Putin walking in the footsteps of the Iron Lady

Since Russia has started fighting actively in the Syrian Civil War, it has mainly stuck to providing air cover and close-air-support to loyalist forces as well as bombing positions of forces opposed to Bashar al-Assad. Although Russia has stated differently, it has been widely documented that these attacks mostly target rebel forces that are not affiliated to ISIS. Russia has deployed an aerial expedition force consisting of twelve Sukhoi SU-24M2s, six SU-34s, twelve SU-25SMs, four SU-30SMs, four Mil Mi-8MTV-5s and twelve Mi-24Ps to Latakia Governorate’s Khmeimim Airbase near Bassel al-Assad International Airport (and could be expanding its actions to another air field located in western Homs Governorate as well). 

However, the Russian forces have not only operated from inside Syria. In the beginning of October, four vessels of the Russian Caspian Flotilla launched a barrage of twenty-six 3M-14TE Калибр (Kalibr) cruise missiles against targets in Syria and from November 17-20th the Russian Air Force (RuAF) initiated one of its biggest air attacks since World War II. No less than fourteen Tupolev Tu-22M3s, six Tu-95MSMs and five Tu-160s conducted these sorties. Up to 20% of the Russian strategic bomber force and even 42% of all combat-ready Tu-160s were involved in this raid.
(UPDATE added at the end of the article) 

Tu-22M3, source
Tu-95MSM, source
Tu-160, source

Lastly, on December 8th 2015 it was reported that for the first time submarines were involved in the Syrian campaign. Several 3M-14TE Kalibr missiles were fired from Kilo-class submarine Rostov-on-Don operating from the Mediterranean Sea.

Rostov-on-Don, source
Rostov-on-Don, source
All of these attacks proved little to no tactical or even strategic gains regarding advances of loyalist fighters or at least the reduction of the losses of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and those militias it is allied with. However, these strikes should not be considered useless or absurd at all. For a better understanding of this instance, it may be helpful to have a look at events which happened some 30 years ago. 

On April 2nd 1982, Argentinean units attacked the British Falkland Islands, the main archipelagos being located approximately 480 km (300 mi) to the east of Argentina in the southern Atlantic. The invaders had previously taken over South Georgia some 1,400 km (870 mi) east-south-eastwards of the initial Falklands. The British government was caught by surprise and had no opportunity to launch an immediate full-scale counterattack to answer the assault on its territory. Instead the Royal Air Force (RAF) was ordered to deal the first blow with forces stationed in the UK. Two Avro Vulcan B.2 and eleven Handley Page Victor K.2 were sent to the small island of Ascencion where the RAF maintained (and still maintains) a base. 

Distance Ascension-Falklands, source
Though it was the nearest possible British owned position to conduct raids against Argentinean positions on the Falklands, the attacking aircrafts still had to surmount a journey of over 12,600 km (6,800 mi) during each sortie. This is why only the Vulcans were set to act as bombers, whereas all of the Victors served as tankers. 

Avro Vulcan, picture taken after plane returned from Black Buck 1, source
Handley Page Victor, source
Operation Black Buck 1 started on May 1st 1982. One of the two Vulcans reached the target and bombed the airport at Port Stanley. Two devices hit the runway and another one damaged the tower. Three Argentinean soldiers fell during these raid and some aircraft on the ground were damaged. The actual damage dealt to the British’ enemy surely did not justify the immense financial cost and logistical expenses caused by the operation and, in fact, the goal was a different one. Rather than being effective in a military sense, Black Buck 1 was supposed to send a message that the UK would not tolerate an invasion and would strike back by any means necessary. It was, so to speak, an act of PR. Concerning the latest Russian actions in Syria, namely the firing of cruise missiles from the Caspian fleet’s vessels, from half of Putin’s strategic bomber fleet and from the Rostov-on-Don, certain similarities to Black Buck 1 cannot be denied. 

From a military point of view these attacks had little to no tactical value, at best they were symbolically important. The bombed targets were less important, but a means to an end. It speaks for itself that even the Syrian or Russian media did not cover the destroyed targets of the above attacks in detail, but rather how they were destroyed: with the latest missile systems carried by huge bombers or huge ships. 

