Friday, November 9, 2018

Russia in Review: Russia's Lessons Learned in Syria

Russia in Review is a weekly intelligence summary (INTSUM) produced by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). This ISW INTSUM series sheds light on key trends and developments related to the Russian government’s objectives and its efforts to secure them. Receive future Russia in Review INTSUM products via-email by signing up for the ISW mailing list.

Special Topic Update: Russian Military Doctrine and Lessons Learned in Syria

Authors: Catherine Harris and Mason Clark

Russia is committing fully to hybrid warfare as the likely nature of its future wars. Senior Russian military officers writing in prominent military journals are publishing their insights from Russia’s combat experience in Syria and Ukraine. They are also deriving lessons learned from the past few decades of military operations by the West in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. These officers - including two potential candidates to become the next Russian Chief of the General Staff - are lobbying for a holistic change to military doctrine that will likely shape the long-term development of the Russian Armed Forces.

ISW has begun a project to identify and understand the key drivers of doctrinal change in Russia. The set of lessons learned below constitutes a partial assessment. Many of these changes will reflect insights based on ground experiences in Syria. Russian officers derive these lessons from their perception of events, which are not always aligned with reality. The following analysis does not attempt to evaluate these claimed experiences as the emerging doctrine flows from the perceptions themselves regardless of accuracy.

The following lessons learned are based on essays by five senior officers of the Russian Armed Forces. Colonel-General Aleksander Vladimirovich Dvornikov and Lieutenant-General Aleksandr Pavlovich Lapin are currently the respective commanders of the Russian Southern and Central Military Districts. Russian Military Districts are roughly equivalent to U.S. Combatant Commands. These officers are potential successors to Russian Chief of the General Staff General Valery Gerasimov. Their insights take the form of after-action reviews praising the Russian Armed Forces for their accomplishments in Syria. Dvornikov served as the first Commander of the Russian Forces in Syria from September 2015 until July 2016. Lapin served as the Chief of Staff of the Russian Armed Forces in Syria until November 2017.

Major-General Sergei Leonidovich Pechurov, Colonel (Ret.) Aleksander Nikolaevich Sidorin, and Colonel Aleksander Vladimirovich Vdovin by contrast are military academics who offer abstracted recommendations about how Russia should adapt its military doctrine to the 21st Century. Pechurov is Chief Researcher at the Research Department of the Russian Defense Ministry and holds a Doctorate of Military Sciences. Sidorin is a professor and specialist in electronic warfare at the Russian Combined Arms Forces Academy. Vdovin draws his insights from both the combat experiences of Russia as well as recent foreign interventions by the U.S. and NATO through May 2018. All of the listed authors draw the same general conclusions about the relevant lessons learned and their application to future wars.

Russian officers repeatedly underscore the need to end the distinction between non-military and military operations on the battlefield. Pechurov and Sidorin both write that these functions should instead be perceived as a single undertaking. Their recommendations seek to blur the lines between these traditionally-separate roles conducted by separate bodies by creating a “superiority of management” that accelerates decision-making on the battlefield.[1]

Dvornikov claims to have implemented this model of ‘superiority of management’ in Syria. Dvornikov claims that the Russian Armed Forces created an integrated structure of military and non-military bodies to plan and coordinate all battlefield activity and thereby accelerate decision-making in Syria. Russia headquartered this structure at its Hmeimim Airbase on the Syrian Coast. The Russian Reconciliation Center for Syria (led by a lieutenant-general) is located at Hmeimim Airbase, for example.[2] The Center is responsible for facilitating negotiations with opposition groups as well as organizing humanitarian aid deliveries.[3] This integrated structure is likely led by the Commander of the Russian Forces in Syria. Russia aims to build a unified information space and develop superiority of management in order to adapt to what it sees as the increasing pace of modern combat. Dvornikov claims that officers dispersed across battlefields in Syria remained in constant contact with headquarters at Hmeimim via video-conferencing, which shortened the process of combat decision-making.[4]

