Saturday, 1 October 2016

One year of Russian military operations in Syria

Russian operations in Syria: one year on

30 September, 2016

Whatever criticism Russia has faced so far and may still hear in the future, most leading Western media did not hesitate to put its operation in Syria on the list of last year’s top events.

Regardless of their attitude to the air campaign Western politicians, pundits and journalists agree the Russian military has changed beyond recognition.

In particular, they pointed to smooth coordination, advanced hardware and effective strikes against the terrorists. All that was unanimously interpreted as evidence the military reform has borne fruit.

In Syria, many Russian air pilots have gained combat experience. Long-range strategic aircraft and submarine- and surface ship-launched missiles were used in real combat for the first time. The fire power of Russian weaponry impressed potential customers.

Until just recently it had been maintained that Russia was unable to conduct any major military operations far away from its borders.

In March 2016, the overall value of weapons export contracts soared to $56 billion - a record-high since 1992.

In February 2016, US President Barack Obama claimed that Russia would get bogged down in Syria precisely the way the Soviet Union in its day was stalled in Afghanistan.

A large-scale operation on the ground and such adverse side effects as soaring costs and casualties and undesirable political developments at home were said to be more than guaranteed. A month later, though, the Russian president ordered the withdrawal of the bulk of the Russian contingent from Syria.

Gloom prophecies the involvement of a ground contingent would ensue turned out wrong. Russia had derived proper lessons from the Soviet Union’s Afghan experience and also the experience of the United States and its allies in Afghanistan and Iraq.

It confined itself to air support, while the presence and role of special operations forces and military advisers remained limited. The task of the commando units was to conduct reconnaissance of potential targets for air strikes and to direct planes to targets in remote areas, while the Syrian army was fighting on the ground.

With Russian air support it managed to launch a counteroffensive. In the meantime, the United States has failed to identify any reliable allies on the ground in Syria. The armed opposition it supports is patchy and uncontrollable.

With Russia’s involvement in the military operation in Syria the diplomatic process went into high gear. In February 2016, a ceasefire agreement was concluded but the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra were identified as parties that remaining outside its framework.

The United States and Russia pledged to monitor the situation. Two weeks later Moscow made a decision to remove its main forces from Syria.

The Russian operation lasted five months and fourteen days to have cost an estimated $2.8 million a day. In contrast the United States is spending about $11.9 million a day to fight against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

Putin has restored Russia to the position of a key actor in the region and he did so at a very moderate cost, analysts say.

Russia’s Rambo

The name of Russian officer Alexander Prokhorenko featured in Western media headlines last spring probably more often than in Russian ones.

Senior lieutenant of the special operations force died a hero near Palmyra on March 24, 2016 while directing strikes by Russian aircraft against terrorist targets.

When he realized he had been spotted and surrounded, Prokhorenko called in an airstrike on himself as the enemy was about to seize him.

A real hero, Russia’s Rambo, as many media said.

Career military around the world did not hesitate to pay their last respects to Prokhorenko and his courage. In a Facebook community for US military there appeared a transcript of Prokhorenko’s last conversation with his commander seconds before the surrounded officer urged an air strike on the position he was taking.

The transcript appeared in the world web through unofficial channels.

Praying for Palmyra

Three days after Prokhorenko’s death the Syrian Army’s command said the Syrian military and people’s militias had regained full control of Palmyra. Russian planes flew about 500 sorties during the battle for that city.

On the same day President Putin told UNESCO’s Director-General Irina Bokova by telephone the Russian contingent would participate in a mine-clearing operation in the city featuring on UNESCO’s world heritage list.

By the end of April the road to Palmyra reopened to UNESCO’s researchers and specialists, who had for more than a year been watching Palmyra’s horrible plight.

On May 5, in the ancient outdoor theater the IS terrorists had been using as a site for mass executions, the Mariinsky Theater’s orchestra under conductor Valery Gergiyev gave a unique performance titled Praying for Palmyra.

Although many Western media reported the concert with a great deal of skepticism, few doubted that Palmyra’s liberation was Russia’s major military and image-bolstering victory.

Some watched the performance with tears in their eyes. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said the concert demonstrated that Russia and Europe shared common values, such as the greatness of human dignity.

Russia casts a protective veil over Syria’s Christians

Russia’s efforts to protect the Christian population of Syria drew the European media’ special interest.

While the Russian operation was still in the early phase, Western media made attempts to lend a negative flavor to Russia’s role in the Middle East, prompting allusions to the era of crusades.

In due course, though, Moscow began to be referred to as the sole force in the whole world that threw the spotlight on the need for taking care of Syria’s Christians.

Local residents – Christians, experts and Western and Syrian priests – unanimously express this opinion to the media.

The rendezvous Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill and Pope Francis had in Cuba played an important role to draw worldwide attention to this issue.

What has Russia achieved?

Has the situation in Syria changed to any significant extent over the twelve months since the military operation began?

On the one hand, the Islamic State’s onslaught has been thwarted. The process of local reconciliations is proceeding. Armed opposition members achieve more negotiated solutions with the authorities on leaving the zone of combat operations and laying down part of their armaments.

On the other hand, the fundamental truce agreements continue to be violated.

One year after the question of concerted action by all forces involved in the war on terror in Syria is still relevant. The main problem is the mediators distrust each other.

Washington has groundlessly accused Russia and the Syrian army of attacking a humanitarian UN convoy near Aleppo. It is noteworthy this happened just a couple of days after the United States erroneously hit the Syrian army’s positions near Deir ez-Zor.

Both incidents caused another disruption of ceasefire. As Russia’s UN envoy Vitaly Churkin has said, now it would be possible to discuss the restoration of truce only on the collective basis.

In a situation like this the chances of prompt stabilization in Syria look slim.

The Russian military has coped with its task and helped the Syrian army stop a major Islamic State offensive. But if no diplomatic backup follows and if the US-Russian agreements on coordinating the struggle with terrorists in Syria remain just a sheet of paper, the march of events may turn for the worse again.

The conflict in Syria admits of no solution from the position of strength. Only joint efforts can succeed. Russia has been saying this all the time from the very first day the Syrian conflict flared up.

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