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Russia’s Military Builds Up in Syria

A little known fact about the Palmyra concert is that the Russians arranged for 150 western journalists to attend it. The Western reporters who attended the concert seem however to have been uninterested in it.

This report from CNN’s Frederik Pleitgen does not mention it at all.

Instead the Western reporters whom the Russians took to Palmyra seem to have been more interested in reporting on the scale of the Russian military operation in Syria.

The Russians must find this deeply frustrating. However for those of us interested in the nature of the Russian military operation in Syria it does at least provide an insight into what is going on.

The first thing that comes across from Western reporters’ accounts of their visit to Syria is their barely concealed awe at the professionalism and high motivation of the Russian troops they saw there. They were clearly impressed by the fitness and discipline of the troops, the high level of organisation, the general appearance of cleanliness and good order, and the efficient supply chain.

This was not the view the Western media generally had of the Russian military before the campaign. On the contrary, fed by stories of Russian backwardness, brutality, corruption and incompetence from the likes of people like Pavel Felgenhauer, until the start of the campaign the Western media rarely took the Russian military seriously.

Most Western reporters by now have at least a passing knowledge of Russian military equipment and it is clear that they were also hugely impressed by the cornucopia of Russian weapons they saw in Syria, as well as by their very high state of maintenance.

Lastly – a fact never directly expressed but nonetheless obvious from the reporting – Western reporters were clearly also impressed by the obvious intelligence and professionalism of the Russian officers they came across.

All these impressions are important. One of the fundamental assumptions the West made about Russia after the Cold War is that for all its bluster it is militarily weak and therefore easy to push around.

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Since the South Ossetia War of 2008 that assumption has come to be doubted despite the best efforts of people like Mark Galeotti and Pavel Felgenhauer to keep it alive. Following the Crimean and Syrian operation that assumption has collapsed.

Western politicians and more importantly the Western public now know that Russia militarily speaking is a force to be reckoned with. That is bound to affect military and political calculations and will make Western leaders and the Western public more wary of directly challenging it.

The information gleaned by the Western reporters has also provided some further information about the state of the Russian operation in Syria and the state of the conflict there.

Firstly it is now clear that the Syrian government is once more firmly in control of Palmyra and of the communications to the city. The Russians were able to transport a convoy of 150 Western journalists to the city from their base in Khmeimim in western Syria and return them there in one day without incident.

Very wisely and very properly the Russians took rigorous precautions to protect the journalists – including keeping armed helicopters constantly above the convoy in an overwatch role – but the fact remains that a whole symphony orchestra and a large convoy of journalists was transported to and from Palmyra without any challenge from Daesh or any of the other rebel groups. This is an impressive achievement given that Palmyra just a few weeks ago was under Daesh’s control. It is clear that in this part of central Syria at least Daesh’s power has been broken.

Secondly, it is now clear that the withdrawal of part of the Russian aerial strike force in March has been balanced by a significant increase in the presence of Russian ground troops in Syria. Moreover it seems that these are not just defending the two bases the Russians have constructed – at lightning speed – in Khmeimim and Palmyra. Some at least of the Russian Special Forces appear to be actually involved in the fighting. There was for example a recent Iranian news report which spoke of Russian Special Forces snipers killing a group of Daesh rebels in a battle in central Syria.

Whilst it is not yet possible to estimate the extent of the Russian force in Syria, it is clear that it represents a substantial commitment.

The Russian presence in Syria at one level guarantees the survival of the Syrian government. It is now impossible for the rebel groups to overthrow the Syrian government without defeating Russia. That is not something they are capable of on their own and for the moment the Western public strongly opposes any action by Western governments to shift the balance.

At the same time the Russian presence in Syria gives the Russians strong leverage over the Syrian government.

It is clear that the Syrian government and its allies Iran and Hezbollah would prefer a more aggressive approach towards the jihadi rebels and mistrust the Russian emphasis on diplomacy and negotiations. The large Russian presence in Syria however ensures that the Russians have the means to make their view prevail.

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