Russia's war for Assad: Military assistance in numbers

Russia's war for Assad: Military assistance in numbers
Feature: Russia has delivered 8,000 military personnel and 600 military vehicles by sea to Syria in recent weeks.
7 min read
The Russian 'Novocherkassk' landing ship passed through Turkey's Dardanelles strait on October 9 [Anadolu]
Russia has supported President Bashar al-Assad since the start of the Syrian uprising in 2011. But Moscow's bolstering of Damascus has recently turned from the political to the military, with huge deliveries of troops and vehicles.

Al-Araby al-Jadeed
has researched Russian military shipments to Syria, and can reveal that from September 1 to October 31 this year, Russia has transported up to 8,000 military personnel, 600 military vehicles - tanks and armoured vehicles - and 30 military aircraft.

Continued support

Since the start of the uprising, Russia has provided the Syrian regime with political support - using its UN Security Council veto three times to block resolutions condemning Damascus.

But it has also provided the regime with weapons and ammunition, saying it was fulfilling its delivery obligations on contracts made before the violence began.

In 2015, these weapons deliveries significantly increased - but were subject to a great degree of secrecy.

In the first half of September, reports from a number of sources suggested that Russia was moving fighter jets and military hardware to Syria.

IHS Jane's, a defence analysis group, released satellite images taken on September 14 showing the construction of military facilities in al-Sanobar and Istamo military complexes near the Hemimeem airbase, south of Latakia.

"We have seen movement of people and things that would indicate that they plan to use that base there, south of Latakia, as a forward air operating base," Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said a day after the satellite images emerged.

On September 14, Reuters quoted US officials saying that Russia had also sent artillery units and tanks to Hemimeem.
Russia has at least 30 military aircraft in Syria

A week later, on September 21, US officials said that Russia had sent 28 fighter jets, 20 combat and transport helicopters, a number of missile systems and some 500 soldiers and technicians to the Latakia airbase.

Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence and security analysis firm, also released satellite images of Sukhoi and MiG fighter jets at the Hemimeem airbase.

Further reports suggest that Russia has at least 30 military aircraft in Syria, including Sukhoi Su-25, Su-30, Su-35 and MiG-31 fighter jets, Mil Mi-24 and Mil Mi-28 attack helicopters, as well as reconnaissance aircraft.

Activists and Russian media outlets have also filmed these aircraft in Syria, with many deployed in combat roles since September 30.

Military sea freight

Al-Araby al-Jadeed
's investigation also found that thousands of personnel and hundreds of armoured military vehicles have been moved to Syria on Russian vessels throughout the year, particularly since the start of September.

At least 36 Russian military vessels crossed the Bosphorus strait in Istanbul between September 15 and the end of October. More than 70 percent of these ships are designed to transport personnel and military equipment, and the rest are research, maintenance and protection vessels.

Of the 36, at least 20 are landing ships each with a capacity to load between 300 and 400 personnel and 10 to 20 military vehicles.

[click to enlarge]

Turkish activists and ship-spotters have documented the names and photographs of Russian military ships sailing through the Bosphorus. These documents were acquired by a group of journalists and shipping experts.

The journalists and experts then ran the information through online databases specialising in military vessels, their uses and their load capacities, in addition to information about the movement of these vessels sourced from news reports.

Some of the ships made their journey to Syria through the Bosphorus, only to return to Russian ports on the Black Sea and repeat the journey within a short period of time.

The Caesar Kunikov for example, a large Russian military landing ship, was documented to have crossed the Bosphorus towards Syria on September 14, where it remained for just a few days before its return journey to the Black Sea.

The same vessel then crossed Turkish waters towards Syria on October 1, later returning - and once again crossed the Bosphorus towards the Syrian port of Tartus on October 27.

This large Russian landing ship, able to carry 340 personnel and ten tanks, made three journeys to Syria within 45 days.

The Nikolai Filchenkov 152, a larger landing ship able to carry up to 400 personnel, 20 tanks and other military equipment, was also documented to have made three separate journeys to Syria between mid-September and late October.

