Is Russia’s airdrop exercises in Syria a proof of existence or field test?
Enab Baladi – Hassan Ibrahim
Airdrops have recently topped the drills supervised by Russian forces to train members of Syrian regime forces in a variety of regime-held areas.
Increased Russian-supervised training in conjunction with endless talk about an upcoming Turkish military operation in northern Syria has raised questions about its purpose and its possible investment after 11 years, during which Moscow turned Syrian territory into a test site where more than 320 types of weapons were tested until July 2021.
Russia’s military role tipped the military scale in favor of the regime as it revived its control after deterioration, retreats, and withdrawals that reduced its presence on the country’s map.
Intensive airdrops training
On 30 March, the Russian Defense Ministry’s Zvezda TV channel released a video of Russian officers training regime fighters on airdrop operations.
In the presence of their commander, 60 officers of the so-called Quwwat al-Nimr (Tiger Forces, or the 25th Special Forces Division) passed air landing drills supervised by their “Russian instructors,” according to the TV channel, which stated that the training continued to include the rest of the personnel and elements of the division, turning them from infantry to paratroopers.
On 7 June, Russian and Syrian pilots attacked fake enemy planes with missiles near the occupied Syrian Golan Heights during air drills between Russia and the regime forces near the area.
Russian Su-24, Su-34, and Su-35S warplanes took off from the Hmeimim military base in Latakia countryside. The regime’s MiG-23 and MiG-29 warplanes took off from the Saqal (al-Seen) and al-Dumayr military air bases east of Damascus, according to what was announced by Zvezda.
One Russian Su-35S fighter pilot, named Anton, said that Syrian pilots did not carry out any operations within the maneuvers, explaining that one Syrian pilot was allowed to accompany the operations once per maneuver to “overcome the psychological barrier and refine the working skills with the aircraft’s cabin equipment.”
On 12 July, the channel showed a video of night air landings of troops from the 25th Division entitled “Tigers in the Air” under the supervision of Russian trainers. The operation to disembark elements off helicopters was observed by night vision binoculars.
After the landing operation, several loyalist pages and websites to the regime have announced the death of two paratroopers, both lieutenants within Tiger Forces (Quwwat al-Nimr), who were killed during unsuccessful airdrop training under Russian supervision, with conflicting reports about the location of their deaths between the western countryside of Aleppo and the southern countryside of Idlib.
Airdrops can be carried out by parachutes or by airdrop via a hovercraft. The landing of Special Forces is carried out from a helicopter without the use of parachutes.
The landing shall be carried out behind enemy lines, the purpose of which shall be:
Colonel in the Syrian National Army (SNA), Ahmed al-Kurdi
Military analyst, Brig. Gen Abdullah al-Asaad told Enab Baladi that the training is a way to deliver a message to the world through which Russia demonstrates its control over areas inside Syria and its presence through its existing forces that are supervising the training.
Al-Asaad added that Russia has become interested in training the regime’s air forces for possible use in air landings during its military operations on Syrian territory, in addition to possible use in Ukraine.
There were conflicting reports of Syrian fighters being sent to participate in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. On 4 March, Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ) published a report on preparing Syrians to participate in the ongoing war since the Russian invasion of Ukraine was declared on 24 February.
At the time, the former US State Department envoy for Syria, Joel Rayburn, said there was not much evidence that Syrian regime forces had “fighters skilled in urban combat” or skills of any kind, except perhaps narcotrafficking.
According to al-Asaad, the reasons for the drills are affected by the different phases, their specificity, and the region’s military context. The training that Russia conducted near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights was preceded by strained Russian-Israeli relations.
Russia does not rely solely on training to deliver its messages. Apart from its semi-frequent airstrikes on areas of northwestern Syria, Russian forces appear on multiple occasions displaying their military capabilities, the recent of which was on 31 July, when the Russian military forces organized a military parade at their military base in Tartus, Syria, on Russian Navy Day. Warships from three fleets of the Russian Navy in the Black Sea, the Pacific, and the Arctic Ocean participated in the military parade for the first time, along with Russian and other warplanes, according to what was announced by Russia Today (RT) TV channel.
Impact-oriented or periodic training?
The pace of training on parachute landings has recently increased in conjunction with growing talk of Turkish intentions expressed by the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, about a forthcoming Turkish military operation in northern Syria, for which Ankara is not waiting for anyone’s permission as stated by Turkish officials.
