October 7, 2015

Initial Russian air and cruise missile strikes prepare the way for Syrian ground operations

For the last week, Russian fighter and fighter bomber aircraft have conducted about 60 airstrike operations in Syria. Despite Russian claims that they are attacking targets of the Islamic State (also called the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS), all but two of these strikes appear to have targeted anti-regime groups attempting to remove the Ba'ath Party government of President Bashar al-Asad.

On Wednesday, the Russians added a new weapon system to the mix, launching 26 "Kalibr" (U.S Defense Department designation: SS-N-30) sea-launched cruise missiles (SCLM) from as many as four frigates in the Caspian Sea. These missiles are the Russian equivalent of the U.S. Navy Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM) and flew almost 950 miles through Iranian and Iraqi airspace en route to their targets in Syria.

The escalation represented by the addition of SLCMs to the campaign is interesting. Thus far, we have seen an intense aerial bombardment campaign using more effective weapons than those employed by the Syrian Arab Air Force (SYAF), but very few precision-guided munitions. Most of the videos and photographs published by the Russian media or leaked from Humaymim air base south of the port city of Latakia show a lack of targeting pods or PGMs on the Russian fighters and fighter-bombers.

Most of the Russian weapons appear to be general purpose gravity bombs, more commonly known as "dumb bombs." The SLCMs, on the other hand, are in fact PGMs, able to hit targets accurately from up to 1550 miles away from the launch point, depending on missile variant and size of the warhead.

Now that we have seen the initial series of Russian air operations, the type of weapons being used and the targets being struck, it is apparent that the Russians are preparing the battlefield for a Syrian military push to re-establish itself in west central Syria, particularly the main lines of communications between Damascus and Aleppo.

The rebels systematically pushed out the Syrian army from most of Idlib province, especially in an area known as the al-Ghab plain, only one mountain range away from the coastal enclave near Latakia that is home to the 'Alawis, the sect to which Bashar al-Asad and most of the senior military and political leaders belong.

As shown on the map, the overwhelming majority of Russian strikes are focused on the area in Idlib province north of Hamah. These targeted areas are in the hands of either the Free Syrian Army or the Jabhat al-Nusrah (the al-Qa'idah affiliate in Syria) - the tan area on the map - who control the main Damascus-Homs-Hamah-Saraqib-Aleppo highway, while the regime controls the areas shaded in blue.

If the Syrian regime is to reassert control over its own territory, regaining control of this Damascus-Aleppo corridor is essential. The Russian bombing campaign is preparing this area for a renewed Syrian Army ground assault. Leaflets dropped in this same area north of Hamah have warned the local population of impending "anti-terrorist" operations.

This impending operation should come as no surprise to any military analyst. It is the same plan we would have developed - this particular plan is credited to Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani. Soleimani is the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' elite Qods Force. On a visit to Russia in July, the general laid out his assessment of the potential for the collapse of the Bashar al-Asad regime in the absence of external assistance. He also laid out the plan that could turn it around - with Russian air support.

In response, the Russians moved an expeditionary force to Syria composed of three squadrons of combat aircraft - they have not been shy in conducting the offensive operations necessary to support a Syrian military push to retake the main lines of communications. Thus far, the Russians have only struck a few ISIS targets, probably to provide the fig-leaf that their operations are actually a campaign against the Islamist group.

Despite the Russians' offers to cooperate with the United States ostensibly against ISIS, the U.S. Secretary of Defense refused and offered to only hold "technical" talks to deconflict air operations. His stumbling, almost nonsensical, response - canned remarks about Russia's "flawed strategy" in Syria - underscores the perception in the region that the anemic U.S.-led air campaign against ISIS remains ineffective.

At the same time, Secretary of State John Kerry has again proposed a no-fly zone - a move supported by former Secretary of State (and presidential candidate) Hillary Clinton. With the Russians now in Syria with three squadrons of combat aircraft in direct support of SYAF operations, that ship has sailed. That idea may have worked in 2012, but not now.

What's next? The Russians will continue to pound anti-regime targets, the Iranians will continue to move more of its Qods Force and Lebanese Hizballah troops in support of Syrian military operations. There will be a concerted Syrian Army operation to move into the area north of Homs. Failing any American support to the moderate rebels allied with the West, the Syrians, Iranians and the Russians will be successful in reestablishing Syrian regime control.

At some point, the United States will need to redefine its goals in Syria and its strategy to achieve them. The dual-track policy to remove Bashar al-Asad and to "degrade and ultimately defeat" ISIS now seems unlikely - the Russian presence has forced our hand. When Russian President Vladimir Putin saw what he assessed as a threat to his country's national interests, he acted - decisively.

Not only have the Russian asserted themselves in Syria, they are now making inroads with the Iranians and even the Iraqis. Iraqi politicians are asking for Russian help against ISIS, supplanting the United States as the "go to" major power.

With clarity of purpose and decisive action, this round goes to the Russians.