Both Russia and the UK used weapon systems the addressee of the intended message did not expect. The Argentinean generals had not thought of the possibility of such a long-ranged mission and were shocked that the Malvinas, as the Falklands are commonly called in Spanish, were vulnerable to British attacks before the enemy naval forces had reached the region. Moreover, during the war Argentina feared attacks on their mainland and held back fighter squadrons to protect it, thus lowering the number of fighters over the Falklands. As the British had intended, the message reached their enemy. 

This, to a large extend, reflects the situation in Syria. Much has been written about the Russian army in the past years. Most experts referred to the Russian army as underfunded and rotten which was not entirely false for several years following the Soviet Union’s collapse. Especially the submarine units and the bomber fleet had substantial problems which became apparent, when the Oscar-class submarine Kursk sank due to a malfunctioned torpedo on August 12th 2000. Furthermore, many of the Tu-160s could not be held in flying condition. So by using large parts of the heavy bombers as well as important navy units, Russia displays their new military capabilities.

However, there is one important difference between both situations. Whereas the RAF was on a mission to intimidate the actual enemy in a confrontation of war, the Russian attacks have another addressee: the Western world. Putin’s new message should be read as a signal to his political opposite numbers and a show of force to all those he sees as real or potential threat. Figuratively speaking, Putin does not address his opponents directly like Great Britain did, he is instead using Syria as the envelope to send the message he desires to be read. And this message is quite simple: Russia is strong and is to be seen once again as a super-power. 

UPDATE (December 28th 2015): 
Today I stumpled upon an article on the Swiss offiziere.ch. It features an amazing map and analysis of the Russian action in Syria up to December 11th 2015. Regarding the planes the RuAF uses in Syrian airspace, offiziere.ch lists slightly different numbers from those written above. It gives a hint on how hard it is to provide exact information about the Russian involvement and the very composition of the forces present on the battlefield. (Click here for high-resolution)


The rise of the SSNP militia. A sign of strength or hardship?

A distinguishing mark of modern asymmetric warfare is a wide variety of militias and formations fighting for one or the other side. Non-professional fighters, loosely organised into groups and largely uncontrolled by any kind of supreme command, can inflict horrible damage on an enemy. At the same time, they can easily be recruited, trained and armed. This also makes them the weapon of choice for governments both having a weak or overstretched regular army and willing to fight a war without frontlines, effectively decentralising warfare.

The conflict in Syria is no exception and has seen dozens of different armed groups fighting beside the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) on Syrian soil. One of those groups that has recently gained some momentum and whose men are increasingly pictured battling their enemies is the militia of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP). 

An SSNP technical during the battle of the al-Ghab plains, source

Men fighting under the party’s Zawba'a-logo have been seen in a fighting role since early 2014. Before that, occasionally photographs were publicised showing supporters of the SSNP, however, they do not bear arms. After all, searching on twitter will reveal pictures of their men, holding weapons, posing as early as during the end phase of the battle of Homs in January/February 2014.

The assembling and deployment of the SSNP's Nusur az-Zawba’a (Eagles of the Hurricane) might, at first glimpse, look a little arbitrarily and even carried out coincidentally, but is just another example of how sectarian the war in Syria has become. To fully understand that, one must go into both the SSNP’s political program and the party’s history.

To analyse the rise of Syrian Social Nationalist Party as a militia, it would be too lengthy to write a whole history dossier about it. In fact, yet there are several well written, though sometimes a little aged, reports about the SSNP’s very own worldview, e.g. here and here. Those reports explain the ideological basis of the party: a strong believe in the forming of a future so called 'Greater Syria' with clear references to Assyrian history and the Assyrian kingdom and with an evenly strong rejection of both Pan-Arabism and Arab nationalism. This led to a bloody rivalry between the Baath-Party and the SSNP during their early years and the latter being officially banned in Syria between 1955 and 2005. 

