On a countrywide scale, Syria’s battlefields and areas of control have been largely stable for a year or more. Territory is roughly divided between the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad and US-backed Syrian Kurdish forces, with a Turkish-held zone north and west of Aleppo and a broader rebel-controlled territory centered on Idlib governorate rounding out the picture.
But that does not mean that conflict, or significant military offensives, have ceased. For the past two months, Syrian regime forces have expended substantial energy on trying to seize opposition-held enclaves in north Hama province, along with the remaining rebel enclave in northeast Latakia. In this, they have been supported by Russian airpower, which began a sustained bombing campaign in south Idlib and north Hama in late April, systematically targeting hospitals and medical infrastructure alongside rebel military positions.
Despite 10 weeks of sustained bombardment, however, the results have been dismal. Time and again, pro-regime forces have been thrown back, particularly around the rebel stronghold of Kabaneh in Latakia, where more than a dozen assaults have produced nothing but corpses. The same is largely true of Hama, with government militias managing only small advances and even surrendering some territory to rebel forces.
None of this is encouraging for Moscow. At the forefront of the regime offensive are the Tiger Forces, whose close relationship with Russia has been well noted; the unit’s commander, Suheil Al Hassan, was even greeted personally by Vladimir Putin during the latter’s visit to Syria in December 2017. The 5th Corps, which has undergone extensive training by Russian contractors and advisers, has also been heavily involved. The two units have suffered hundreds of casualties, to the point where young men conscripted from core regime areas as reinforcements have refused to deploy to the front. There are now reports that Russia is increasingly displeased with Al Hassan, who has failed to deliver despite the substantial resources at his disposal.
For Russia, the debacle has produced two clear lessons. Firstly, it has revealed, with stark clarity, the limits of Moscow’s battlefield influence in Syria. Previous major offensives, in which pro-government troops recaptured much of the country from rebel and ISIS forces, had featured Russian airpower supplementing additional ground forces supplied by Iran. None of these militias has participated in the current offensive. The only clear way for Moscow to provide its own infantry support is via its private military contractor, Wagner, whose close involvement in campaigns in eastern Syria, in particular two years ago, was crucial to recapturing the city of Deir Ezzor and others. This, too, is fraught with potential problems: Wagner lost dozens of men serving as frontline combat troops in that campaign and the group has since redeployed much of its strength to Africa and elsewhere.
Secondly, the failed Hama/Latakia campaign has shown that the Syrian army – if one can apply such a name to the various militias and semi-autonomous armed formations loosely subordinate to Damascus – is unlikely to ever resemble a competent fighting force.
In many ways, this was predictable. The main purpose of most Arab armies in the post-independence period has been to a) guard against coups and b) hold parades. Preparing for actual military conflict comes a definite last. This has been demonstrated again and again, most notably by Kenneth Pollack’s seminal book, “Arabs at War,” which chronicles a host of failures by Arab state militaries over a period of decades. In Syria in particular, commanders have focused on looting what they can and carving out smuggling and protection rackets, something Russian forces have only been able to halt with their presence on the spot.
All of this will be cold comfort to Moscow. The Kremlin had hoped to use the Tiger Forces and 5th Corps as a force multiplier in Syria, investing heavily in their training over the past several years with the idea of creating a reliable and effective semi-proxy force on the ground. Moscow went as far as to engineer the replacement of commanders in other major Syrian formations, including the 4th Armored Division and Republican Guard, with officers who were seen as more pro-Russian. Despite this, Moscow has found itself in an environment where not only does its influence pale in comparison to that of its erstwhile ally, Iran, but where the Kremlin remains effectively dependent upon Iranian-led forces to conduct successful military operations.
Meanwhile, the continued unprofessionalism of Syrian forces has brought Russia into conflict with its other major partner in Syria: Turkey. Pro-regime forces have had to walk a tightrope as they try to advance territorially while avoiding the dozen fortified Turkish observation posts scattered across the greater Idlib frontlines. They have not succeeded: Turkish positions were hit by pro-regime artillery fire at least three times in June, resulting in the death of at least one Turkish serviceman. Increasingly, Ankara bristles at what it considers to be Russia’s undermining of the understanding between the two sides, with Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stating on July 4 that Moscow must “control the actions” of pro-regime forces and halt their shelling of Turkish positions.
So, nearly four years after taking the decision to intervene in Syria, Moscow finds itself without sufficient influence to unilaterally shape battlefield conditions in the country. Russia’s efforts to develop Syrian formations which are both effective and pro-Russian have thus far been a dismal failure, even when working alongside the supposed crème de la crème of the Syrian “army” in the Tiger Forces. The last two months have been a harsh reminder that the support of its partners, especially Iran, are crucial for Russia to experience any significant success in Syria.
Neil Hauer is a security analyst based in Tbilisi, Georgia. His work focuses on the Syrian conflict, particularly Russia’s role; politics and minorities in the South Caucasus; and violence and politics in the North Caucasus, particularly Chechnya and Ingushetia.