fight positions of the terrorist organization IS. In fact, the Russian fighter planes primarily attacked targets in the west and south of the country, where no IS militias were operating, but rebel groups belonging to the US-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA). In the course of October 2015, the number of Russian air strikes increased massively. The majority of the attacks served to support the Syrian and Iranian ground forces in their attempts to regain territory. A joint operations center for Russia, Syria, Iraq, Iran and the Hezbollah militia has been set up in Baghdad to coordinate air and ground operations. Iran increased its contingent of ground troops in Syria, consisting largely of Pasdaran fighters. The Russian air strikes were concentrated on the front lines. Here the Syrian army and militias close to the government were fighting with opposition troops, which, however, did not belong to the IS. Only a few strikes were directed against IS facilities deep in the hinterland of IS, with oil production facilities and transport capacities being destroyed. While attacks against IS were widely communicated in the media, the military operation was actually largely directed against other forces of the opposition.
On October 7, 2015, at the same time as the start of a major ground offensive by Syrian government forces and their allies, Russia shelled positions of the Syrian opposition with 24 cruise missiles that had been fired from the Caspian Sea by Russian combat ships. Apparently fixed positions and bunkers were to be attacked with their 500 kg warheads. The missions also served the purpose of impressing the US and other Western powers in the region and preventing them from taking any action that could have harmed the Syrian government. Four cruise missiles are said to have crashed over Iranian territory - a message that Moscow immediately rejected indignantly.
The fact that most of the Russian air strikes were carried out against relatively moderate rebel groups and less against ISIS or the al-Qaida offshoot al-Nusrah was sharply criticized by the American government as well as by independent observers and Syrian opposition groups. The course only changed after ISIS bombed a Russian airliner over the Sinai on October 31, 2015, killing 224 people. Two weeks later, Russia attacked the IS center in Raqqa, this time with 25 long-range bombers of the types TU-160, TU-95MSM and TU-22M3, which took off from Russia and fired cruise missiles.
One of the most critical moments of the military intervention was the downing of a Russian Su-24 jet by Turkey on November 24, 2015. Turkey alleged that two Russian planes violated Turkish airspace and ignored requests to change direction. One of the planes finally left Turkish airspace, the other was hit by a Turkish F-16. Russia has contradicted this and denied a violation of Turkish airspace. The Russian response to the incident followed promptly. Russia deployed other air defense systems in Syria. Moscow also put the Turkstream gas pipeline project on hold and warned its citizens not to travel to Turkey. In addition, the Russian government imposed an import ban on Turkish food. The incident fueled fears of a regional escalation into which NATO could also be drawn. Even as tempers cooled, the already strained relations between Turkey and Russia worsened. Both states support different parties in the Syrian conflict. While Moscow is holding on to the incumbent Assad, Ankara is demanding his resignation. Russia's support for Syrian Kurdish groups in the Syria peace talks is another point of contention as the Turkish government sees these Kurdish groups as a threat. In the meantime, Russian-Turkish relations have improved, but the fundamental differences remain.
In December 2015, Russian air strikes intensified both on IS positions and on positions of the Free Syrian Army. While the attacks have so far been limited to the north, Russian forces have now also attacked targets in the south of the country. They are supporting the Syrian army, which, together with units from Hezbollah and Pasdaran, carried out a reconquest in southern Syria and won back the strategically important city of Sheikh Maskin. This was previously a stronghold of moderate rebel groups supported by the United States. The city is on the main supply route that connects Damascus with the city of Daraa in the south. The capture of Sheikh Maskin by government forces was a significant defeat for the rebels and was described by one of the rebel leaders in the region as the "loss of the entire south".