The operation on the ground is intended for the areas under the control of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an operation opposed by several countries, including the US.
Over the past few weeks, the region has witnessed military movements of several forces on the ground, including regime military reinforcements that entered SDF-held areas in northeastern Syria to support it.
There are also Russian air movements in the region, including the arrival of military equipment and a squadron of six helicopters and two warplanes to the Qamishli International Airport in northeastern Syria on 27 May.
In the opinion of the analyst al-Asaad, these drills are fully commensurate with the battle in northern and eastern Syria, seeing that the way the upcoming battle would work requires parachuting operations aimed at landing behind enemy lines. He pointed out that the Russian forces had sent landing forces from the Russian paratroopers and placed them in eastern Syria.
On 4 July, Russia sent military reinforcements of more than 500 Russian soldiers from the Paratroopers’ Division to Qamishli, northeastern Syria.
The military analyst added that the geographical area being operated in Syria was equipped for such parachute landing operations behind enemy lines, including the Syrian National Army (SNA) front, as it is fighting within a broad or long front encompassing the northern and eastern countryside of Aleppo, and the cities of Ras al-Ayn and Tal Abyad in northeastern Syria.
For his part, the military analyst, Major Tariq Haj Bakri, questioned the value of these trainings and considered them repetitive and periodic, pointing out that they are merely tactical drills that are “pointless.” He also said that the regime could not use it to carry out any military action, neither in areas controlled by opposition factions nor in SDF-held areas.
In an interview with Enab Baladi, Haj Bakri believes that the Syrian regime has neither the force nor the tactical, military, or personnel capabilities to carry out any military action without the support or guidance of allies, most notably the Russians’ air support. Regime warplanes could not fly in the north of Syria because they would be jeopardized despite Russian-supervised parachuting drills.
If Russian warplanes were used in such operations, it would mean Russia’s direct entry into war with the Turkish forces backing factions in the region, according to the researcher who ruled out such an event.
Colonel in the Syrian National Army (SNA), Ahmed al-Kurdi, ruled out regime forces having the audacity to carry out such tasks either alone or even in cooperation with the Russians because the forces carrying out the airstrikes are most vulnerable at the moment of landing (when the air force lands on the ground).
The colonel explained to Enab Baladi that the difficulty of implementation is related to the preparedness of the defending forces, i.e., preparing the site of operations and readying a plan for eliminating the threat of potential airdrops. He pointed out that defending (stationed) forces have a special plan and map for the “Elimination of Hostile Airdrops.”
This plan is prepared by the operations’ commanders, and it contains all possibilities and locations in which the enemy is likely to carry out airdrops. The defending forces and the nearest centers to each area are determined in order to move towards the location of the airdrop, according to Colonel Ahmed al-Kurdi.
After intervening militarily alongside the regime in Syria in late September 2015, Russia worked to rehabilitate and train its forces, particularly Quwwat al-Nimr (Tiger Forces) led by Suhail al-Hassan, who was honored with the Russian Defense Ministry’s Medal of Courage in 2016 for his fight against the Islamic State (IS) in the northern countryside of Hama.
Quwwat al-Nimr (Tiger Forces) changed its name to the 25th Special Forces Division – Counter-Terrorism in August 2019. Pages and media outlets circulated the news of changing the name of the forces participating in the regime’s military operations in Idlib and Hama countryside under the directives of the regime’s president, Bashar al-Assad.
The Tiger Forces are considered one of the most effective militias fighting alongside official regime forces. Its military operations have been known to follow a scorched-earth policy.
The Syrian regime has also relied on it in several Syrian regions, starting from the city of Morek in the Hama countryside to the city of Palmyra in the eastern countryside of Homs. Then it moved to the city of Aleppo and later to Eastern Ghouta, Eastern Qalamoun, and the governorates of Daraa and Quneitra.
Russia usually benefits from real combat training and operations in Syria, especially in testing new weapons. The Russians’ training of the regime’s forces included various land, sea, and air forces on various weapons, in addition to tactics to deal with and counter attacks.
Since the end of the last military campaign against the northern Syrian regions, which has been suspended since the first months of 2020, Russia has been seeking to change the status of the 25th Division from a militia into an organized military division by organizationally restructuring it and upgrading its officers and personnel through such training.
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