Map of 'Greater Syria', source

Map of 'Greater Syria'. Note the references to Assyrian history as well as the Zawba'a-logo, source

Though the party claims to be standing for secular politics, its history reveals that it is a movement which has its roots inside the Christian minority, and to a lesser extent inside the Druze society, being themselves mostly loyal to the regime and seeing it as their protector from Islamist forces, however, without being necessarily Baathist.

The reason that an SSNP militia was not active before 2014 is the existence of the National Defence Forces (NDF) which relied heavily on the administrative help of the Syrian Social Nationalists. Back then, SSNP followers fought under the flag of the NDF, though SSNP insignias, like those of other political or ethnic movements, were sporadically shown, e.g. on the posters of those who had died in battle.

Raed Ibrahim Baraka, fallen on October 27th 2013 in Daraa. Note the Zawba'a-logo (top left) and the Druze symbol (top right), source

One could argue that the rise of a new militia was a sign of a renewed rise of Bashar al-Assad’s government, providing a new force to fight against ISIS, Jabhat an-Nusra and dozens of rebel units. But rather, it is just the other way around.

In the following months after their first encounters in January 2014 in Homs, Nusur az-Zawba’a were reportedly engaged in major fighting near Kessab/Latakia (April 2014), Damascus (April/May 2014), Morek/Hama (November 2014, April 2015), Daraa governorate (February 2015), Tha'lah Military Airbase/as-Suwayda (June 2015) and lately in Zabadani/Rif Dimashq (since July 2015) as well as in the once again ignited confrontation in the north western hillside region of Latakia. However, by far the most pictures showing SSNP militiamen at the scene originate from the battle of az-Zabadani.

SSNP militiamen at Tha'lah Military Airbase, source

All of the cities/regions named above hosted a considerable Christian population before the war (or still host it). Given the fact that there have been strong ties between NDF and SSNP, the fighters deployed to those battlegrounds are predominantly locals.

Interestingly, the regime has split the SSNP fighters from the regular NDF, although the latter is more or less considered to be a loyal force. Although it is hard to verify, this could be a sign for that especially Christians since late 2013 have hesitated to join the NDF and other Baath-ideology militias so that the militia was specifically ‘outsourced’ for them. Even pro-regime news outlets list them separately from the NDF, at least since early 2015. This speaks against the theory of the SSNP still being part of NDF and just being rhetorically separated. As the Christians have mostly been at Assad’s side and rely on him as their saviour from Islamist revenge, it would be telling enough to be in the need for a special militia to attract those men to fight.

Burial of a fallen SSNP fighter. Especially note that the fallen fighter’s coffin is only draped by an SSNP flag and does not show a Syrian flag at all, source

This would basically mean that a self-proclaimed secular power like the Syrian regime has to rely on politically and religiously defined groups to attract their own people to join. Of course, the flying personal of the Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) as well as elite units like the SAA’s 4th Division and Republican Guard have been dominated by Alawite, Christian and Druze soldiers for decades. But now they have issues trying to attract men from these loyalist communities.

The battles in which SSNP has been deployed are in areas largely inhabited by Christians or at least home to a substantial Christian minority. It is understandable and no wonder that minority biased units fight the hardest when they act inside ‘their’ cities and face an enemy they see as a threat against their people. For example, Homs hosted the second largest Syrian Christian population before the war broke out. Kessab’s population was even up to 80% Christian, the remaining 20% mostly being Alawite. Daraa, az-Zabadani and as-Suwayda are home to a considerable Christian minority as well, however, Druze being the dominating ethnic-religious group in the latter governorate. This leads to the conclusion that under the SSNP logo things did not change much and that the over-all character of the Nusur az-Zawba’a got closer to one of a Christian militia, or at least one of the Syrian minorities.

As for az-Zabadani, there have been discussions on the social media whether the men of Nusur az-Zawba’a fighting there are mostly made up of locals like it is presumed for the aforementioned battle scenes. Though it cannot be verified exactly, it should be very much the case that the members of the militia are at least from az-Zabadani District, if not from the town itself. Both, the district and the town, were also the home of a Christian minority which applies to the case of sending fighters to regions they are emotionally linked to. Moreover, pictures we saw from the battle of az-Zabadani show SSNP militiamen being in the first line of fire. This makes definitely sense in a house-to-house combat situation where being in possession of locals and their knowing of the certain developments and buildings is crucial.