Dvornikov stresses the importance of fighting with allied combat-capable ground elements. Dvornikov states that the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) was fatigued and ineffective at the start of the Russian intervention in Syria in 2015. The Russian Armed Forces therefore prioritized assistance to the most combat-effective ground elements including irregular and tribal forces. These units consisted of “scattered irregular armed formations” such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Lebanese Hezbollah, the SAA 5th Assault Corps, the Desert Falcons, and the SAA Tiger Forces led by Syrian Brigadier General Suheil al-Hassan. Dvornikov singles out Hassan as the “most capable commander” in the SAA, noting that he “achieved considerable success, avoided templates, and competently used various methods of conducting a special operation” in Syria.

Dvornikov states that these disparate groups were “united under the control of the commander…from the Russian Federation” and operated “according to a single plan” drafted by Russia. He also alludes to major challenges with the initial integration of Russia in Syria. The original plan envisioned that the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces would carry out all “overall planning” for operations with the responsibility for enriching the plan with details left to unit commanders on the ground in Syria. However, Russia was forced to take the lead on all preparations for combat operations due to the ineffectiveness of the SAA General Staff. Dvornikov notes that this management structure was improved by the direct participation of “operational groups” from all “formations” (including the IRGC, Hezbollah, Syrian Intelligence, and the Syrian National Defense Forces) at Hmeimim Airbase. Russia further optimized by deploying its own “operational groups” to “tactical directions” in accordance with “zones of responsibility” in Syria. The size of these groups ranged from five to twenty personnel specialized in intelligence, logistics and maintenance support, and translation depending on the required tasks.[5]

ISW cannot independently assess the extent to which this integrated structure functioned as claimed in Syria, although it generally assesses that the IRGC and Hezbollah played a much more significant role in the planning and execution of pro-regime operations than granted by Dvornikov. ISW’s prior assessments about the changing nature of pro-regime operations nonetheless partially support the claim. The Battle of Aleppo heavily reflected the doctrine and campaign design of Russia - such as the initiation of a “cauldron battle” - rather than Iran or Syria. Dvornikov notably does not describe any specific challenges faced with the recruitment or integration of irregular forces in Syria. It is likely that some elements, such as the SAA 5th Assault Corps organized by Russia, integrated much more smoothly into this structure than foreign units such as the IRGC and Hezbollah, which likely accepted only a limited degree of direction from Russia. ISW continues to track efforts by Russia and Iran to coopt and recruit tribal fighters in Eastern Syria as part of their wider challenge to the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition and its partnered Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Dvornikov also emphasizes the effectiveness of deploying specialized units to support these partnered ground forces. Dvornikov emphasizes that “boundaries between strategic, operational, and tactical-level tasks were erased, and strategic (operational) goals were achieved by the work of military units at the tactical level” in Syria. He notes that Russian Spetsnaz conducted “sabotage” operations against key opposition positions and infrastructure while other naval, air, and special operations forces played a critical role in support of partnered ground forces in “mountainous Latakia, Palmyra, Kuweires, Aleppo…Uqayribat, Hama, and Deir ez-Zor” in Syria.[6]

Dvornikov stresses the importance of coordinating long-range fire support with partner ground components. He notes that the Russian Armed Forces supported the pro-regime offensive to retake Deir ez-Zor City in late 2017 by launching naval cruise missiles from its Mediterranean Task Force off the Syrian Coast. This fire support - including airstrikes and cruise missile strikes - allegedly allowed pro-regime forces to seize and secure a bridgehead on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River and ultimately capture Deir ez-Zor City. (These assertions are generally in line with ISW’s assessments regarding the key air support role provided by Russia during the pro-regime ground campaign against ISIS in Eastern Syria.)

