State-of-the-art Technology Gives Syrian Army the
The government has lost over 60,000 men since the
war began, but new Russian equipment is helping turn
By Robert Fisk
February 29, 2016 "Information
You can see
the Syrian army’s spanking new Russian T-90 tanks
lined up in their new desert livery scarcely 100
miles from Isis’s Syrian “capital” of Raqqa.
are new Russian-made trucks alongside them, and a
lot of artillery and – surely Isis’s spies are
supposed to see this – plenty of Syrian soldiers
walking beside the perimeter wire beside Russian
soldiers wearing floppy military hats against the
sun, the kind they used in the old days in the
summer heat of Afghanistan in the 1980s. There’s
even a Russian general based at the Isriyah military
base, making sure that Syrian tank crews receive the
most efficient training on the T-90s.
ground troops are not going to fight Isis. That was
never the intention. The Russian air force attacks
Isis from the air; the Syrians, the Iranians, the
Afghan Shia Muslims from north-eastern Afghanistan,
the Iraqi Shias and several hundred Pakistani Shias
must attack Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra on the ground.
Russians have to be up in the desert to the east of
the Aleppo-Hama-Homs-Damascus axis, both to train
the Syrian tank crews and maintain an eastern base
of forward air controllers to guide the Sukhoi
bombers on to their night-time targets.
the Syrian front lines will tell you that the Syrian
air force bombs its enemies only in clear weather.
When the winter clouds descend and the rain falls
across northern and eastern Syria, the Russians take
Syrians are low enough to see – the Russians, when
they come, you never see them,” as one constant
visitor to the war fronts put it with military
simplicity. No wonder senior Russian officers are
now also attached to the Syrian army command in
Aleppo. Vladimir Putin doesn’t do things by halves.
most important military support the Russians have
given to the Syrians is not the tanks – impressive
though they look – but the technology that goes with
officers have been shown how the new T-90
anti-missile system causes rockets to veer off
course only yards from the tanks when fired directly
at them. Is this the weapon that might defeat the
mass rocket assaults of Isis and Nusra? Perhaps.
Even more important for the Syrians, however, are
the new Russian night-vision motion sensors, and the
electronic surveillance-reconnaissance equipment
which enabled the government army to smash through
the Nusra defences in the mountainous far north-west
of Syria, breaking the rebel supply lines from
Turkey to Aleppo.
In an army
that has lost well over 60,000 dead in almost five
years of hard fighting, Syria’s officers have
suddenly discovered that the new Russian technology
has coincided with a rapid lowering of their
casualties. This may be one reason for the steady
trickle of old “Free Syrian Army” deserters back to
the ranks of the government forces, depleting even
further David Cameron’s 70,000-strong army of
“moderate” ghost soldiers. Intriguingly, since the
start of the war in 2011, a far higher percentage of
Syrian police and political security personnel have
gone across to Bashar al-Assad’s enemies than have
soldiers in the regular army. There have been 5,000
security personnel defections out of a total force
of 28,000 police.
Russians are in a unique position among Syrian
ground forces; they can train the Syrians how to use
the new tanks and then watch how the T-90s perform
without having to suffer any casualties themselves.
Originally, there were plans to recapture Palmyra,
the Roman city already partly vandalised by Isis,
but the difficulties of the flat desert terrain have
persuaded the Syrians that offensives in the north
to cut off all rebel routes from Turkey into Syria
will be far more worthwhile.
the Turks are now laying down shellfire amid Syrian
forces along their mutual border. The Russians, of
course, find it far easier to train men to fight in
cities or mountains – environments in which they
themselves have fought – than in deserts, in which
no Russian military personnel have had experience
since Gamal Abdel Nasser’s war in Yemen.
offensives that retook the Shia villages of Nubl and
Zahra last month were of great interest to the
Russian military. For the first time, Syrian army
Special Forces, Iranian Revolutionary Guards and
Lebanese Hezbollah fighters operated together with
Syrian tanks and helicopters, blasting their way
through 20 miles of villages and open countryside in
just eight days.
statistics of foreign forces fighting for the Syrian
regime appear to have been grossly exaggerated in
the West. There are fewer than 5,000 Iranian
Revolutionary Guards in Syria – this includes
advisers as well as soldiers – and the other 5,000
foreign fighters include not only Afghans and
Hezbollah but Pakistani Shia Muslims as well.
the boasts of Saudi Arabia that it has formed a
massive, if hopelessly untrained, “coalition against
terror”, it seems that the Syrians, Iranians and
Hezbollah have managed to operate together in
difficult, rainy terrain and win their first major
joint battle. Iranian forces are now being used on
the front lines for the first time, principally
around Aleppo. Their first advance began in the
south Aleppo countryside in November. Officially,
they and the Syrians were said to be planning to
open the old international highway from Aleppo to
Hama, but the real plan was to break the sieges of
the Shia villages of Fuah and Kafraya.
eastern countryside, Colonel Suheil Hassan, the
“Tiger” whom some of the Syrian military regard as
their Rommel, has been heading north to end an Isis
siege on a Syrian airbase.
But what of
the Kurds, whose advance southwards has also
endangered those rebel supply routes to Aleppo? The
Syrians are grateful for any Kurdish help they can
get. But few in the military have forgotten the
chilling events of 2013, when retreating Syrians
sought refuge with Kurdish forces after the battle
for the Mineq airbase. The Kurds demanded a vast
tranche of weapons from the Syrian army in return
for their men – soldiers for ammunition – in which
millions of rounds of AK-47 and machine-gun
ammunition and thousands of rounds of
rocket-propelled grenades were sought in return for
the release of the soldiers.
Kurds wanted to persuade Nusra to return Kurdish
prisoners, and offered the senior Syrian officers
from Mineq to Nusra in return for the captives.
Nusra agreed, but once the Kurds handed over the
Syrian officers, the Islamist rebels – who had lost
around 300 of their own men in the Mineq battle – at
once killed all the Syrian officers the Kurds had
given them, shooting them in the head.
was the acting Syrian commander at Mineq, Colonel
Naji Abu Shaar of the Syrian army’s 17th Division.
Events like these will not endear the Kurds to the
Syrian army in future years.
the Syrians continue to lose high-ranking officers
in battle. At least six generals have been killed in
combat during the Syrian war, allowing the army to
proclaim that their top men lead from the front.
commander of Syria’s Special Forces was killed in
Idlib, and the commander of Syrian military
intelligence in the east of the country was killed
in Deir al-Zour. Major-General Mohsen Mahlouf died
in battle near Palmyra. General Saleh, a close
friend and colleague of Colonel “Tiger” Hassan, took
on the suicide bombers of al-Qaeda in the Sheikh
Najjar Industrial City outside Aleppo a year ago.
He told me
that suicide bombers killed 23 of his men in one
vast explosion there. I met him afterwards, and
thought at the time that he had adopted a blithe –
almost foolhardy – disregard of death. Just a month
ago, he drove over an IED bomb which blew off the
lower half of his right leg. These are hard men,
many of whom trained in a Syrian military college
whose front gate legend reads: “Welcome to the
school of heroism, where the gods of war are made.”