Aviation and armored vehicles: on the Russian presence in Syria

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Aviation and armored vehicles: on the Russian presence in Syria
Aviation and armored vehicles: on the Russian presence in Syria

Russia is present in Syria. We are talking, in particular, about Russian combat aircraft, Su-30, Su-25 and Su-24. There are also T-90 tanks.


Tartus: the beginning and the continuation

For the sake of fairness, we note that domestic specialists have been working in Syria since 1971. It was then that a logistics center for the USSR Navy was opened in the port city of Tartus (western part of Syria). He was supposed to repair and supply the ships of the Soviet Mediterranean squadron with fuel and materials.

The Soviet Union had interests in different parts of the world, but the base in Tartus can hardly be attributed to objects of prime strategic importance. If the country's leadership had plans to expand it, the collapse of the USSR put an end to it. Since 1991, now Russian ships have occasionally entered the point to replenish fuel and food supplies. For two decades, Russia had at its disposal a very modest piece of Syrian territory, and the number of people serving it often did not exceed several dozen.

That all changed with the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011. A year earlier, during a trip there to inspect the base, the deputy chief of the Russian GRU, Yuri Ivanov, was killed: the body was found in August of the same year. Then a long epic of denial of the military presence began. The central media wrote that Russia had reduced its "contingent" in Tartus to a few people and that only civilians were present on the territory of the base. So it was in 2011 or not, it does not matter anymore, because now the base staff, according to some sources, is more than 1.5 thousand people. This includes both civilians and military personnel. The base remains the only foreign logistics center for the Russian fleet. Tartous itself is the second largest Syrian port city after Latakia.


On the way to the East

It's no secret that Russia is helping the Assad regime. But what kind of supply volumes are we talking about? They tried to answer this question on the Central Naval Portal. With the help of their Turkish colleagues, the specialists carried out calculations of Russian military-technical assistance and presented their conclusions. Large landing ships (BDK) of projects 775 and 1171 were in the spotlight. Since 2011, BDK Saratov, Nikolay Filchenkov, Yamal, Novocherkassk, Caesar Kunikov, Alexander Otrakovsky passed through the Turkish straits, "Alexander Shabalin", "Azov" and "Korolev". In 2013-14, large amphibious assault ships made 29 and 46 passes, respectively. At the same time, in 2012, Russian landing ships appeared only a few times off the Syrian coast.

Both the BDK project 775 (775M) and its "brother" project 1171 are rather large ships. The first of them is capable of transporting up to 12 armored personnel carriers and about 300 troops. The total weight of the cargo can reach 480 tons. The BDK of Project 1171 has even more impressive capabilities: 45 armored personnel carriers or 20 main battle tanks (MBT), or 50 trucks are placed on one such ship. Plus, it can transport up to 400 troops.

Experts calculated the total weight of all cargo delivered from the Russian Federation - it turned out to be about 75 thousand tons. Taking everything into account, the Syrian military could get about 2 thousand armored personnel carriers or 2.5 thousand trucks with a load. Agree, the volumes are impressive. However, in the structure of assistance to Assad, it was not technology that could prevail, but, say, food and fuel and lubricants. Russia uses ports in Tartus and Latakia, and ships are sent from Novorossiysk. The transfer of goods and personnel to Syria is also carried out by air.That is why Bulgaria (the US ally in NATO) did not let the Russian military transport aircraft through its airspace.


Hopping airfield

If we talk about the Syrian conflict, the main focus in recent months has been on Latakia. And the point is not even that, being the largest port in the country, it is of strategic importance. It's just here, on the basis of the Bassel al-Assad airfield, that a Russian military base was created. Satellite observations and eyewitness accounts allow us to say with absolute certainty that there are Russian military aircraft and helicopters at the facility.

We are talking, in particular, about four newest multipurpose Su-30SM fighters, twelve Su-25 attack aircraft and four Su-24 front-line bombers (the latter arrived at the base quite recently). The Turkish resource BGN News also reported on the presence of Russian MiG-31 interceptors in Syria, but this seems unlikely. The MiG-31 is a highly specialized interceptor optimized for destroying enemy cruise missiles and bombers. It does not carry air-to-surface weapons and cannot be used to fight the Islamic State (or the so-called "Syrian opposition").

The base houses a small number of Mi-24 attack helicopters and Mi-17 multipurpose helicopters. The object is covered by at least two Pantsir-S1 anti-aircraft missile-gun systems. Il-76 military transport aircraft are used for the delivery of goods. Besides them from the same Mozdok take off and head for Syria heavy transport An-124 "Ruslan".


