Friday, September 20, 2019

Russia in Review: The Kremlin Controls the Pace of Operations in Syria's Idlib

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.

Author: Mason Clark

Key Takeaways: The Kremlin is setting conditions to enable new pro-regime offensive operations against Greater Idlib Province in Northern Syria, including the deployment of a new battalion-sized element from the Wagner Group. The Kremlin is likely unwilling to expend the large amount of resources required to enable Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to retake all of Greater Idlib Province. Instead, Russia will likely use the Russian Air Force, Special Forces, and Wagner Group to enable limited operations in service of its own more limited objectives in Syria, such as protecting its Hmeimim Airbase on the Syrian Coast.

The Kremlin is setting conditions to enable further pro-regime offensive operations against opposition-held Greater Idlib Province in Northern Syria. “Hundreds” of Russian Wagner Group Private Military Contractors (PMCs) equipped with tanks - likely constituting a battalion-sized armored unit - deployed to frontlines near Greater Idlib Province in early September 2019. At least some elements of this force deployed to the town of Khan Sheikhun in Southern Idlib Province on September 6.[1] The unit is reportedly preparing for operations to clear urban terrain in Idlib Province alongside the Syrian Arab Army (SAA).[2] Russia often uses the Wagner Group to carry out high-risk assaults beyond the capabilities of the SAA without risking domestic backlash against combat deaths in Russia. The Wagner Group used a similar-sized armored unit to assault a position defended by the U.S. in Eastern Syria in February 2018.[3]

Russia has also displayed other indications of continued preparation for future combat operations in Greater Idlib Province. Pro-regime forces reopened a humanitarian crossing in Eastern Idlib Province on September 14 and Russia deployed a battalion of Ingush Military Police to Syria on September 17 - both common precursors of prior pro-regime offensive operations in Western Syria.[4] Russian Special Forces are also still actively conducting reconnaissance and raids around the periphery of Greater Idlib Province. The Turkish-backed National Liberation Front (NLF) killed three Russian Special Forces officers with a mine in Western Hama Province on September 3.[5] The Russian Defense Ministry denied the deaths, likely to limit domestic backlash and avoid blaming the casualties on Turkey.[6] Russian Special Forces played a crucial role enabling pro-regime gains in Greater Idlib Province in May to August 2019, acting as forward observers for airstrikes, providing indirect fire and anti-tank support, and conducting frontline raids.[7] Russian President Vladimir Putin stressed that the Kremlin will continue to support “local operations aimed at neutralizing the terrorist threat” in Greater Idlib Province on September 16.[8]

Russia effectively controls the pace and operational focus of pro-regime offensive operations through its allocation of military assets including the Special Forces and Wagner Group. Pro-regime forces have achieved limited territorial gains (with significant losses) in Greater Idlib Province since May 2019 largely due to the assistance provided by Russia.[9] Russia also played a key role in brokering a temporary ceasefire in Greater Idlib Province that began on August 31.[10] Syrian President Bashar al-Assad lacks the capability to conduct successful offensive operations without the support of Russia and Iran. An estimated twenty-to-thirty-thousand opposition fighters armed with heavy weapons and entrenched in extensive tunnel networks defend Greater Idlib Province.[11] Idlib Province also hosts roughly three million civilians, creating a massive logistical and humanitarian challenge for pro-regime forces despite their attempts to depopulate the region through evacuation corridors and indiscriminate airstrikes against civilians.[12]

Russia likely intends to use its reinforcements to degrade opposition forces that threaten pro-regime positions and its own basing on the Syrian Coast. The Kremlin recognizes that any major offensive to recapture all of Greater Idlib Province would likely result in months of heavy casualties and require levels of resources that Assad is unable - and Russia is unwilling - to provide. Russia will likely enable limited pro-regime offensives targeting launch points for drone and rocket attacks against the Hmeimim Airbase, including positions in Southern Idlib and Northern Latakia Provinces.[13] Russia will also likely support operations to seize additional terrain in Southern Idlib Province in order to mitigate the threat of opposition counterattacks that have inflicted heavy casualties on key pro-regime units such as the SAA Tiger Forces.[14] Russia will play a leading role shaping in the timing, scale, and goals of further pro-regime operations in Greater Idlib Province to achieve its own (and often more limited) strategic objectives in Northern Syria.

