Several days after the Paris attacks and upon admitting that Metrojet Flight 9268 was downed by ISIS (Daesh), Russia mounted an incredible assault on Daesh forces in Syria Tuesday morning. The early morning hours saw the Russian air force launch what is perhaps the largest use of long-range bombers by any country in recent history. So far, most of Russia’s airstrikes in Syria which began at the end of September have been directed at Syrian rebel forces that are engaged in fighting against the Assad government. The airstrikes on Tuesday appear to have been primarily directed at Daesh as claimed by the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD). This comes as France in retaliation for terror attacks, continues its offensive against Daesh forces in Syria with a new vigor. The size of the Russian strikes would seem that the Kremlin is significantly ramping up its operations and there are positive signs of collaboration with Washington and Paris.
At a meeting held late Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his intention to ramp up Russian air strikes against Daesh. He said, “Our combat aviation’s work in Syria should not be simply continued. It should be reinforced in a way that criminals realize that punishment is inevitable.” It was at this meeting that Putin was informed that terrorism was responsible for the downing of Russian Metrojet Flight 9268 in Egypt which claimed the lives of all 224 people on board.
Several hours later, Russia began a series of blistering strikes on Daesh. In a statement released by the Russian MoD, “In accordance to the task assigned by the Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Armed Forces concerning enhancing combat air operations in the Syrian Arab Republic, crews of Tu-160, Tu-95MS and Tu-22M3 long-range aircraft of the Russian Aerospace Forces carried out strikes with air-based cruise missiles at the ISIS terrorist objects within the air operation.”
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In the still dark early morning hours, a dozen Tu-22M3 Backfire bombers escorted by Su-27 Flanker fighters carried out bombing strikes at Daesh facilities in Raqqah and Deir-ez-Zor provinces. Several hours later five Tu-160 Blackjack bombers and six Tu-95MS Bear bombers launched 34 cruise missiles on targets in Aleppo and Idlib. Raqqah is the headquarters of Daesh operations in Syria, essentially their capital.
Overall the Russian strike force consisted of twenty-five bombers, eight Su-34 Fullback strike aircraft and four Su-27 fighters acting as escorts. The Tu-160s and perhaps as many as six Tu-22s took off from the Mozdok airbase in Ossetia in Southern Russia. Tuesday’s strike represented the first time that strategic bombers have been used in Russia’s Syrian campaign which began at the end of September. Furthermore it was the first time that Bear and Blackjack bombers have been used in actual combat. Russia’s operations are being supported by ten imagery and electronic warfare reconnaissance satellites.
The cruise missile attack launched by Tu-160s and Tu-95s resulted in the destruction of “14 terrorist facilities” according to the MoD. In its statement, “Those were control centres of the illegal armed groupings, which coordinated Islamic State troops in Idlib and Aleppo provinces; large depots of ammunition and other supplies located in protected shelters in the North West of Syria; terrorist training camps, where reinforcements for terrorist units and suicide bombers were trained; three large factories manufacturing explosives, suicide vests and unguided rockets.”
Meanwhile Russian assets based in Syria at Hmeymim airbase conducted 65 combat sorties allegedly destroying “6 command centres, 8 ammunition depots, 12 training camps, 4 factories manufacturing rockets and mines, 6 fuel depots”.
Russia’s Tuesday airstrikes were not coordinated with the U.S. though the U.S. was given prior warning of them. In speaking with Agency France Presse, a senior U.S. defense official said “While we do not coordinate or collaborate in any way with Russia on its activities in Syria, I can confirm that the Russians did provide us notice prior to conducting these strikes, via the Coalition Combined Air Operations Center in Qatar, in accordance with the safety protocols agreed to in October.” Meanwhile Department of Defense spokesman Peter Cook said “We are not coordinating or cooperating with the Russians in terms of targets but we are taking these important steps to make sure our pilots, and the Russian crews for that matter, do not come into conflict with one another.”
