Amid fears of a possible Russian Ground offensive in Syria over the coming weeks abounding, what would a Russian offensive in Syria look like, and how is the Russian Army likely to fair?
The Syrian conflict cannot be viewed as simply a revolutionary conflict, although that is one of the labels that can be used. It is however a lot more complex as it resembles in some ways a conventional conflict and an asymmetric conflict as well. With numerous rebel factions, the presence of Al-Qaeda Affilites the Al-Nursa front opposing Assad and the intervention of Russia and Iran this week have escalated the conflict. The support of Hezbollah has further created tensions as the United States opposes the Iranian backed proxy, have labelled them a terrorist organization and threat to not only US interests but the United States key ally in the region, Israel.
There is no doubt that Iran and Russia are using Syria as a means to re-establish themselves on the world stage, although this may come at a very high cost.
From a Russian point of view, aside from the intervention in Georgia in 2008 the only major military effort they have undertaken since the end of the Cold War was in Chechnya in 1994 and 1999.
The First Chechen campaign resulted in heavy Russian losses in a poorly planned assault on the capital Grozny, in which an entire armored column was wiped out by Chechen rebels. It has been said that the “victors of Berlin” had forgotten the lessons learned during the Second World War. Employing armored vehicles in piecemeal fashion in an Urban environment. The Chechen rebels fought effectively on home ground and neutralized the Russian technological advantage in the Urban terrain.
They did however learn some lessons and the 2nd Chechen campaign 1999-2009, despite the length of time involved they did manage to successfully broker an peace deal and back a pro-Russian Muslim leader in the form of Akhmad Kadyrov who this week, offered his assistance to President Putin in Syria.
The deployment of T-90 battle tanks to Syria would suggest that the Russian army is gearing up for more than increased advisory assistance to the Assad regime. the T-90 is a key component in Russian war fighting and represents its most advanced armored vehicle currently in service. In addition to this the inclusion of attack helicopters and troop transports which allows them to move quickly and provide for their own organic rotary wing support as well as close air support from the SU-25’s all of which would suggest a ground offensive is imminent.
The rebel groups such as the Free Syrian Army and the AQI affiliate the al-Nusra Front have had four and a half years to learn the ground over which they are currently fighting Assad’s forces. They are adept at guerrilla warfare and the utilization of improvised weapons systems and will no doubt punish any mistakes made by Russian and Assad forces.
The Russians will have to learn and this could possibly be a very costly exercise. In any conflict and especially counter insurgency warfare there is a steep learning curve that generally characterizes the first phase of the conflict. Although the war is four and half years old the Russian army will be new to it and the dynamics associated with it. It is unlikely that the FSA and al-Nursa will confront the Russian Army directly in set piece battles. Their strength is in the tried and tested attritional fighting that is guerrilla warfare. To overcome this the Russians and the Iranians will have to adapt quickly, this could also escalate the conflict even further and their is no guarantee that they will be effective, as these early phases of counter-insurgency are the bloodiest for both sides. Which will have negative impact on public opinion and no doubt world opinion as the conflict continues. There is also potential for increased violence as a result of frustration over the lack of success.
Depending on the numbers of troops involved it could be possible to turn the tide in Assad’s favor, he has succeeded in hanging on for four and a half years with support, but not direct military intervention. Based on studies conducted on troop ratios in counter-insurgency operations a ratio of 10:1 in favor of the counter-insurgent has resulted in a favorable outcome, with Iranian and Russian military support and Hezbollah proxies this could prove significant in assisting Assad’s ability to remain in power for the medium term. All this presents the West with some uncomfortable questions.
In terms of the tactical level the utilization of Special Forces Troops as part of a Russian ground operation will be very interesting. It is no secret that the US and UK mounted a highly effective Direct Action campaign against Al Qaeda in Iraq between 2004 and 2007 (Task Force Black) in what became know as industrial counter-insurgency, commanded by Gen. Stanley McCrystal.
It was so highly developed and effective that it had a serious impact on AQI, so much so that they were only able to re-establish the organization after the US withdrew from Iraq. The US special operations command has had over 15 years to hone its skills in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Although the Russian’s have been operating in a similar vain in the Caucuses and Tajikistan in Central Asia where it has been involved in combating IS militants.
It will still prove to be a very serious challenge, all in an effort to build up Russia’s global prestige and bargaining power.