[1] Gian Micalessin, “Khan Sheikhun: Alongside the Russians Towards the Last Jihadist Stronghold,” Inside Over, September 3, 2019,
[2] Stepan Kravchenko and Henry Meyer, “Putin’s ‘Chef’ Preps Soldiers for Final Assault on Syrian Rebels,” Bloomberg, September 6, 2019,
[3] Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “How a 4-Hour Battle Between Russian Mercenaries and U.S. Commandos Unfolded in Syria,” New York Times, May 24, 2018,
[4] “Authorities Complete Procedures to Receive Citizens at Abu al-Dhuhur Crossing in Idlib Countryside,” SANA, September 14, 2019, https://www.sana(.)sy/en/?p=173249; [“Ingushetia Sends a Battalion of Military Police to Syria,”] Enab Baladi, September 17, 2019,
[5] Ivan Safronov, [“Three Russian Soldiers Killed in Syria,”] Vedomosti, September 5, 2019, https://www.vedomosti(.)ru/politics/articles/2019/09/05/810570-v-voennosluzhaschih.
[6] The families of the deceased confirmed they were active duty Russian Special Forces officers. See: [“RBK Publishes Photos of the Military Dead in Syria,”] RBK, September 6, 2019, https://www.rbc(.)ru/politics/06/09/2019/5d723e759a79477798534ee3.
[7] “In Pictures: Russian Special Forces Fight Alongside the Syrian Army in Hama Province,” Muraselon, May 11, 2019,; Bosni94, Twitter, May 11, 2019,; “Syrian Rebels Say Moscow Deploys Ground Forces in Idlib Campaign,” Reuters, July 17, 2019,; “Suspected Russian Special Forces Operation Eliminates Several Foreign Al-Qaeda Members in Idlib,” Al-Masdar News, August 5, 2019, https://www.almasdarnews(.)com/article/suspected-russian-special-forces-operation-eliminates-several-foreign-al-qaeda-members-in-idlib/; Anton Mardasov, “What Are Russian Special Operations Forces Doing in Idlib?” Al-Jazeera, August 29, 2019,
[8] “Press Statement and Answers to Media Questions Following a Trilateral Meeting Between the Leaders of the Guarantor States of the Astana Process on the Settlement in Syria,” Kremlin, September 16, 2019, http://en.kremlin(.)ru/events/president/transcripts/61542.
[9] Michael Land, Matti Suomenaro, Mason Clark, and Elizabeth Teoman, “Pro-Assad Regime Forces Locked in Battle of Attrition in Idlib Province,” Institute for the Study of War, July 2, 2019,
[10] “Bulletin of the Centre for Reconciliation of Opposing Sides and Refugee Migration Monitoring in the Syrian Arab Republic (September 1, 2019),” Russian Ministry of Defense, September 1, 2019,; ISW Syria Team and Syria Direct, “Syria Situation Report: August 1 - September 10, 2019,” Institute for the Study of War,
[11] “Syria: Who’s in Control of Idlib?” BBC, June 22, 2019,; ANNA News, [“Underground Cities of Terrorists - Full Video,”] YouTube, September 5, 2019,
[12] Suzan Fraser and Zeynep Bilginsoy, “Russia, Iran, Turkey Say Syrian Constitution Committee Ready,” AP, September 16, 2019,
[13] Michael Land, Matti Suomenaro, Mason Clark, and Elizabeth Teoman, “Pro-Assad Regime Forces Locked in Battle of Attrition in Idlib Province,” Institute for the Study of War, July 2, 2019,; [“Russia Announces Its Response to Attack Targeting Hmeimim in Syria,”] Baladi News, August 12, 2019,
[14] Michael Land, Matti Suomenaro, Mason Clark, and Elizabeth Teoman, “Pro-Assad Regime Forces Locked in Battle of Attrition in Idlib Province,” Institute for the Study of War, July 2, 2019,