Following recent Russian media coverage of the success of the Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno Kosmicheskikh Sil—VKS) in their operations in Syria, there are renewed indications that Moscow is seeking some kind of exit strategy. Despite earlier reports of a Russian withdrawal from Syria, which merely provided cover for a regular regrouping of its forces, Moscow is now openly talking about the operation in Syria ending. This seems rooted in the government’s assessment that its objectives on the ground have been met. These include the marked progress made by the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) since the Russian intervention commenced in September 2015, perceptions of the problems the United States has faced in its regional strategy, and a number of additional factors, such as the need to rebalance Russia’s broader Middle East policy (TASS, October 16).
The clearest sign that Moscow is exploring possible exit strategies, without necessarily pulling out its forces from Syria, came during a recent bilateral exchange with Israel. Russian media reported, on October 10, that the issue was at the center of a meeting in Tel Aviv headed by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and his Israeli counterpart, Avigdor Lieberman. Specifically, Shoigu said a number of issues needed to be explored in relation to Syria’s future, since the Russian operation is nearing its completion. Shoigu noted that the VKS, working with the SAA, had inflicted serious damage to enemy forces. He called on Israel to deepen ties with Russia in military-technical cooperation and combating terrorism as well as to continue their bilateral dialogue on the regional situation (Izvestia, October 16).
Almost two years since President Vladimir Putin authorized Russian military operations in Syria—which has mainly focused on the VKS providing close air support for the SAA, alongside training and material assistance to the regime—Russia’s leadership is now undoubtedly convinced the gamble has paid off. Moscow’s role in the Middle East and its say in the future of Syria has been markedly boosted (see Stephen Blank, “The Foundations of Russian Policy in the Middle East,” Russia in the Middle East, October 5). This seems to be true at the geopolitical level, reflected in much of the commentary and official statements from Moscow concerning the Syria operations. Moreover, the Syria campaign has undoubtedly raised the combat readiness of the VKS by offering an opportunity to train Russian pilots in a combat environment. Nevertheless, there are also frustrations with other actors and concern about the strain on the VKS platforms.
The boisterous nature of Russian claims about their success in Syria was summarized by presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov, who characterized recent VKS accomplishments as marking “the beginning of the end” of the war in Syria. Peskov repeated the statistic that “92 percent” of Syrian territory is under government control. Whatever the reality vis-à-vis territorial control by Damascus, the situation on the ground has changed markedly since Russia’s intervention. Meanwhile, Moscow’s renewed effort to bring this phase to an end may be indirectly the result of Russian successes like the liberation of Deir-ez-Zor and sweeps of nearby villages (Nation-news.ru, October 17; RIA Novosti, October 13). Such coverage stands in sharp contrast to how the Russian media portrays US-led operations, including the assault on Raqqa (Kommersant, Vedomosti, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, October 15).
However, there are also underlying, albeit fairly low-key, strains on the VKS after two years of Syria operations. While the casualty levels for Russia’s forces in Syria are small, despite its deployment of special forces spotters, trainers for the SAA and, more recently, Military Police in designated areas of the country, there are examples of platform losses, which cause anxiety in Moscow. In an article in Gazeta.ru, retired air force and air defense colonel Mikhail Khodarenok considered the loss of an Su-24 bomber, on October 10, which crashed while taking off from the Russian airbase in Latakia. Both crew members were killed in the incident as they had no time to eject. Khodarenok considered the most likely explanations for the crash, though the defense ministry has released little reliable information to aid insight into the cause of the accident. Various hypotheses were advanced, including a possible onboard fire, a technical malfunction, engine problems or a collision with an obstacle—but so far, there is no clear conclusion. Whatever the actual cause, it certainly erupted quickly, with no time for the crew to react; and the defense ministry is being careful not to publish any details (Gazeta.ru, October 10).
In the course of combat operations in Syria, the VKS has suffered a few losses of platforms. Apart from the Turkish Air Force downing an Su-24 in November 2015, due to the latter’s violation of Turkey’s airspace, the VKS also lost an Mi-28N helicopter, which was later attributed to pilot error. Also, in December 2016, an Su-33 fighter crashed into the Mediterranean Sea while attempting to land on the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov. The aircraft fell short of the flight deck and ditched into the sea, with its crew safely ejecting. Such losses are small in comparison to the overall number of platforms and sortie rates over the past two years. Nonetheless, the presence of pilot error in the Mi-28N crash, the embarrassing loss of the Su-33, and now the accident involving the Su-24 bomber so soon after take-off from Latakia suggest at least some evidence of wear and tear with older assets and issues concerning technical support and training in the case of the other incidents (Gazeta.ru, October 10).
The intervention in Syria has clearly boosted the reputation of the Russian military, afforded valuable training for the VKS, and enhanced Moscow’s political clout in the conflict. But as the Syrian regime continues to look less precarious, Russia is increasingly considering how and when to suspend air operations. In this context, Shoigu’s discussions in Tel Aviv not only reinforce the impression that Moscow has largely benefited from the Syria adventure but that behind-the-scenes dialogue is occurring with Russia’s non-traditional friends in the region. The present reality thus stands in contrast with previous years’ state visits to Baghdad and Tehran to shore up the fledgling coalition that surrounded the Russian entry to Syria. During its two-year campaign, Moscow has defied predictions that it would be drawn into a quagmire: it has minimized casualties, aided Bashar al-Assad’s regime, experimented with various types of operational approaches and trained its VKS pilots in the theater. Now attention seems to be gravitating toward a post-conflict role.