JERUSALEM—Apart from its geo-political objectives in Syria, Russia has been exploiting its military presence in that country to train pilots, test the performance of various weapon systems, and kill Russian-speaking jihadists from Chechnya and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union before they return home.
These insights into the some of the practical aspects of the Russian presence in Syria are offered on the website of the influential Russian analytical magazine Expert. The Russian intervention in Syria dates from Sept. 30 following a formal request from the Syrian government for military help against rebel and jihadist groups.
The author of the article, Pyetr Skorobogatyi, acknowledges that Moscow’s primary motivation is to establish a permanent presence in the Middle East by allying itself with the current Syrian regime.
"The joint military campaign of the Russian Air Force and Syrian troops seems to be progressing slowly but surely," he writes. "As the Russian campaign reaches its 100th day, its main goal appears to be the use of military power to force peace on the ‘rational’ (i.e. non-jihadist) rebel groups." Peace talks are underway, he writes, between the Syrian regime and various rebel groups.
The political challenge for the Russians is greater than the military challenge as it tries to untangle the welter of factions fighting in Syria and determine whom to cultivate. "All the battlefronts seem chaotic, with many parallel ‘seething cauldrons.’ All these factors, plus winter weather conditions, make Russian air operations difficult." A recent sandstorm, he noted, grounded the Russian warplanes. "This permitted ‘the bad guys’ [ISIS] to mount a major offensive on Deir Al-Zor, a Syrian enclave in the desert, which resulted in a major defeat for the Syrian side."
During the first 100 days of the Russian intervention, he writes, 217 villages and towns were retaken by the regime as well as 1,000 square kilometers of territory with Russian air support and, sometimes, ground support.
"In the first half of January, government troops finally showed fighting ability against the Islamist stronghold of Salma," Skorobogatyi writes. "It was the first time that Russian military experts actively took part in the campaign, probably coordinating the attack on Salma." His use of the term "finally showed fighting ability" suggests Russian impatience with the performance of President Bashar al-Assad’s army.
The air base Russia has established in Latakia on Syria’s Mediterranean coast—well protected with advanced anti-aircraft missiles—"changes the military and political situation in Iraq, Iran, Israel, the U.S., and, of course, Turkey." (Israel was reported Wednesday by rebel factions to have attacked targets in the Damascus area this week with rockets, presumably advanced weapons destined for Hezbollah.)
"The geopolitical value of northern Syria is understood by all parties," writes the author. "Russia has set up a no-fly zone there, with its S-400 missile system, while Syria is strengthening its Al-Bab air base with Russian military advisers. The Americans are not napping either and are planning to set up a military base in Malikia in north-east Syria. This will allow the U.S. to carry out an independent policy without having to depend on the Kurdish state which is being established."
Kurdish forces are making headway against ISIS, says the article, and are laying the foundations for an autonomous Kurdistan or even an independent Kurdish state.
"The Kurds are winning. They are finally receiving extensive military support from the U.S. as well as covert support from Russia. They are carrying out offensive operations against ISIS and expanding their territory" The main loser, the article says, is Turkey, which is powerless to prevent this from happening. "[Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan can initiate military operations only on his own territory."
The Russian air campaign is not expensive, writes the author. "It allows Russia to train pilots and to test the battle performance of different types of weapons. These benefits are in addition to the political gains and to the main goal, which is to eliminate Russian-speaking fighters in theaters far away from Russia’s borders."
The article acknowledges that ISIS continues to maintain a strong presence in eastern Syria. "It will be difficult to defeat."