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How Russian special forces are shaping the fight in Syria

The troops that recently recaptured Palmyra, Syria, from the Islamic State included Syrian, Iranian and Hezbollah forces. And on Monday, Russian officials said there was another group that contributed to the victory: Russia’s elite special forces, also known as Spetsnaz.

Russian troops are nothing new to the Syrian ground war. Since their arrival in September, the Russians have used naval infantry to secure a key port in Tartus and the perimeter of an airfield in Latakia. But Russian special forces operating on the front — aside from a small number of artillery and tank units — have remained mostly out of the public eye.

With the seizure of Palmyra, though, that is no longer the case. Russian officials announced Monday that Palmyra was “liberated with participation of Spetsnaz and military advisers.” The Islamic State took Palmyra in May and shortly after partially destroyed a number of the city’s historic sites.

Russian special forces have come to the forefront of Russia’s Syria narrative because the battle for Palmyra plays directly into the anti-Islamic State rhetoric that Russia used as a pretense to initially intervene, said Chris Kozak, a research analyst at the Institute of the Study of War.

Here’s what an advanced Russian tank looks like after getting hit with a U.S.-made missile

Involvement of Russian special forces in Palmyra “looks great,” Kozak said. “Whereas their involvement against opposition groups in Aleppo or Latakia doesn’t fit the narrative.”

It is unclear exactly when Russian special forces began operating in Syria, though prior to Russia’s intervention there, Russian troops had long helped advise and train Syrian forces. According to Michael Kofman, an analyst at CNA who focuses on Russian military operations, Russia currently operates several special forces units in Syria, Zaslon, KSO and detachments of reconnaissance teams.

Here's a bit of historical context that explains why Russia is fighting to prop up its closest ally in the Middle East. (Video: Ishaan Tharoor and Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

Part of the Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, Zaslon is a highly secretive detachment often responsible for security in high-threat areas. KSO is Russia’s equivalent to the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command and was formed within the past few years.

“Russian special forces are doing a lot of the targeting for Russian airstrikes and a lot of advising for the Syrians,” Kofman said, adding that they provide most of the intelligence on the ground for Russian airpower and help run Syrian operations.

Unlike the majority of U.S. special forces that are currently advising Iraqi and Syrian forces from behind the lines at the battalion and brigade levels, Russian special forces appear to be participating in combat alongside Syrian troops at the tactical level.

The presence of Russian special forces and advisers on the front line has, in turn, helped Syrian troops and President Bashar al-Assad’s allies consolidate gains and take ground across the country. According to Kofman, Russian military advisers on the ground, despite the hype surrounding the detachment of Russian aircraft in the country, are the glue that is helping the Syrians fight as a much more capable army.

Pentagon: U.S. has told Russia where U.S. special forces are in Syria

“It’s really hard to make that much of a difference with such few planes even though they have flown at a very high rate,” Kofman said.

Russia has played a significant role in Assad’s attempts to reverse almost half a decade of losses to opposition groups, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State. Yet in recent months, Iranian troops, Hezbollah forces and a slew of militias have also significantly bolstered the fledgling Syrian army as well.

But Russia’s involvement in ground operations has not been without its cost. Just days prior to Russia’s announcement that Spetsnaz forces helped liberate Palmyra, the Interfax news agency quoted an unnamed Russian official who said a special forces soldier died “heroically,” after calling airstrikes onto his own position after he was surrounded by the Islamic State. Following the announcement of the soldier’s death, the story went viral.

Much like its intervention in Ukraine, Russia has been slow to announce the deaths of any of troops in Syria — usually acknowledging them months after the deaths occurred. To date, Russia has acknowledged the deaths of seven Russian service members in Syria. According to Kofman, Russia has been more open to announcing deaths in the fight for Palmyra. The deaths, he said, reinforce the image that Russia is primarily operating in Syria to defeat the Islamic State.

Still, there is a limit to the openness. The Russian government has not disclosed the total number of casualties in the fight to retake Palmyra.

In recent weeks, the Islamic State claimed to have killed a number of Russian special forces soldiers. In one instance, a news agency associated with the extremist group posted what appeared to be the gear belonging to a Russian special forces soldier. In that instance, the soldier’s gear featured a number of items, including an advanced Russian mine that could have belonged to a special forces soldier. The Islamic State also posted pictures supposedly from that soldier’s phone, showing images of the dead soldier and members of his unit. It is unclear whether the equipment and the photos are from the same soldier, as some reports indicate that the soldiers from the unit pictured on the phone belong to a contracting group, not Russian special forces.

Inside Syria

Aleppo, Syria, March 10th, 2016: Aleppo souk in the Old City. Credits: Lorenzo Tugnoli for the Washington Post (Lorenzo Tugnoli for the Washington Post)

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