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MOSCOW — Russia is digging in for the long haul in Syria. Whereas two months ago Russian officials insisted the Kremlin's military adventure in the shattered Arab republic would last no longer than a few months, the Defense Ministry is gradually surging its force strength in the country.

Analysts told Defense News that the gradual expansion of Russia's air contingent reflects that Russia's ultimate goal in Syria — to forestall the demise of President Bashar Assad, or at least his Alawite government — is proving harder to reach than initially anticipated.

“Some kind of enlargement of the Russian contingent was almost inevitable from the beginning, but the pace of enlargement is a matter of interpretation … many experts said that from the beginning it was not enough,” said Ruslan Pukhov, a member of the Defense Ministry's public advisory board.

When Russia began air operations in Syria on Sept. 30, the contingent that was deployed to a Syrian air base in Latakia was rather limited, featuring about 30 fixed-wing aircraft and some 20 helicopters. The idea was to provide forces loyal to Assad with air support to push back extremist and rebel forces that have been fighting the government for four-and-a-half years.

“War has its own dynamics,” Pukhov said. “Things on the ground are not going well — Assad's Army is tired, the Iranians are not very skilled and the rebels they are fighting are quite experienced. If Assad's forces would have been more successful, probably there would be no need.”

While Russian air support appears to have helped Assad regain lost territory, gains made by the Islamic State group and various rebel groups since Russia's operation began resulted in a net territorial gain of just 0.4 percent, according to a report issued by IHS Jane's in mid-November.

After six weeks of operations, Russia doubled the size of its air group, which is bombing targets in Syria by launching long-range bomber sorties from an air base in southern Russia, a decision that provided combat experience for Russia's long-range aviation branch of the Air Force.

It is not yet clear whether the long-range bombers, which include up to 25 aircraft of the Tu-22M3, Tu-160 and Tu-95 types, have helped turn the fight further in Assad's favor.

In a speech last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin denied claims that Russia is in Syria to pursue wider geopolitical goals, such as asserting its role as a major world power.

“Our actions are not dictated by some abstract, vague, geopolitical interests,” Putin said. “We are not testing our new weapons or demonstrating our might, which of course is also important … but the main thing is to protect Russia.”

The decision to introduce the strategic bombers to the mix was driven apparently by the Russian security services' classification of the downing of a Russian civilian jet over Egypt's Sinai Peninsula as an act of terror — possibly in retaliation for Russia's involvement in Syria.

Robert Lee, a former U.S. Marine now working as a visiting fellow at the Center for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies in Moscow, said there are less dramatic reasons to establish additional bases, such as to improve search-and-rescue capabilities in the event of downed aircraft — a concern that drove US military thinking in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the Marine.

“If they are conducting operations down there, and they want to have the combat search-and-rescue capability, you want to be closer to wherever the planes are operating rather than not because the farther away you are, the slower your response time is, and one of the big things for us in Iraq and Afghanistan was the concept of the golden hour," Lee said.

While this falls in line with Russia's insistence that it will not become involved in a ground war in Syria, the Kremlin is now reacting to other events surrounding the civil war, leading to the deployment of additional air-defense systems and even more ground forces to protect its assets.

After the downing of a Russian Su-24 fighter bomber on the Turkish-Syrian border last month, Russia deployed S-400 air defense systems to Latakia, ostensibly to protect Russian aircraft, and giving Russia a defense range covering the majority of Syria.

In his speech, Putin said: “I want to warn anyone who might again try to organize a provocation against our troops.

"Any targets threatening the Russian air grouping or our land infrastructure should be immediately destroyed."

The size of Russia's naval force sitting off the coast of Syria has also doubled to include some 10 ships, including the Moskva guided missile cruiser, outfitted with air defense systems that also cover most of Syria and overlap into Turkish airspace, and ships capable of firing Kalibr cruise missiles.

There have also been a number of reports in the Russian and international media indicating that Russia is preparing to deploy to two additional air bases in Syria — perhaps signaling a greater expansion of forces.

The Defense Ministry last week denied these reports, characterizing them as speculation by “armchair strategists” who don't appreciate the fact that from Latakia a Russian aircraft can get to any location in Syria within 30 to 40 minutes.

However, analysts speculated that there are several reasons Russia might be beefing up dilapidated Syrian air bases.

“They may expand their air contingent, and having multiple air bases could indicate they definitely intend to, or simply have contingency plans in case that becomes necessary — you can't build an airbase overnight — or else have alternative staging locations, especially for operations in the east,” said Mark Galeotti, an expert in Russian security and military affairs at New York University.

Lee said there are less dramatic reasons to establish additional bases, such as to improve search-and-rescue capabilities in the event of downed aircraft — a concern that drove US military thinking in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the Marine.

“If they are conducting operations down there, and they want to have the combat search-and-rescue capability, you want to be closer to wherever the planes are operating rather than not because the farther away you are, the slower your response time is, and one of the big things for us in Iraq and Afghanistan was the concept of the golden hour," Lee said.

While there have been reports that up to 5,000 Russian personnel are now in Syria, and that Russian T-90 tanks have been seen outside of their base in Syria, analysts continue to discount the possibility of a true Russian ground operation.

“At most, [these additions] reflect a recognition that there is going to be no quick resolution,” Galeotti said. “I don't think there is any indication of any change to Russia's endgame, which is some kind of process allowing not so much Assad but the bulk of the Alawite regime to survive, and with it Moscow's influence in the region.”

Email: mbodner@defensenews.com

Twitter: @mattb0401 

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