The air strikes continued with great intensity in January and February 2016, despite the simultaneous negotiations on a ceasefire. They were temporarily suspended at the end of February with the entry into force of the Geneva Armistice Agreement (see below). The information provided by the Russian side at the time gave an idea of the intensity of the bombing. The Russian Air Force already flew 5,240 sorties in the first 3 months. In March 2016, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shogui stated that 9,000 sorties had taken place between September 2015 and the end of February. That was an average of 60 combat missions per day. For comparison: the USA carried out fewer than 10 flight missions per day against IS during the same period.The Russian air strikes were mainly concentrated in northwestern Syria and were directed against positions of the Jabhat al-Nusra (now known as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham) in the provinces of Idlib, Latakia, Homs and Hama. This enabled the forces of the Assad regime to position themselves inside the country, also "useful Syria" called to strengthen and expand. However, the Russian information also showed a certain disillusionment. The flight operations alone are likely to have cost between 450 and 550 million US dollars by the end of February 2016, the total costs of the operation are likely to have been far higher. According to statements by Russian Defense Minister Shoigu, the Syrian government forces were able to travel 10,000 km thanks to Russian air support2 Conquering territory back - which was a rather modest success based on the effort. This sober record is apparently due to the inability of the Syrian armed forces to capitalize on the Russian air strikes. In Russian army circles, the Syrian armed forces are considered incompetent, corrupt and extremely brutal towards their own people. The bombastic figures regarding the Russian attacks on IS and the goals achieved in them were less credible. Allegedly, the Russian air strikes killed over 2,000 IS fighters, including over 100 field commanders.
3 The international effort towards a ceasefire
The Russian air strikes were temporarily halted at the end of February 2016 after a diplomatic ceasefire was reached that included the Syrian government on the one hand and those rebel militias on the other that did not belong to ISIS or al-Nusrah. Corresponding negotiations had already been in place since 2012, but they remained without result. Now the USA wanted to make progress in direct contact with Russia. On October 23, 2015, representatives from the USA, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey met in Vienna for initial preliminary talks. On October 30, 2015, peace talks began under the aegis of Russia and the USA, in which the foreign ministers of 20 countries took part. The talks at the level of the foreign ministers remained unsuccessful. The main point of contention remained Assad's role in a future Syria. They ended with a call to the United Nations to mediate between the Syrian government and the Syrian opposition and to seek a political solution to the Syrian conflict. Another result of the talks was the agreement to include Iran in future negotiations. It marked US recognition that a political solution to the Syrian crisis is impossible without the involvement of Assad's allies.
A second meeting of the now as International Syria Support Group (ISSG) well-known intermediary group took place on November 14, 2015. Even if the US and Russia were unable to resolve the dispute over Assad's whereabouts, it did manage to reach an agreement on a common peace plan for Syria. The ISSG members agreed to support a ceasefire in preparation for further steps towards the formation of a transitional government. The ISSG adopted a timeline for the start of negotiations on a political transition process with a target date of January 1, 2016. Jordan was tasked with holding talks with secret services and army officials to determine whether an agreement could be reached among the parties involved on which Persons and groups active in the Syrian war are to be classified as terrorists and which are not.
On December 10, 2015, representatives of opposition Syrian militias and movements met in Saudi Arabia, without IS and al-Nusrah, but with the participation of the Salafist militias Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham. Both militias are among the largest armed opposition groups in Syria and are viewed as important allies by both FSA units and al-Nusrah. The participants agreed on principles and conditions for talks with the Syrian government. The results were rejected by Russia and Syria. Don't negotiate with terrorists.
The results of the ISSG meeting were nevertheless confirmed on December 18, 2015 by UN Security Council Resolution 2254 (2015), which gave them greater political weight. The resolution also clarified the framework for a desired election in Syria and emphasized the need to preserve the Syrian state institutions. Most interesting, however, was what the resolution did not address. The future role of Assad in Syria is not mentioned. Instead, it was stressed that the Syrian people will decide the future of Syria. The signature of Russian diplomacy was clearly visible here.