Dvornikov states that Russia improved its capability to destroy static and mobile targets through the effective use of forward observers in Syria. He claims that the Russian Armed Forces launched air or naval strikes only with target verification from at least three sources during the offensive to retake Aleppo City in late 2016. This assertion sheds an interesting light on the likely deliberate nature of pro-regime airstrikes against hospitals, breadlines, and other civilian targets protected under the laws of armed conflict. Russian Spetsnaz often acted as forward observers for these strikes. ISW assessed in February 2017 that Russia also trained Iranian-backed proxies to support its air campaign.[7] Dvornikov states that the Russian Armed Forces focused its airstrikes on the outer defenses of Aleppo City while ground artillery and rocket systems targeted the urban center. Russia conducted many of these operations at night.[8]

Russian officers repeatedly highlight the critical role played by information warfare in offensive operations. Dvornikov stresses that information warfare was one of the most effective assets used in urban combat operations in Syria, particularly Aleppo City, Deir ez-Zor City, and the Eastern Ghouta Suburbs of Damascus. His definition of “information warfare” remains unclear but likely includes the use of targeted humanitarian assistance, on-the-ground negotiations with combatants, and messaging campaigns on the radio and social media. Lapin similarly suggests that “humanitarian operations” led to military victories in Aleppo City and Eastern Ghouta.[9] Dvornikov notes that information warfare directly affected global public opinion of operations by Russia in Syria.[10] He may be alluding to the highly-centralized state propaganda campaign intended to portray Russia as the leading actor against ISIS.[11]

Russian officers praised the use of local negotiations to clear urban areas and divide their opponents. The Russian Armed Forces allegedly brokered the majority of negotiated settlements with opposition forces in Syria.[12] Vdovin states that civilian populations often did not have strong allegiances to opposition forces and displayed a willingness to negotiate the peaceful surrender of urban areas. He claims that evacuations of more hardline opposition groups unwilling to reconcile “took place under the personal guarantees of our officers” in Syria.[13] These political lines of effort also enabled attempts to turn opposition forces against one another. Russia uses Sunni Muslims in the Russian Armed Forces to interface with opposition groups in Syria.[14] Russia frequently deploys military police units from regions with a high concentration of Sunni Muslims - such as Chechnya, Dagestan, North Ossetia, and Ingushetia - to broker reconciliations and enforce order in Syria. These units are highly valuable as political representatives due to their linguistic and religious alignment with Syrian Sunnis as well as their official association with Russia rather than Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Russian officers promote the use of electronic warfare to disrupt planning and coordination by adversaries. Vdovin notes that Russia was able to exploit the common use of open radio channels for communication and planning by opposition forces in Syria. He emphasizes that ground commanders should take advantage of the lack of operational-level coordination and planning by opposition groups by isolating individual opposition commanders.[15] Russia may have used its electronic warfare capabilities to effectively jam cell phone and radio signals on battlefields in Syria similar to its prior operations in Ukraine. ISW cannot independently assess the effectiveness of electronic warfare operations in Syria at this time.

Dvornikov claims that Russia created an entity directly responsible for countering attacks by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Dvornikov stated that the Russian Armed Forces stood up a UAV Control Group headed by a senior shift officer with the mission to coordinate the use of electronic warfare, ground and aviation forces, and communications equipment against the threat of UAVs. Russia experienced multiple drone swarm attacks against its Hmeimim Airbase and Tartus Naval Facility in 2018. Some of these attacks - likely launched by opposition groups backed by Turkey - successfully damaged Russian aircraft at Hmeimim. The formation of this coordination body may partially explain recent successes in disrupting additional drone attacks against Russia on the Syrian Coast.[16]

