Russia’s air operations in Syria have triggered speculation concerning Moscow’s objectives, the length of the campaign, as well as the levels of planning involved. On the one hand, Russia’s information campaign describes a limited engagement, which boosts domestic support for the intervention. The Kremlin fears Russian forces becoming embroiled on the ground, so it casts the operation as “temporary” and maintains deniability in relation to military fatalities—an echo of Russia’s experience in Ukraine’s Donbas. But on the other hand, there is evidence of Kremlin-directed strategic objectives, alliance building, detailed political-military planning, and possible mission creep being concealed by a new variant of plausible deniability (Komsomolskaya Pravda, November 5).
Donbas-linked themes are clearly evident in Syria. These include Russia’s use of plausible deniability to cover up operations (aimed at the domestic audience); the refinement of deployment and logistical support; the integration of operations and training of local forces; strategic messaging; and above all, the maintenance of escalation dominance. While these themes are increasingly evident in the Syrian operation, plausible deniability relates to hiding Ground Forces from the Russian public if their use is further expanded on the battlefield. Combat service support lies at the heart of moving the forces and assets and maintaining them in theater. Strategic messaging was supplied by a number of factors, not least the cruise missiles launched from the Caspian Sea. But at the epicenter of the Russian operation in Syria is the top brass’ belief in Moscow’s ability to maintain escalation dominance (see EDM, October 6, 13).
Away from the theater of operations, domestic Russian politics and sensitivities concerning high-level corruption scandals emerged around one of the most prominent members of the war party: Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. In late October, associates of opposition leader and anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny published allegations concerning Shoigu owning an $18 million palatial residence in the elite village of Barkhiva, on the western outskirts of Moscow (Alburov.ru, October 27). Predictably, there was no official response from the defense ministry. Articles in the Russian media soon shored up Shoigu’s reputation, including an uncritical article in Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye that presented the defense minister as the guardian of the military. Former Soviet defense minister Dmitry Yazov even suggested Shoigu may deserve a promotion to “Marshal of the Russian Federation” (Moskovskiy Komsomolets, November 6). These articles portray Shoigu as a super hero of Russia stemming from his “achievements” since taking office and closely tied to the image of the Armed Forces as a well-oiled machine—as evidenced in the skies over Syria (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, November 6; Rossiyskaya Gazeta, November 5).
While the Kremlin appreciates Shoigu—with his proven reputation for masterfully managing emergencies—as a member of “team Putin,” other members of the top brass play a no less critical role in the planning and conduct of the Syria intervention. Russian air operations are commanded by Colonel-General Viktor Bondarev, who heads the Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno Kosmicheskikh Sil—VKS). Bondarev says the VKS secured Syrian airspace with air defense systems delivered to the country alongside other military hardware. Bondarev also refers to the detailed levels of pre-planning surrounding air operations: “We figured out all possible threats in advance; that is why we brought not only fighter jets, strike-fighters and helicopters, but also air defense missile weapon systems.” This planning considered how to protect the main airbase, in Latakia, from attack by a hijacked warplane from a neighboring country. Bondarev stated that planning involved flying fixed-wing aircraft to Syria and transporting helicopter assets using military transport aviation, boasting that the United States’ intelligence services were unaware of the details. He believes the aviation group is suited to going after mobile enemy targets and that its force strength is sufficient for the task (Komsomolskaya Pravda, November 5). In addition to the logistical naval facility at Tartus, the airbase in Latakia remains the focal point of operations, with a forward-staging base in Hama and another south of Homs, and staging of five helicopters in Tiyas.
A key public face of the operation, Colonel-General Andrei Kartapolov, the chief of the Main Operations Directorate of the General Staff, regularly offers statistics on the daily sorties against “terrorist targets.” On November 3, Kartapolov said that since the operation commenced, 1,631 sorties were conducted against 2,084 terrorist targets, including command-and-control infrastructure, training camps, bomb-making facilities, and ammunition and fuel depots. Kartapolov had also alleged that a joint US-Russian air force de-confliction rehearsal was in fact a “joint exercise,” later denied by Pentagon officials (Livejournal, November 5).
Some Russian analysts suggest progress toward a Russian-US “division of Syrian airspace” is paving the way for closer cooperation (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, October 28). In much of the Russian media, coverage of the Syrian operation is closely tied to information warfare, which is mainly aimed at supporting the operation and manipulating domestic opinion. One editorial in Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye highlighted numerous mistakes in Western media reporting of Russia’s air operations. Though, this piece inadvertently revealed the dangers of confusing a lack of journalistic thoroughness or knowledge of Russian operational strategies for an actual “Western” information attack on Russia (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, October 30).
While defense ministry daily briefings reinforce the message of a targeted air campaign against the Islamic State, other features are present. The main inconsistency lies in the discrepancy between the official line of a “temporary” intervention, contradicted by statements about air operations lasting as long as the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) carries out its attacks on rebel and jihadist forces. Several retired Russian military officers are also convinced of a longer timescale. They tend to support the size of the air grouping even while admitting the Russian jets’ vulnerabilities to being shot down by man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS). One retired officer, sees President Vladimir Putin countering the US’s promotion of democracy and human rights by Russia exporting a populist appeal to combat terrorism (Novaya Gazeta, October 30; Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, October 28). Indeed, Moscow has a tendency to “talk up” diplomatic achievements, such as the multilateral meeting on Syria in Vienna (Kommersant, October 31; Vedomosti, October 28).
Putin relies heavily on Shoigu’s management of the Syria operation. And the defense minister, in turn, appears to be avoiding conflict with the top brass over operational details. Planning and execution of the risky Syria intervention is clearly drawing on lessons from Donbas and rests on a shared belief in the top echelons of power that the Russian military will retain conflict escalation dominance. Nonetheless, mission creep is marked by doubling personnel numbers and boosting the dispersal of air assets and stepping up logistical supplies to Syria. That said, the lion’s share of military risks is being delegated to the SAA, Iranian Ground Forces and Hezbollah—and Putin wants to keep it that way.