For a while, it seemed that the ISSG's efforts were bearing fruit. The third round of talks in Geneva, which began on February 1, 2016, began with a lot of optimism. It was to turn out differently, however. Right from the start a dispute broke out over the question of which opposition groups should get a place at the negotiating table. While Russia initially signaled willingness to hold talks with Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham, the Salafists were shortly thereafter labeled by Russia and Syria as terrorists and their participation in the negotiations rejected. Syria and Russia reserved the right to continue to take action against the militias they considered terrorist, even during the talks. However, during the ongoing military operations, FSA positions also came under fire. Two days later, the Syrian opposition delegation decided to leave the room and suspend talks because of the ongoing Russian-Syrian military activities in Aleppo. As part of the Aleppo offensive, the Syrian army, with the support of the Russian air force, succeeded in breaking the siege of two cities in the pro-Assad camp and cutting the rebel supply line from Turkey.
On February 12, 2016, Russia and the USA took over the co-chairmanship of a task force to "work out the modalities" in accordance with UN Security Council resolution 2254 (2015) of a ceasefire in Syria. This came into force on February 27, 2016. Within 24 hours, however, Saudi Arabia denounced Russia's actions and accused the Russian army of breaking the ceasefire. Similar reports of violations of the ceasefire agreement by both sides followed. Both the US and Russia reiterated that the ceasefire would be largely respected in order to advance political unification efforts. Despite some weaknesses and violations, the ceasefire agreement made it possible to alleviate the suffering of the population, to bring humanitarian aid to numerous besieged cities and to restore a certain feeling of calm among the Syrian people. The ceasefire even led to demonstrations against the regime again taking place in some regions. Public protests were also directed against the presence of al-Nusrah. This can be seen as a sign that the jihadists, who have achieved a certain reputation in opposition circles for their military clout, will quickly lose the sympathy they have gained in peacetime. Observers stressed, however, that the ceasefire will benefit the Syrian government because the parts of the country loyal to them can be supplied with food, water and medicine, but the others will have to struggle to survive.
Even if the ceasefire agreement remained fragile, representatives of the Syrian government and the opposition gathered again in Geneva on March 14, 2016 to continue the peace talks. On the same day, Russian President Vladimir Putin surprisingly announced that the objectives of the military mission had been achieved and ordered the withdrawal of the “main body” of the Russian armed forces from Syria. This step, which was surprising for all parties, gave rise to numerous attempts at explanation. Some saw it as a well-calculated step to avoid Russian losses, others saw it as a signal to Assad that he could not count on Russia's support at all costs. But it was also interpreted as a sign of de-escalation to the USA. Whatever it was, there was no real withdrawal of the Russian troops. Rather, this was a deception. The Hmeimin air force base and the naval presence in Tartus remained operational and the Russian air strikes continued even after the announcement of the withdrawal, although not with the high intensity as before.
The coming months saw the ceasefire agreement erode as a result of persistent violations. One of the reasons for the poor implementation of the ceasefire agreement was its inconsistency. This could only include those militias that did not belong to the Islamic States or the al-Nusrah Front and their vicinity. This gave the radical Islamists the opportunity at any time to force them to react by attacking Syrian troops or units allied with them. They had every incentive to disrupt the ceasefire, because if the more moderate militias had come closer to the regime through the ceasefire, they would have been the losers. Since the situation in many places in Syria is such that it is not clear which militias are fighting in which places and where which armed forces have dovetailed, the failure of the ceasefire was almost inevitable. In addition, the opposition groups were and still are skeptical of the negotiations because they see it as a consolidation of the Assad regime's position. They want the West to support their struggle with determination.
The main reason for the erosion of the ceasefire agreement, however, was the Syrian government's lack of interest in a ceasefire. She feared that the status quo could become permanent. The Assad government therefore never missed an opportunity to point out that it intends to restore its rule over all of Syria. The territorial gains created by the Russian operations apparently encouraged Assad in his intention to retake all of Syria.
The willingness of the Syrian government to negotiate therefore became less as soon as the situation on the ground turned in its favor. The official reaction of the Russian side to such statements was cautious. In fact, with the help of Hezbollah militias and Russian air support, Syrian troops began to win back the city of Palmyra in eastern Syria from IS, which only had a small presence there. Even if this concerned a military operation directed against ISIS as a non-party to the Geneva Armistice Offer, it indicated that the primary goal of the Syrian government and the Russians who supported it was to restore the territorial status quo ante. The armistice remained precarious in the months to come and was repeatedly broken. Due to the ongoing fighting on the ground, the negotiations initiated by the UN were suspended and the ambitious plans for the future of Syria were halted for the time being in May 2016.
