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Russia’s military is unlikely to turn the tide in Syria’s war

An emergency responder walks in the rubble of a damaged building at a site in Syria hit by what activists said were Russian airstrikes in Ehsim, a town in the southern countryside of Idlib. (Khalil Ashawi/Reuters)

Russia has triumphantly plunged into Syria's four-year-old civil war with an expanding campaign of airstrikes. But the official euphoria here masks a nagging question: What can a limited deployment of Russian air power actually accomplish?

In the short term, Russia’s military will provide desperately needed air support and boost the morale of Syria’s battered army. The Syrian military will likely go on the offensive against moderate and Islamist rebel groups, including the Islamic State.

But unless it is significantly strengthened, Moscow's contribution is unlikely to be decisive in the war, analysts said. While Russia boasts its military is stronger than it has been in 25 years, its forces still grapple with aging equipment and have a weak partner in the poorly trained Syrian army. There is also tepid support among the Russian public for a lengthy conflict.

Russia is a longtime ally of Syria, but its deployment marks a milestone for a country that has largely limited its military actions to parts of the former Soviet Union. Like the U.S. campaigns in Syria and Iraq, the new Russian offensive is attempting to weaken an Islamist insurgency by using air power.

Russia’s airstrikes in Syria mark a huge departure for Moscow

“This has no comparison in the history of modern Russia,” said Evgeny Buzhinsky, a retired Russian lieutenant general and senior vice president of the PIR Center, a Moscow think tank that focuses on international affairs.

Russia has fought small ground wars in recent years, but “it is the first time when Russia follows the United States,” he said. “Bombing from the air to inflict as much damage as possible. Those are your tactics.”

President Vladimir Putin has said he will not send ground troops to Syria. Nonetheless, Russia risks taking casualties and becoming bogged down in a bloody Middle East war. President Obama predicted Friday that Russia would become stuck in a "quagmire" in Syria.

“We are basically novices in this type of war,” said Ruslan Pukhov, a defense expert and director of the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, in an interview. “And when you are a novice, you are doomed to commit some kinds of mistakes. Hopefully not deadly ones, but obviously there is a risk of casualties.”

According to American officials, Russia has sent 12 Soviet-era Su-24 and Su-25 fixed-wing aircraft to support Syria’s ground troops, as well as four cutting-edge Su-34 strike fighters. Russia also has dispatched four Su-30 multi-role fighter jets that are designed to engage other aircraft as well as ground targets. According to some U.S. pilots, the Su-30 would be a capable adversary against any coalition aircraft.

The aircraft will augment a Syrian fleet of even older Soviet-era jets, which lack sensors to carry out night missions, Buzhinsky said. Syria is short of skilled pilots for those aircraft.

Russia has also deployed 16 helicopters, a mixture of gunships and transports, to help the ground troops.

Here's what you need to know about Russia's airstrikes in Syria that Moscow says are targeted at the Islamic State. (Video: Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

A Russian military spokesman said Saturday that its forces had flown 20 sorties into Syria in the previous 24 hours. That brings the total number of Russian flights this past week to at least 52.

The campaign’s limitations

The Syrian army’s rapid loss of territory this summer largely prompted Russia’s sudden intervention, according to analysts. Aided by the new firepower, the Syrian army is now expected to take the offensive.

Vladimir Yevseyev, an expert on Middle East military issues at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow, said Syrian forces would likely attack in the countryside of Hama and Homs provinces, parts of which are under the control of an assortment of moderate, Islamist and al-Qaeda-linked rebels.

Russian airstrikes in those areas in recent days angered the U.S. government and its allies, who accused Russia of claiming to target Islamic State while it really wanted to strengthen Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against other rebel groups.

While the Syrian army could probably take back areas close to its stronghold in the coastal city of Latakia, Yevseyev said, a more ambitious offensive to seize large swaths of territory, in particular from the Islamic State, could take months to prepare.

But Russia probably isn’t seeking such long-term goals and instead will probably try to broker a peace deal, he said.

“Russia cannot take back the whole Syrian land,” Yevseyev said. “Russia wants to take out some of these radicals and then move on to peaceful and organized talks in Geneva.”

Alexei Pushkov, head of the foreign affairs committee in Russia's lower house of parliament, told a French radio station on Friday that Russian strikes were expected to last only for a few months. "In Moscow, we are talking about an operation of three to four months," he said.

Russia has stationed Su-30 jet fighters as well as surface-to-air missiles at its bases on the Syrian coast, raising concerns at the Pentagon that Russia is fielding equipment designed to counter the U.S.-led coalition.

The Islamic State “doesn’t have so much as a crop duster,” said a senior Defense Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military issues. “This equipment is there to deter” the United States, he said.

A person close to the Defense Ministry in Moscow said that defending airfields from enemy aviation is standard practice and that “the Americans would do the same.” He also spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Russia faces several limitations in what it can accomplish with its forces in Syria.

One is the age of its equipment. While some of the ground attack planes in Syria are state of the art, most were designed in the Soviet era and were later retrofitted.

“I remember both of them from the Afghan war,” said Alexander Golts, a military analyst based in Moscow, referring to the Su-24 and Su-25 planes used by the Soviets in that conflict in the 1980s.

In recent years, Russia has poured hundreds of billions of dollars into a military reform and modernization program that Golts called the most substantial in the last century and a half.

The results of those investments were evident during Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014, when well-equipped airborne soldiers seized crucial Ukrainian infrastructure overnight.

But it eventually became clear that the Russian forces were still dogged by old problems. When Russia increased air patrols and bomber flights along the borders of NATO countries this summer, it lost five planes in just two weeks.

Russian sorties will be limited by the need to perform maintenance on the planes in the desert environment, Golts said. The pilots will also need rest periods.

And some of the warplanes and helicopters could be vulnerable to shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, or MANPADS. While the rebels don’t have many of them now, they may acquire more as they adapt to the new threat.

If helicopters are used extensively by the Russians, the MANPADS “could have a significant operational impact,” said Matt Schroeder, a senior researcher at the Geneva-based research organization Small Arms Survey.

The danger to Russian troops is not limited to the air force. Russia has brought in hundreds of marines and airborne troops to provide security at its main base in Latakia, which is just several dozen miles from the front lines. Pentagon officials believe that Russian advisers are acting as spotters on the front lines, allowing closer coordination between ground and air troops but putting Russians closer to danger.

Western officials say many of the Russian planes are using unguided ordnance, or “dumb bombs,” making Russian airstrikes less efficient.

A report on the state-owned Russia-24 television station showed an Su-24 aircraft in Syria fitted with an unguided OFAB 250-270, a fragmentation bomb that releases shrapnel over a large area when it explodes.

“If you’re using just dumb bombs, that’s going to increase the number of civilian casualties and decrease the effectiveness of the intervention,” said Dmitry Gorenburg, a senior analyst with the Center for Naval Analyses, a U.S.-government-funded think tank for the Navy and Marine Corps.

Gibbons-Neff reported from Washington.

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