Written by J.Hawk exclusively for SouthFront
When Russian aircraft were first spotted at the Hmeimim airbase in Syria, the initial stunned Western reaction, due to the failure of intelligence agencies to anticipate or predict this major operation, soon gave way to predictions Russia was involving itself in an unwinnable quagmire that would surely end in humiliating defeat. Two years later, even though the final outcome of the war in Syria is still unclear, and in spite of the human and material losses suffered by Russian forces in that conflict, it is clear the operation was a remarkable success in both military and political terms.
Syria as Proving Ground
The most visible aspect of Russia’s aid to the Syrian government has been the steady parade of new or modernized weapons systems on various battlefields in that country. This war was the baptism by fire for the Su-34 tactical bomber, the Su-30SM and Su-35 fighters, and a means to test the modernized older aircraft. Heavy bombers of the Long-Range Aviation also mark, striking enemy targets with both bombs and advanced Kh-555 and Kh-101 cruise missiles.
Operations in Syria gave Russian Aerospace Forces the opportunity to test its ability to sustain a relatively high sortie rate over a prolonged period of time, rotate most of its aircrews through the theater of war, and also explore the strengths and limitations of its reconnaissance and target acquisition systems necessary to fully exploit the strike capabilities of its aircraft.
Other branches of service have also had a similar opportunity to test equipment in demanding wartime conditions. The ongoing modernization of Russia’s tank fleet and the final development of the T-14 and other members of the Armata family will no doubt benefit from the experience gathered with the T-90 and T-72B3 MBTs in Syria where, unlike their Aerospace Forces brethren, they actually had to face modern weapons in the form of TOW-2A ATGMs supplied by the US and its allies to a variety of jihadist formations.
Finally, the Navy’s contributions included corvette-, frigate-, and submarine-launched Kalibr cruise missile strikes, and the somewhat less impressive sortie of the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier to the Mediterranean during which it lost two aircraft to accidents.
Collectively, the use of a wide range of hardware in the Syrian conflict not only exposed the strengths and weaknesses of its weapons systems, it also raised the attractiveness of Russian weapons on the international arms markets. Russian weapons have been once again proven themselves to be rugged, dependable, and effective. For example, while the world has now seen burned-out hulks of M1 Abrams and even Leopard 2 MBTs dismembered by internal explosions, the T-90 has demonstrated considerable resilience against modern AT weapons. And even weapons that did not have to fire a shot, like the S-400 air defense systems, demonstrated they can hold US and NATO airpower at bay.
Building a 21st-Century Military
Somewhat less visible are the doctrinal changes brought about by the experience gained during fighting in Syria. This conflict may be viewed as a blueprint for future proxy conflicts between the growing number of nuclear-armed powers fought by a mix of professional soldiers and irregular militias backed by airpower and cruise missiles. Moreover, the war in Syria reinforced the trend evident in earlier conflicts, namely the polarization of warfare into the two extremes of lightning war of maneuver in a low force-density environment, and grinding urban warfare decided not by technology but by preponderance of foot soldiers backed by brute firepower.
Military campaigns in Syria therefore resembled the fighting in Ukraine in 2014, which amounted to rapid advances from one built-up area to the next, followed by a prolonged period of costly fighting to clear the town of city of its defenders, before another rapid advance to the next town. The recent organizational developments within Russia’s Land Forces are a reflection of this evolution in warfare. In addition to the resurrection of the 1st Guards Tank Army and new heavy divisions with balanced tank and motorized rifle strength to ensure they can function effectively in both mobile and positional urban warfare, there are also new assault engineer battalions and even a motorized rifle brigade equipped mainly with light wheeled trucks, a reflection of ISIS successes with such formations in the open deserts of Syria.
Hardly any impartial observer of the parallel US and Russian military efforts in Syria and Iraq could possibly come to the conclusion the US had done a better job of it. Moreover, these conflicts have demonstrated the rather greater viability of the current Russian political system. Russia’s military performance should be viewed as the tip of the iceberg of the entire political system, and the military effects on the ground reflect the fact that, unlike their US counterparts, Russian soldiers have the backing of every other element of their state’s power which is moreover exercised more competently than the US national power. Thus while we see nearly constant examples of US allies and proxies fighting one another, with the Kurds’ clashes with Iraq forces being but the most recent example, such internecine fighting among Russia’s highly disparate allies in Syria is virtually unheard of.
Taken together, these successes have send the message to every political actor in the Middle East that while the United States does not view the stability and prosperity of the region as an important part of its national interest, Russia on the other hand is not only concerned with stemming instability but is also competent at managing it when given a chance.