Russian officers also highlight the importance of combat engineering in offensive and defensive operations in Syria. The Russian Armed Forces witnessed the widespread use of tunnels by opposition forces in Damascus, Homs Province, and Deir ez-Zor City, according to Lapin and Dvornikov. Opposition units used these tunnels to travel between defensive positions in urban areas and stealthily approach pro-regime positions during assaults, according to Dvornikov. The opposition also used these tunnels to deploy landmines and sabotage regime-held positions. Vdovin recommends the use of counter-tunnels and “anti-tunnel ditches” to manage the use of tunnels in future conflicts.[17] Russian officers conversely highlight the innovation of pro-regime forces in repurposing civilian construction equipment for defensive operations in Syria. Dvornikov in particularly praises the SAA Tiger Forces for the development of the “Syrian Shaft” - the tactic of using civilian construction equipment to rapidly build barriers of sand with gaps through which armored vehicles can maneuver and provide fire support.[18] The Tiger Forces used the ‘Syrian Shaft’ to attack stationary targets such as artillery and mortar positions while concealing and protecting their advancing armor.[19]

Russia’s new way of war will have significant implications for the U.S. and NATO. The new doctrines and methods of warfare detailed above come at a much lower cost than the traditional large-scale deployments of conventional forces practiced by the Soviet Union. These innovations are suited to the weak economy of modern Russia. Their emphasis on coalition warfare and information operations also allow Russia to continue to obfuscate its aggressive foreign policy around the globe. The Kremlin will almost certainly implement these lessons learned in order to advance its strategic objective to reassert itself as a global power at the expense of the U.S. and NATO. The West should prioritize deterrence against this developing multi-domain threat rather than the conventional strength of the Russian Armed Forces.

[1] S. L. Pechurov and A. N. Sidorin, [“Lessons from Coalition Wars in Interpreting Western Military Theory,”] Voennaya Mysl’, April 2017,
[2] [“Ten Civilians in Syria Were Hit by Militants in Idlib,”] Interfax, October 25, 2018, https://www.interfax(.)ru/world/635102.
[3] “Reconciliation Process in Syria Supported by 1,475 Settlements,” TASS, April 30, 2017, http://tass(.)com/world/944035.
[4] A.V. Dvornikov, [“Headquarters for New Wars,”] Voyenno-Promyshlennyy Kur'yer, July 23, 2018, https://vpk-news(.)ru/articles/43971.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ralph Shield, [“Russian Airpower’s Success in Syria: Assessing Evolution in Kinetic Counterinsurgency,”] Slavic Military Studies, February 2018,
[8] Dvornikov, [“Headquarters for New Wars,”] July 23, 2018.
[9] A.P. Lapin, [“Syrian Academy,”] Voyenno-Promyshlennyy Kur'yer, April 24, 2018, https://vpk-news(.)ru/articles/42359.
[10] Dvornikov, [“Headquarters for New Wars,”] July 23, 2018. .
[11] “Russia Versus ISIL in Syria,” Sputnik, https://sputniknews(.)com/trend/russia_versus_isil_in_syria/.
[12] Dvornikov, [“Headquarters for New Wars,”] July 23, 2018.
[13] A. V. Vdovin, [“An Adaptive Approach to the Use of Forces and Means to Combat Terrorists from the Experience of Armed Conflicts Outside of Russia,”] Voennaya Mysl’, May 2018,
[14] Kamal Alam, “Russia's Strategy in Syria Shows How to Win a Middle East War,” Middle East Eye, July 9, 2018,
[15] Vdovin, [“An Adaptive Approach to the Use of Forces and Means to Combat Terrorists from the Experience of Armed Conflicts Outside of Russia,”] May 2018.
[16] “Drone Attack on Russia’s Syrian Airbase Was Elaborate Pentagon Operation, Says Expert,” TASS, October 25, 2018, http://tass(.)com/defense/1027834.
[17] Vdovin, [“An Adaptive Approach to the Use of Forces and Means to Combat Terrorists from the Experience of Armed Conflicts Outside of Russia,”] May 2018.
[18] Dvornikov, [“Headquarters for New Wars,”] July 23, 2018.
[19] [“The Syrian Shaft’ and Tank Carousel,”] Voennoe Obozrenie, October 10, 2017, https://topwar(.)ru/126788-siriyskiy-val-i-tankovaya-karusel.html.