According to shipping expert Abd al-Rahman al-Lathqani, these large landing ships require at least two days to unload their cargo, undergo maintenance and refuel for the return journey.

However, the Nikolai Filchenkov 152 spent four days in the Syrian port - and longer in the Russian port - before repeating its journey, indicating the ship was likely loaded to its maximum capacity.

Given that 20 out of 36 documented journeys to Syria were made by landing ships such as Caesar Kunikov and Nikolai Filchenkov 152, thought to be carrying an average load of 350 personnel and 15 military vehicles, Russia is likely to have moved at least 6,000 military personnel and 300 military vehicles on these 20 journeys alone.

The other 16 journeys were made by vessels that have a similar loading capacity to landing ships, despite not specialising in the transport of personnel or military vehicles, according to Lathqani. These ships can carry dozens of military vehicles and hundreds of military personnel.

The Aleksandr Tkachenko 150, a cargo ship, was documented crossing the Bosphorus towards Syria. This ship alone is able to carry a load of up to 100 military vehicles.

Based on this information, the investigation team concluded that the 36 Russian ships had together transported approximately 8,000 military personnel and 600 military vehicles to Syria through the Bosphorus.

Turkish shipspotters documented a civilian vessel flying the Russian flag that was transporting people in military uniform onboard

This number does not include military assistance received by the Assad regime by air.

An Iraqi cabinet minister told al-Araby al-Jadeed that 39 Russian and Iranian cargo planes crossed Iraqi airspace in October, reportedly carrying weapons and personnel for the Syrian regime.

During their investigation, the team also discovered that the Russian navy was purchasing civilian vessels and using them for military purposes.

On October 14, Turkish ship-spotters documented a civilian vessel flying the Russian flag that was transporting people in military uniform onboard. By researching the ship's history, the investigative team discovered that the Russian navy had bought the ship earlier in October and changed its name.

It turned out to be just one of several like it spotted crossing the Black Sea towards Syria.

Russian ground operations

Since the start of Russia's aerial campaign in Syria on September 30, Russian officials have insisted their country did not intend to deploy any of its troops on the ground. This has been echoed by President Vladimir Putin - who reportedlty said Russia did not intend to get involved in the Syrian conflict.

Despite this pubic position, videos and images have emerged of Russian soldiers inside Assad-loyal military bases, alongside regime soldiers. There have also been reports of Russian deaths in Syria.

One fatality on 27 October was confirmed by the Russian defence ministry, although it said the soldier in question committed suicide because of a broken heart.

Field reports suggest that Russia's intervention has not prevented the regime and its allies from suffering heavy losses

The father of the soldier in question denied the official version, and told Reuters his son would not commit suicide over a woman, and the family had been in contact with the soldier a day before his death, when he seemed to be in good spirits.

A few days later, Reuters quoted a source close to the Syrian regime who confirmed the death of three Russian soldiers in the town of al-Nabi Yunis, in Latakia, due to missile fire.

However, despite Russia's unprecedented military support to the Syrian regime, field reports suggest that Russia's intervention has not prevented the regime and its allies from suffering heavy losses.

"Within four weeks of its direct military intervention, Russia has realised that it cannot rely on Bashar al-Assad's forces to achieve a breakthrough on the ground," said Ahmad Rahhal, a military analyst.

"The Russian military campaign has not achieved any of its objectives after a month," added Rahhal.

According to Rahhal, who served in the Syrian navy for more than 30 years, the Russian military personnel who are currently in Syria are mostly technicians and service personnel, in addition to soldiers tasked with securing Russian bases in Syria.

The Russian military personnel could also lay the groundwork in case Russia decides to send any additional troops to Syria.

Rahhal also said that, according to international marine law, Turkey, which supports the Syrian opposition, is obliged to allow Russian ships through its waterways as long as they pay transit fees and as long as military vessels pass through its waterways in the light of day.