The current development of Russia’s military actions in Syria show that Russia means serious business and has no intention to leave the equation before the job is done. What started with the deployment of additional Russia warplanes and supply flights for Syrian Armed Forces, rapidly developed into active bombardments of rebel-held positions by Russian warplanes and as of today, Russia deployed guided missiles against targets in Syria from warships in the Caspian Sea.
The deployment of these missiles are an important development which significance reaches far beyond the impact of those missile itself. To be able to launch missiles against targets in Syria from the Caspian Sea, Russia will have to cross the airspace of either Turkey and other countries, or the airspace of Iran and Iraq which seems to be much more likely. Assuming that Russia is not looking for a confrontation with Iran and Iraq while it is seeking to setup a coalition with those countries, it is safe to assume that the launch of these missiles and their flight-path was agreed and approved.
We can expect that Russia will continue to use the option of guided missiles, especially since today’s deployment turned out to be efficient and effective. As the military operations of Russia develop, we might even see a significant increase in missile launches against hard targets, air-defense systems and Communication, Command & Control of rebels of all kinds.
Now that apparently both Iran and Iraq have opened their airspace for Russian military operations, Russia has the option of deploying its Air Force Armada from Russian territory with the support of refueling over the Caspian Sea and can bring in supplies for its own and Syrian Armed Forces faster and more efficiently without dependencies on Western countries including Turkey. This significantly increases Russia’s capabilities to continue to fly combat mission in Syria and possibly soon in Iraq so there is much more to come in the coming days and weeks.
As the past military operations have shown, air campaigns are important for military success but at one point in time it will require the use of ground troops to achieve success. In Syria, the government forces have already started an offensive with air support from Russia and this will only intensify now that Russia is capable of providing Close Air Support (CAS) and Combat Air Patrol (CAP) over the combat fields. In addition, Russia will continue to target supplies, Communication, Command & Control and troop concentrations of the opposing forces and we already see an increasing amount of sorties and missions every day.
It is safe to assume that this is still only the beginning of the military support from the air that Russia has prepared for Syria, especially now that Russia appears to be no longer restricted to its single air force base in Syria. CAP sorties will increase significantly as the offensive by Syrian Armed Forces will progress and selected strikes against positions behind the front-lines will be key to decrease the fighting force of the opposition(s). There might even come a moment in which Russia will decide to include its fleet of strategic bombers in the campaign since they are capable of completing the sortie from Russian bases without refueling operations.
Time will tell if the Syrian Army by itself will be capable of retaking the territory it has lost in the 4 year conflict, or if it will need support from other countries like Iran, Iraq and possibly Russia. Russia does however not need to deploy its expeditionary forces to Syria to directly support the ground offensive. Russia could, and most likely on a small scale already does, deploy units from its Spetsnaz forces to Syria in covered operations or provide larger amounts of military advisers which have full access to Russian intelligence and play a leading role in the coordination of operations of Syrian and Russian forces. But the largest Russian contribution to the ground offensive will be Supplies and Logistics, the biggest and most complicated challenge for each military campaign.
No matter what the future role of Russia in the campaign in Syria will be, none of these efforts will solve the conflicts in the Middle East and especially Syria and Iraq, as long as Iraq continues to be occupied by the same militant rebel forces with fast supplies of weapons and troops. In the past days, Iraqi and Russian officials made several statements about the possibility to engage in the military campaign in Iraq on the request of the Iraqi government. With the pace at which Russia entered and extended the campaign in Syria, it has demonstrated not only being able to launch and maintain a large campaign, Russia also demonstrated the willingness to engage its forces at the request of governments and against the will of the International Coalition which operates in the same area.
So should the Iraqi Government actually request Russia for military support in its campaign against rebels in its territory, Russia will most likely deploy its Air Force at first in the same manner as it has done in Syria. In the case of Iraq, Russia even has multiple options like deploying its forces to bases in Iran and/or Iraq, or operated entirely from its bases around the Caspian Sea although this will complicate the operations and increase the costs. But at least it is clear that Russia has options and Russia is both willing and capable to deploy adequate forces within days. Let’s assume that the preparations are already in full progress.
The major challenge for the actual campaign will be to avoid a confrontation between Russia and the International Coalition operating in the same Theater of Operations but with demonstrated different interests and priorities. A fighting force in the same ToO are the Kurdish forces which have fought hard and long battles with the militant rebels in Syria and Iraq and are themselves a (potential) target of Turkish Armed Forces because of involvement of PKK with recent terrorist attacks in Turkey. Turkey itself is at risk of becoming the next point of escalation and attacks by the militant forces occupying parts of Iraq and Syria and at the same time, Turkey can also become the escalating factor in the conflict by stepping up its operations in Northern Iraq or beginning operations in Syria.
All factors of potential escalation in this conflict, dangerous escalation which could quickly spread across the Middle East and beyond. And in all this, Russia has delivered a very clear message to the Middle East and the Western Powers: “YES, WE CAN!”