The sudden recapture by Islamic State (IS) of the Syrian desert town of Palmyra has caused embarrassment and recriminations in Moscow at a time when the Russian strategy in Syria seemed to be working to plan and victory was close at hand. Opposition rebel forces in Aleppo have been routed and their defenses smashed, unable to hold their ground against the relentless assault by forces loyal to president Bashar al-Assad, together with the Iranian-led and financed Shia militias from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Lebanese Hezbollah, supported by overwhelming Russian-organized and supplied firepower.
On December 13, a ceasefire was announced to allow for the remaining rebels to surrender and leave Aleppo, but it did not hold. Pro-Assad forces continued to pound the city, supported by the Russian military, which accused the rebels of breaking the ceasefire (militarynews.ru, December 14). Turkey intervened with the Kremlin to prevent the final extermination of the opposition and civilians cramped in the several square kilometers of Aleppo still under rebel control. President Vladimir Putin apparently promised to allow the rebels a free way out (militarynews.ru, December 14). Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov described the talks with US officials on Syria as “fruitless chatter” (besplodnye posidelki), accusing the US of trying “to delay us in order to save the terrorists.” According to Lavrov, in the future Moscow will be working with Turkey instead (RIA Novosti, December 14).
Russia’s most spectacular success in Syria was the capture last March of the ancient desert town of Palmyra, which had been under IS control since May 2015. Russian bombers, helicopters and special forces assaulted Palmyra, while sappers removed mines left by IS. Last May, a major gala symphony concert was organized by Moscow in the ancient ruins of the Palmyra Theater. Hundreds of journalists, artists and dignitaries were specially brought in for the event in order to demonstrate Russia’s success and power. The sudden fall of Palmyra has come as a painful humiliation for Moscow (Kommersant, December 11).
IS forces moved in through the desert, surprised and routed the al-Assad garrison in Palmyra. Russia deployed massive airpower: 64 Russian bombing sorties were reported and long-range sea-launched Kalibr cruise missiles were fired, but the al-Assad forces fled. Oil and natural gas fields in the vicinity of Palmyra were apparently also overtaken (militarynews, December 11).
Army General (rt.) Yuri Baluyevsky, the former Chief of the General Staff and first deputy defense minister, harshly criticized Russian and Syrian generals, who failed to anticipate the IS offensive: “A total failure of intelligence and military planning.” According to Baluyevsky, it was totally wrong to follow US advice to announce pauses in fighting and seek ceasefires (Interfax, December 11). The Russian command announced that some 5,000 IS fighters attacked Palmyra, but this apparently is a serious exaggeration. Massing such a force under persistent bombing in the open desert is suicidal, and the movement of large troop numbers would have been easily detected.
Lavrov accused the United States of allowing IS fighters to leave the besieged Iraqi city of Mosul undisturbed and giving them an open corridor to attack Palmyra (militarynews.ru, December 14). According to Russian military sources, IS fighters in Palmyra captured cashes of arms and munitions (Kommersant, December 11). The low quality of al-Assad’s troops and the lack of good infantry have been one of the main problems of the Russian campaign in Syria. For the decisive offensive in Aleppo, the radical Shia organization Hezbollah reportedly moved into Syria two additional brigades (one heavy armor and the other—light), increasing its overall presence in Syria to some 15,000 (Izvestia, November 16). In Aleppo, the Hezbollah fighters were the tip of the spear, but there are not enough of them for all the Syrian fronts.
The Palmyra debacle came after another embarrassing setback: the failed Syrian mission of Russia’s only aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, which has lost two jet fighters (a Su-33 and a MiG-29K) because of apparent technical failures of the carrier’s landing gears. The Kuznetsov’s jets are not specifically designed to attack land targets and cannot take off from deck with any serious payload, because the Kuznetsov has no plane catapult. Jets sent from the deck of the Kuznetsov were reportedly forced to land at the Russian airbase Hmeymim, near Latakia, to rearm and reload. At present, the Kuznetsov is apparently out of action, pending an investigation. Meanwhile, most of its air wing (eight Su-33 and two MiG-29K) have been moved to Hmeymim, which makes little overall military sense (Kommersant, December 8).
The Russian war effort in Syria badly needs an additional source of good infantry to mop up after massive bombardments and afterward hold the “liberated” territory. Obvious sources of recruitment are disgruntled opposition fighters, preferably not religious fanatics who can be turned. Such a strategy worked well in Chechnya in the early 2000s, when massive bombardment broke the moral of the resistance and some switched sides. A special inter-service group is now operating in Syria—the Center for Reconciliation (Tsentr Primirenya), trying to split the opposition and to recruit fighters. According to this center: “Some 2,215 fighters have surrendered in Aleppo after the offensive began and 2,137 have been pardoned” (militarynews.ru, December 12).
Still, the acute deficit of reliable infantry is seriously hampering operations, and this may eventually lead to more direct Russian involvement in ground operations. Reportedly, a contingent of Chechen troops has been sent to Syria (EDM, December 8). Chechnya’s strongman Ramzan Kadyrov has disowned these special forces—which is understandable as they are not “Kadyrovtsy,” but the troops of his nemesis, the ”Yamadayevtsy” and Kokiyevtsy,” also pro-Russian, but anti-Kadyrov—that have been manning two special companies in the federal army (kadyrov_95/, December 8). Four reinforced companies of these Muslim troops are reportedly already deployed in Syria as military police—three companies of Chechens and one mixed with other Russian Sunni Muslims. These Sunni-Russian military policemen (more than 500) will reportedly be deployed as occupation troops in Aleppo to man checkpoints, and, possibly in understanding with Ankara, to guard Aleppo’s Sunni population against possible Shia militia excesses (Gazeta.ru, December 8).
State TV channel “Rossya” in its flagship Sunday news program Vesti Nedely showed footage and interviews of Russian Special Forces directly involved in the fighting on the frontline in Syria, “killing radicals” (vesti.ru, December 11). It seems mission creep may be taking over as more Russian soldiers are getting involved in ground operations and are now in harm’s way.