4 The second phase of the Russian intervention
In March 2016, it became apparent that Russian military intervention had entered a new phase. Unlike in the previous months, no reports of success and information on the strength, scope and armament of the Russian forces in Syria have been published (with the exception of reports relating to the fight against IS). The planes and soldiers stayed, but when there were bombings against the Syrian opposition, and especially against Syrian cities, Russian officials denied their involvement and questioned the very existence of the attacks. A pattern could be seen here, which was also to be observed in eastern Ukraine. Russia acted as if it was not involved in the conflict itself, but was actually only there to fight IS. At the same time, it offered itself to the USA as a mediator and negotiating partner. With the bilateral talks, the USA pursued the goal of reviving the February agreement. The main interest of Russia, however, was different. The aim of Russian politics was to weaken the cohesion within the Syrian opposition groups through negotiations and at the same time to create facts on the ground together with the Syrian troops and the units of Hezbollah and Pasdaran. The hesitant attitude of the Obama administration and the looming paralysis of American politics by the election campaign made the game easy for the Russian government.
As the summer of 2016 progressed, it became increasingly apparent how much Russia was actually involved in the fighting. Reports of the death of soldiers or the downing of helicopters that were supposed to be part of "humanitarian missions" over Syria increased. Reports also increased that the Russian Air Force was using bunker-breaking bombs and incendiary bombs. While the civilians were able to flee from conventional bombs into the basements and cellars of their houses, they were exposed to these weapons without protection.
The consequences were felt by the people in Homs and Aleppo. In Homs, in the summer of 2016, in keeping with the Russian doctrine of counterinsurgency, those parts of the city that had been held by the opposition were mercilessly bombed. On June 25, 2016, another major Russian-Syrian offensive began on the megacity of Aleppo. The offensive was carried out without consideration for the civilian population there and brought the Russian government clear criticism from international aid organizations and Western governments. The Russian and Syrian troops have been charged with war crimes in Syria.
Against the background of the increasingly dramatic situation for the population in Aleppo, the American Foreign Minister John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Lavrov were surprisingly able to agree on a new, comprehensive ceasefire for all of Syria on September 10, 2016, which also provided for regulations for the city of Aleppo . This agreement included the Syrian government and its supporting militias on the one hand and a group of "moderate" militias of the Syrian opposition on the other. It was also agreed that all parties to the agreement would fight against IS and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (the successor organization to al-Nusrah).
But neither all rebel groups adhered to the ceasefire, nor were Russia and Syria willing to do so. There was also a serious misunderstanding: on September 17, 2016, American planes attacked Syrian government troops who were mistakenly mistaken for IS fighters. Two days later, a UN aid convoy and a warehouse for relief supplies in Aleppo were bombed with dozens of dead and injured civilians. The US accused Russia of being responsible for the attack because, according to an analysis of the air situation, only Russian and Syrian aircraft were operating over Aleppo at the time of the attack. Russia and Syria, however, denied any guilt. A few days later there was another attack on two hospitals in Aleppo by Syrian or Russian planes. The US then declared the negotiations on October 3, 2016 to have failed and accused Russia of playing the wrong game.
5 The third phase of the Russian military intervention
Since October 2016, the Russian military intervention has entered a new phase. The strategy is now evidently: escalation and increased deployment with the aim of defeating President Assad's opponents sustainably, if not decisively. To this end, the Russian aircraft carrier was created Admiral Kuznetsov Sent to Syria in mid-October with 12 SU-33 and 20 MIG-29K fighter jets and 24 helicopters on board. This almost doubled the Russian air force presence in Syria and a significant shift in the maritime balance of power in the region. The Admiral Kuznetsov is accompanied by seven Russian warships, including the nuclear-powered battle cruiser Pyotr Velikiy and two destroyers of the Udaloy-Class.What's going on in Burma
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