I must say a few words about the land force. Stratfor, an agency close to the CIA, speaks of a Russian battalion tactical group deployed near the base. It includes two motorized rifle and one tank company. An artillery battery is located nearby. Satellite data allows us to speak of the presence of Russian T-90 tanks, and in the published video one can distinguish the BTR-82A. By Russian standards, this is a very modern technique. The BTR-82, for example, entered the Russian Armed Forces only in 2010.


About potential

There is no official confirmation of all this, but the conclusions are already obvious. Russia's assistance is not limited to the supply of military equipment. The same Su-30SM (which we wrote about above) is de facto the most advanced fighter of the Russian Air Force. This is a very complicated and expensive technique, just like that no one will give it to anyone. It is unlikely that anyone was involved in serious training of Syrian pilots, so the pilots of the Russian Air Force are most likely at the controls. In favor of the fact that we have exactly Russian planes, the coloring of military vehicles speaks. Light blue and gray camouflage is the hallmark of the Russian Air Force. Syrian aircraft have a "sandy" camouflage.

There are some nuances here. Russia still does not have modern suspended sighting containers (such as the American Sniper), so the Su-30SM are almost deprived of the ability to deliver high-precision strikes against ground targets. Most likely, they will be used to cover the base from the air and are something like a deterrent (if the United States seriously intervenes in the war). Another thing is the Su-25 attack aircraft. This is the "workhorse" of the Russian Air Force, which was actively used in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Georgia.

Note that even if we have modernized attack aircraft - Su-25SM, they cannot use modern aircraft weapons of destruction (ASP). The reason lies both in the absence of suspended sighting containers, and in the aforementioned ASPs themselves, of which Russia has relatively few. But the "rooks" (the nickname of the attack aircraft) can successfully "work" with unguided bombs and missiles. In the context of the civil war in Syria, this will be enough. The Mi-24 can also be used to engage armored mobile targets, and Mi-17 helicopters will deliver cargo and troops.

The Russian ground contingent is very limited (at least for now) and is unlikely to be able to turn the tide of the war in Syria.Apparently, the main focus is on air strikes. Assad's troops are fighting on the ground, and Russian pilots are helping them from the air - this situation seems quite real.

Russia could do without a base in Latakia altogether and "drive" strategic bombers Tu-160 or long-range Tu-22M3 to help Bashar al-Assad. The Americans did something similar in their time: during the bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, their B-2 "strategists" took off from the territory of the United States and returned back. But in this case, Russian bombers would need refueling in the sky, and the sorties themselves would last for many hours. And the capabilities of the same Tu-95MS or Tu-160 to deliver strikes with conventional (non-nuclear) weapons are very limited. It is really better to fight scattered detachments of militants with the help of cheap and unpretentious Su-25s located nearby. The Su-24M can be used to engage especially important targets, since these vehicles carry air-to-surface guided weapons. Albeit not the most modern.


About goals

This article focuses on the technical aspects. But we simply cannot pass by the most interesting and not touch upon the political (or, it would be more correct to say, geopolitical) aspect. The first thing to be aware of: Syria as a state no longer exists. Most of it (about 60%) is controlled by the Islamic State. About 20% of Syrian territory is controlled by Shiites loyal to Assad. The so-called "democratic opposition" holds positions in 10% of the occupied territories, and Syrian Kurds control the same amount. We are dealing with a complex interfaith conflict, and these are not quickly resolved. We must not forget that the leading world powers also have their own interests, which will defend them by all available methods.


Russian units are stationed much closer to US-backed Syrian opposition forces than to areas occupied by IS. In itself, this does not mean anything, but in the context of the US-Russia confrontation, it may be interesting.

Apparently, none of the world's players takes IS seriously and is not eager to fight it. This applies to both the United States and Russia, which is struggling to maintain its geopolitical influence. Under the guise of fighting the Islamists, the Russian Federation may well attack the positions of the Syrian rebels. In turn, the United States openly declared that it was ready to bomb Assad's troops if he would interfere with the "democratic" rebels to fight. One way or another, so far the Russian presence in Syria looks more like a political intrigue than a protracted military campaign (as it was in Afghanistan or Chechnya). At the moment, the "sounding of the soil" is being carried out, and the actions of the leadership of the Russian Federation depend on what the West will undertake. Russia, of course, can now get involved in a full-scale conflict in Syria, but will it go for it?

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