Russian airstrikes continued into Wednesday though not at the same scale as those of the previous day and this time seem to have been primarily directed at Daesh-controlled oil infrastructure as oil is a critical source of funding for Daesh. By 4 p.m. Moscow time, the Russian air force had conducted 59 sorties and hit 149 Daesh targets.
Tu-160 bombers launched 12 cruise missiles and destroyed three terrorist command centers as well as two ammunition depots and a field camp in the provinces of Aleppo and Idlib. A squadron of Tu-22M3 bombers launched strikes on six targets in Raqqa and Idlib, destroying arms and ammunition depots, training camps, as well as plants manufacturing explosive devices. SU-34 aircraft destroyed two columns of fuel tankers and about 50 vehicles. When one takes into consideration previous airstrikes, Russia’s MoD believes over 400 fuel tankers have been destroyed.
General Andrei Kartapolov, Chief of the Main Operational Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces said on Wednesday of the newest Russian strikes, “Just in the first few days, [Russian] aviation destroyed about 500 fuel tankers. This greatly hampered the militants’ possibility to illegally export energy resources and, accordingly, their income from oil smuggling.” He added “I would like to note that today a decision was made, according to which Russian combat aircraft launched a so-called free hunt on road tankers transporting oil products belonging to terrorists in areas controlled by ISIL.”
Just this Monday, the U.S. sent four A-10 Thunderbolt ground attack aircraft and two AC-130 gunships against 300 oil trucks in the eastern Syrian city of Deir Ezzour destroying about 115 of them.
Russia-France Collaboration in Syria
France has been engaged in operations against Daesh in Iraq and Syria for over a year now. Operation Chammal was launched September 19, 2014 though it would not be until October 2015 that French aircraft undertook sorties over Syria. France’s greater involvement in the campaign against Daesh in Syria comes in the wake of the deadly Paris terror attacks that claimed 129 lives on Friday November 13.
On Sunday in its largest airstrike of Operation Chammal up to that point, twelve French aircraft dropped 20 munitions on Raqqa at Daesh command and control centers, a munitions depot and a training camp. The aircraft involved were three Mirage 2000Ds and three Mirage 2000Ns multi-role fighters flying from Jordan and six Rafales multi-role fighters from UAE. France has since conducted two other large airstrikes.
Wednesday morning, the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle bound for the Eastern Mediterranean departed the naval base at Toulon in southern France accompanied by frigates, a submarine, a fleet auxiliary supply ship, the British Type 45 destroyer, HMS Defender, and the Belgian frigate Leopold I. Carrying 26 Rafale and Super Etendard Modernise (SEM) aircraft, the Charles de Gaulle will boost French aviation assets in the region once it arrives on station in several days.
At an emergency meeting in Versailles of the French Parliament on Monday, French President Francois Hollande said of the carrier deployment, “This is going to triple our military power [as part of Opertation Chammal]. I am not talking about deterring the IS but about eliminating it totally.” Before the Paris attacks, the French military had decided to deploy the aircraft carrier to the Gulf for Operation Chammal and this was publicly confirmed November 5.
While France has been working with the U.S. in coordinating operations in Syria, it appears that a strong collaboration is emerging with Russia. A personal phone call between Hollande and Putin has resulted in both leaders agreeing to parameters for joint operations. In a statement released by the Kremlin, “The two leaders focused their attention on bilateral and multilateral cooperation in combating terrorism,” and “This includes closer ties and joint operations between the military command and intelligence services of Russia and France in Syria.” Putin and Hollande are set to meet in Moscow on November 26 to further discuss operations.
The Russian Slava-class missile cruiser Moskva which is already deployed off of Russia’s naval base in Latakia, Syria, has been directed to cooperate with the French naval force. Putin said, “The French naval group, led by the air carrier, will soon reach your area of operations. We need to establish direct contact with it, and treat it as an ally.” He added “We need to develop of a joint action plan for both sea and air operations.” While the ten-ship Russian task force led by the Moskva will cooperate with the French flotilla on anti-terror operations, the Kremlin has denied rumors that it will provide air-defense and anti-submarine support.
