Thomas Grove — Wall Street Journal Dec 16, 2016
Russian special-operations forces have played a pivotal part in the Syrian ground offensive to retake Aleppo, a role shielded by secrecy about their operations there.
In the wake of Russia’s punishing aerial bombardment, Russian special forces have been operating in Aleppo for almost two months, helping the Syrian army with a focus on targeting rebel leaders in the eastern half of the city, according to two experts on Russia’s military. On Sunday, the weekly state news program Vesti Nedeli offered a rare glimpse of Russians in combat, airing footage of Russian special operators in Syria.
“Russian special forces have been in Aleppo for a number of weeks, where they’ve taken on a combat role,” said Ruslan Pukhov, the head of Moscow-based defense think tank CAST.
The elite troops are the same forces that carried out Moscow’s surprise annexation of Crimea in 2014. They are modeled on U.S. special-operations units—who also have a presence in Syria.
The presence of Russian special forces underscores the strategic importance for the Kremlin to make sure Aleppo is firmly in the hands of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad before the allies seek to restart any negotiations on Syria’s future. Any such talks are unlikely until after President-elect Donald Trump takes office in January, bringing what is expected to be a more friendly U.S. outlook toward Russia.
“I don’t see any reason for Russian or Syrian forces to get engaged in any negotiations before [Aleppo] falls and it won’t be with an Obama administration, which is now in lame duck mode,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, which advises the Kremlin.
Russia has rarely publicized the presence of their elite troops, preferring to present its involvement in Syria as largely limited to air support. Special forces redeployed to Syria shortly after Russia launched its intervention in 2015. They came from Ukraine, where they were fighting on the side of pro-Russian rebels, according to officials familiar with the matter.
Their presence in Syria has since increased. Throughout Syria, Russia’s special forces have been used to add precision to its airstrikes by identifying targets on the ground, said Mr. Pukhov and Tor Bukkvoll, senior researcher at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment. The number of Russian special forces in Syria is likely in the low hundreds, Mr. Bukkvoll said.
The air campaign has drawn criticism from the U.S. for indiscriminately targeting civilians. Russia has dismissed the criticism, saying their operations have strictly targeted terrorist infrastructure.
The Russian Defense Ministry says it hasn’t conducted bombing raids inside Aleppo since Oct. 18. The special-operations mission there has been slightly different, said Mr. Pukhov. “They’re being used for various operations, some logistical, some combat, like taking out various rebel leaders in very targeted operations,” he said.
The deaths of three Russian military service members near Aleppo last week were a reminder to Russians that the country is playing a boots-on-the-ground role in Syria. Russia says the war has claimed only a handful of Russian casualties; after its wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya, which saw high losses, Moscow is careful to emphasize that its involvement in Syria is limited. Deploying small contingents of elite troops fits that narrative.
“Special operations soldiers are the people that are customized to neutralization” of terrorists, the Russian Federation Council Defense and Security Committee Chairman Viktor Ozerov told Interfax on Monday. “This is no military operation. This is a special operation.”
The deployment to Syria is also a way for Russian special-operations forces to gain valuable combat experience. Russia’s military has tested higher-end weapons such as the Kalibr cruise missile in Syria.
“Russia is using [the Syrian conflict] as an opportunity to test and refine doctrine for these special-operation forces,” said Mr. Bukkvoll, adding that the deployment was likely approved at the highest levels.
“Special forces are specifically defined to be a tool in the hands of political leaders,” he said.
Russian special-operations forces typically serve high-intensity operational deployments of a few months, a rotation schedule that is modeled on the U.S. military’s elite special-operations teams. The Russians have closely studied the American experience as part of a multibillion-dollar military modernization project that began earlier in the decade.
In 2012, Gen. Nikolai Makarov, then chief of the Russian General Staff, traveled to U.S. Special Operations Command headquarters in Florida to meet with military officials, according to the State Department.
The trip was meant to download Americans’ experience with special forces to help Russia create a similar force, an official close to the U.S. military said.
“From the helmets to the kit, they look almost identical,” the official said.
Mr. Bukkvoll said the forces in Syria are likely comprised of three groups, including the special forces unit of Russia’s military intelligence; another special-operations unit along the lines of the U.S. Army’s Delta Force; and a unit called zaslon, or “screen,” which gives protection to civilian leaders and diplomatic installations.