The start of Russian intervention in Syria expanded configuration of forces in the Middle East and highlighted the Kremlin’s tasks in this country.
Russia’s air group stationed in Latakia (Syria) performed its first airstrikes in the provinces of Hama and Homs. According to statements by the Russian Defense Ministry, air raids targeted the Islamic State. At the same time, the analysis indicates that the real targets of the Russian Air Force were the bases of Syrian opposition outside the city of Homs. The area is located at a considerable distance from the positions of the ISIL that suggests that the terrorists were not considered as Russia’s targets. According to our estimates, air raids by the Russian Air Force are complicated by the lack of accurate intelligence about the location of enemy forces. This in turn is due to lack of capacity to conduct human intelligence in the ISIL-controlled eastern regions of Syria, not only by the Russian special services, but also by the assets of Bashar al-Assad, who have no popular support in these areas. Tehran officials who back Damascus also have minimal capabilities. This means that the target designation for the Russian air group is provided only with satellite data, or human intelligence of Shu'bat al-Mukhabarat al-'Askariyya (Syrian Military Intelligence Service), or Idarat al-Amn al-Amm (Syria’s Political Intelligence Service). Since the Syrian opposition and the ISIL militants tend to gain control of settlements, point airstrikes require careful preparation and information verification. Otherwise, the chances of collateral damage, i.e. civilian casualties, increase significantly.
The Al-Jazeera report on 36 civilian casualties as a result of a Russian air raid is an indirect evidence of Russia’s unconfirmed intel.
Actions of the Russian military in Syria are aimed exclusively at supporting the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
Thus, for its military operations today the Russian Federation can only use either unconfirmed intelligence, or obtain knowingly distorted information from the Syrian intelligence services, interested in destroying Syrian opposition.
However, the chances of disinformation of the Russian military by Assad’s security services is minimal, as the Kremlin’s actions are aimed solely at supporting the regime of the Syrian President in a framework of a worked out plan of the military operation.
The deployment of Russia’s air group, without massing up ground forces, with obvious involvement of the Russian special operation forces suggests that Moscow has set the task for its pilots to cover the operations of the Syrian government forces and paralyze the activity of U.S. Air Force. Thus, remembering the experience of the Libyan war, Moscow provided the integrity of the Syrian ground forces, allowing them to operate more actively and confidently under the Russian "antiaircraft umbrella" and use the strike capability of the Russian air group. Such tasks might explain Moscow’s temporary restraint in deploying ground forces in Syria.
This plan has a flaw though: fulfilling these tasks rests fully on the capacity of the Syrian armed forces, as the air group does not ensure security during special operations and unconventional war in periurban environment. If the Iranian armed forces and Hezbollah troops are involved in this campaign they can only be used in different areas as they lack combat coordination, have different levels of training and specialization.
Moscow is considering a possibility of dividing Syria and obtaining indirect control over its western regions with access to the Mediterranean Sea and to the Lebanese border.
Geography of the Russian airstrikes gives reason to believe that Russia is wiping out the opposition forces in the outskirts of Homs and ensuring safe operation of the road linking Homs and Damascus and also Homs and Hama. The only potential ISIL or Jabhat al-Nusra targets for Russia’s Air Force are located east of Homs and east of the road connecting Homs and Damascus. However, there are doubts that Russia will strike ISIL amid no real threat of expansion of the terrorist-controlled territory.
The Kremlin will be able to impose a scenario of creating another puppet state.
If the Syrian armed forces, supported by the Russian contingent, are able to take over control of the area around Damascus, as well as the towns of Qara and Deir Atiya, the Kremlin will be able to impose a scenario of creating another puppet state on the territories controlled by the Alawites. This “state” is likely to be led the elite from the Kalbiyya tribe. The strip near the Lebanon border is controlled by Hezbollah; however, given the current Russia-Iran tactical alliance, reaching an agreement on this territory is quite likely.
In fact, such a scenario would allow the Kremlin to deploy a powerful military group in the region in close proximity to the Israeli borders and the Golan Heights. We believe that Moscow hopes this will become a decisive argument for the resumption of dialogue with the West on equal positions.
The launch of an active phase of Iran’s military operations in Syria will be a negative signal for Moscow as it would mean Tehran plays its own game in the region.
At the same time, involvement of Hezbollah in the campaign will devalue all the Kremlin's attempts to use participation in the Syrian conflict for restoring dialogue with the West. Meanwhile, official Tehran’s active involvement in ground operations could damage an outcome of a long-term negotiation process, which gave hope for the lifting of sanctions. Therefore, the launch of an active phase of Iran’s military operations in Syria will be a negative signal for Moscow as it would mean Tehran plays its own game in the region. In this case, Russia and Iran will not share the same interests for long, and stakes will be very high by the end of this game. This suggests that the Kremlin will lose to Iran in the end, with the most negative repercussions.
Tehran may be interested in creating a "Shiite" belt alliance, and this goal has a much greater weight than the preservation of Assad's regime for the Russian Federation, while the consequences for Moscow will negate all possible benefits.
As a result, despite reluctance of full-scale involvement in the war in Syria and solving problems by pro-Shiite and Syrian government forces, Moscow will be forced to get caught up in the region. Even if Assad takes over control of the areas controlled by the Alawites, creating a pseudo-state, Russia will be forced to ensure its safety and keep its military forces in the territory that would become the target of terrorist attacks and raids by the Syrian opposition, Sunni radical groups and ISIL.
Anatolii Baronin is a director of Da Vinci AG analytical group