Fighters of Nusur az-Zawba'a during the battle of az-Zabadani, source


So should the rise of the Nusur az-Zawba’a be seen as a sign of strength or rather of hardship as I asked in the headline?

Certainly, the SSNP can be considered a useful militia in certain territories. Its repeated emergence during major battles in all over Syria and their fight alongside Hezbollah troops is a sign that they are trusted by the government.

However, we have also seen that the officially secular regime relies more and more on sectarian militias or rather those which have a certain religious or political background. A clear sign for that even the loyalist side is not acting as united as many might think. Confusingly enough, the SSNP, as mentioned above, has a long history of animosity against the Baath party. Although politically the party has took the position of a bloc party and two of its members are ministers in the current cabinet, it is still widely considered as kind of an opposition party.

Ironically, some of the major battles in 2014/2015 were fought in fact with the participation of a militia that was banned for dozens of years under the rule of the very party, for which it now takes up arms.


Commenting on the comments:
Will Turkey be facing a war on two fronts?

International media and politics have taken high interest in analysing what is being valled a major turn in Turkish foreign policy in the last few days Politicians and journalists from Arab, European and US media were mostly approving of the attacks that Turkish fighter bombers had conducted on ISIS positions in Syria. However, commentators were also concerned about the fact that, during the following days, military and police forces seemed to focus much more on targeting the PKK on Iraqi and Turkish soil.

The fear that Turkey could be drawn into a war on two fronts was expressed on multiple occasions and became a widely used phraseology even after the top priority target of Turkey’s so called Operation Martyr Yalçın was obvious. (e.g. see here, here and here) But is a two-front war a current threat to the region in general and Turkey in particular? And how reasonable is it to prophesy a specific kind of war, at least two of the three would-be-involved parties are not interested in?

Abdullah Öcalan, source

In fact, the PKK and Turkey have more or less stuck to the plan they had agreed on during multiple meetings in 2012/2013. Clashes did happen since then, but it was no match to the war and terror that spread during the 1990s or mid 2000s. It is hard, if not impossible, to tell what the opinion inside the PKK ranks looks like. Abdullah Öcalan, the jailed but still highly influential leader of the organisation, has not said anything regarding the conflict for months, though it is not known whether this is due to simple inactivity or restriction. It is likely that there are at least factions inside the PKK that are in favour of a wider escalation of the Turkish-Kurdish conflict. A full-scale war between Turkey and ISIS as a whole would weaken both contesters and so the PKK could possibly intensify their attacks or at least would not be as much a target as it is by now.

PM Ahmet Davutoğlu and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, source

Turkey, or better said: Erdoğan, meanwhile sees this conflict more from a domestic point of view. The battle against the PKK is in short term an opportunity for point scoring ahead of expected early elections and a fight against a long-time enemy. Erdoğan himself is certainly not interested in being drawn into another conflict whose end nobody could foresee. ISIS has wide networks all over Turkey. A full-scale war could easily set the whole country on fire and especially hit the tourist locations on the southern shore, which would have a devastating effect on Turkish economics. Tunisia and Egypt have already suffered from that fate. Erdoğan’s political success mainly results from his ambition to modernise Turkey and push economical development. 

Airstrikes on ISIS positions at the beginning of Operation Martyr Yalçın were in retaliation for the border attack and an nothing but an alibi for the NATO states. At the same time, they did not provoke ISIS to attack.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, source

ISIS is also not likely to be feverishly looking forward to a war against Turkey. At least not now. The organisation is heavily relying on Turkey as a connecting route for supporters who want to join ISIS coming from overseas. Moreover, nation’s territory is also important for a constant flow of supplies and economical resources in general. All in all, its status quo can be described as the most favourable and profitable situation for ISIS. The Turkish goverment has been giving the terrorists free rein over the last years. Bringing Turkey to a major change in its attitude towards ISIS could not be in the latter's interest right now. Therefore, it is quite unlikely that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's forces will turn against Turkey as long as they need the country to keep up their fight. This is not likely to change.