Russian Military Intervention in Syria: Analysis
Russia operates a large aviation force in Syria at Hmeimin Air Base. Its forces include four Su-34 Fullbacks, four Su-30SM Flankers, ten Su-25SM and two Su-25UM Frogfoot close air support aircraft, eight Su-24M and four Su-25M2 Fencer ground attack aircraft. These fixed wing assets are backed up by a large attack helicopter force and nearly 4,000 personnel.
The strategic bomber force launched by Russia Tuesday was extremely impressive. Russia possesses 70 Tu-22Ms, 58 Tu-95s, and 13 Tu-160s of which it deployed 14, six, and five respectively. This represents nearly a fifth of Russia’s total strategic bomber force and most likely, a much higher percentage of fully combat ready aircraft. Furthermore, it has been decades since such a large strategic bomber force was assembled for a single mission; by comparison U.S. strategic bombers rarely conduct sorties in groups larger than five.
The Tu-22M3 Backfire is a supersonic, variable-sweep ring aircraft with a range of over 4,000 miles and a payload capability of 53,000 lbs. The Tu-95MS Bear has been the mainstay of Russia’s strategic bomber force since the 1950s when its original version entered service. With its four turboprop engines, it has a range of 9,400 miles and a payload capacity of over 30,000 lbs. The Tu-160 Blackjack is the world’s largest combat and supersonic aircraft and is Russia’s most modern strategic bomber. With a range of over 12,000 miles, it can carry over 88,000 lbs. of ordnance.
In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia’s strategic bomber force fell into disrepair with many aircraft grounded due to low serviceability, lack of spare parts, and an inadequate number of pilots. It would not be until 2007 that Russian strategic bombers would conduct long-range patrols and training missions. Since then, these bombers have been involved in many publicized incidents for intruding foreign airspace and prompting aerial interdictions. If anything, these strikes in Syria prove that Russia has an effective and capable strategic bomber force and is willing to use it.
Moscow maintains that its direct combat role in Syria has and will remain limited to aerial strikes. On Tuesday Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said “President Putin has said more than once that Russia will confine itself to the air component. A ground operation is ruled out.” There are those who doubt this in the west and there have been reports of Russian ground forces fighting alongside Syrian army forces. On Wednesday, it was revealed that a map shown to Putin by Russian military chiefs in a televised report showed the presence of a Russian army artillery unit in the center of Syria.
There is question though about the targets attacked by Russia. Daesh does not have extensive operations in Northwest Syria and Aleppo is over 100 miles east of Raqqah. Russian forces have been striking targets known to have Daesh forces and also those where anti-Assad rebels are operating. The revelations of terrorism in having brought down Russia’s civilian airliner has changed the dynamic though of Russian involvement going forward. While not all the strikes were directed at Daesh, a significantly higher proportion of them were than in the past.
Russia has been trumping the success and scope of its airstrikes, especially against those of the U.S. and its coalition partners. Chief of the General of the Russian Armed Forces General of the Army Valery Gerasimov has said “If the US-led coalition fights against terrorists as efficiently [as we do], the situation in the Middle East could change dramatically,” adding “At the moment, the US does not seem to be ready to do this. At the same time it has become increasingly difficult for Washington to explain why it does not want to cooperate with Russia.”
U.S. President Barrack Obama has been routinely criticized for what some see as the refusal of his administration to adequately confront the threat from Daesh. Furthermore, Washington has been highly critical of Russia’s role in Syria and in the past has ruled out cooperation. Now though it appears that Washington is open to closer cooperation with Moscow in the fight against Daesh.
Regardless, it does appear that Russia’s airstrikes over the past two months have been beneficial to Assad forces. Just last week, Syrian army forces broke a nearly two year siege of Kuwairis airbase east of Aleppo. The most recent strikes along with those from the U.S. should put a significant dent in the ability of Daesh to profit off of oil. Furthermore, the size and scope of airstrikes over the past several days may have put Daesh into enough disarray that more offensives against them will be possible in the coming days.