Amid Russian air and cruise missile strikes, civilian casualties, proposed no-fly zones, air-to-air shoot-downs, and new surface-to-air missiles in Syria, relatively few news stories have discussed the introduction of Russian artillery into the theater. Though the introduction of artillery may seem less significant than aerial attacks, remember that Napoleon observed: “With artillery, war is made.” By reintroducing artillery to Syria to support combined arms operations, the Russians may have revealed something about the war they and the Syrians envision. Together with increased air attacks, the Syrians and their Russian advisors seek to revitalize combined arms forces, and artillery is critical to their vision of such forces. Artillery is particularly important for offensive operations, providing a continuous presence that current Russian air deployments cannot sustain. The Syrian ground forces are now taking and holding ground, fighting urban and village battles where they must, but posing a threat of encirclement and maneuver where they can.
The Syrian military was once a large, well-equipped, Soviet-model Arab army capable of executing combined arms operations. While not often victorious, it was usually competent. The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) was not then the principal internal guarantor of Bashar al-Assad’s regime — that was the responsibility of other military and security organizations. Primarily oriented against Israel, the conscript-based SAA drew on all sects and functioned as a key secular institution of a largely secular state.
Under the stress of the Sunni insurgency, the Syrian military has gradually degenerated into a less effective force in which the separate services and branches continue to exist, but no longer operate together in a coherent way. Throughout the regular army formations, the loyalty of conscripts could not be relied on to fight insurgents. Defections, desertions, and draft avoidance whittled down the force. The remaining infantry were spread out into checkpoints and strongpoints and found themselves increasingly replaced by militia forces chosen for their reliability or motivation in spite of their poor training. Armor was left to race through rebel-held territory unaccompanied by infantry, contributing only large-caliber drive-by shootings to operations.
The Syrian Arab Air Force (SAAF) was left to defend its own large bases and stave off siege warfare by insurgents. Many SAAF aircraft were not equipped for precision weapon delivery and few such munitions were available. In the past, artillery was intended to carry out most of the functions of close air support so there was no large experience of using aircraft in this role. Instead of using precision weapons, helicopters dropped barrel bombs. Helicopters and fighters were incapable of interdicting insurgent tactical movements. Once-numerous Syrian artillery pieces saw usage either as direct-fire weapons at point-blank range or at such long ranges and with so little intelligence that they were effectively lashing out blindly from fixed bases. Despite a shrinking number of soldiers, the SAA remained saddled with so much infrastructure — ammunition depots, chemical weapons stores, warehouses, training bases, air defense sites, schools, and academies — all of which required protection, but contributed little to the fighting.
In time, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) transitioned to mobile warfare in Syria, using heavy automatic weapons mounted on Toyota trucks and the unique precision support weapon of the suicide bomber in a vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices carried by cars, trucks, and construction vehicles. In response, the SAA failed to either interdict ISIL movements or defend against the sudden appearance of the massed ISIL forces. By the end of July 2015, President Assad admitted that the army was struggling and that “it was necessary to specify critical areas for our armed forces to hang on to. Concern for our soldiers forces us to let go of some areas.”
The Russian deployment of forces into Syria in September 2015 responded to the dire situation of the Assad regime in multiple ways. Fighter aircraft, strategic bombers, and cruise missiles launched from numerous sources pounded opponents of the Syrian regime from Western-backed rebel forces to ISIL and everything in between. Within days of the aerial strikes, ground movements by the SAA prompted the headline “Russian Cruise Missiles Help Syrians Go on the Offensive” in the New York Times.
This new offensive required Syrian ground forces to drive forward as a conventional force supported by Russian fires. Syrian ambassador to Russia Riad Haddad expressed Syrian needs to Moscow:
At the moment this is artillery and precision-guided missiles. This is needed due to efforts to avoid casualties among the civilian population. We also need rockets that would destroy terrorist tunnels at a depth of 10 meters. We also need all kinds of ammunition.
While the Russian deployment came with Putin’s assurance that it would not involve Russian ground operations, it was clear from the start that the deployment included an airfield security element of roughly battalion size with tanks, armored fighting vehicles, and some supporting artillery. This small artillery battery set loose an interesting story. The battery was first identified as “6 towed howitzers” and later as “6 2A65 Msta-B,” a very ordinary 152mm towed howitzer roughly equivalent to the U.S. M198 155mm towed howitzer. This howitzer is much less destructive than the BM-30 Smerch Multiple Rocket System, but better-suited to directly support combat troops with indirect fires in combined arms operations.
This small battery was largely invisible to the outside world until a Russian military blogger recognized that Russian television coverage of Putin being briefed on the situation in Syria on Nov. 17 showed a map indicating a battery of six such guns of the 120th Artillery Brigade was located near Salad between Homs and Damascus. The story was picked up in a Reuters dispatch Nov. 18 that highlighted the appearance of the unit in a location quite distant from the airfields the Russians were using for fighter operations, along with denials from a Kremlin spokesman that Russians were involved in ground operations. Further coverage showing images of the map and its annotations indicated the unit had probably been in place since November 6 and may be the unidentified 2A65 Msta-B battery shown on Russian television on Nov. 11. As positioned, the unit’s fires could simultaneously cover the Al-Shayrat airfield that housed Russian helicopters and provide fire support to Syrian units. Of course, if the unit’s sole mission was to cover the Russian helicopters, its range is long enough that it could be based on the airfield itself rather than positioned forward in the direction of the adversary. The implication is that at least part of the battery’s mission was to support the Syrian ground forces rather than solely to defend the Russian helicopter base.
The U.S. Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office at Fort Leavenworth has been following and reporting on these events in its Operational Environment (OE) Watch web publication. In addition to noting the longstanding importance of artillery to the Russian military and its benefactors, OE Watch picked up the importance of an organizational announcement in early October by Chief of Staff of the SAA Gen. Ali Ayoub that the offensive initiated in cooperation with Russian air support would be led by newly formed units including “the 4th Assault Corps.”
Relying on multiple Arabic-language (including pro-Assad) sources from the region, OE Watch reported that the appearance of the 4th Assault Corps marks the move of the SAA toward a “Russian model” led by “Sukhois from above, and which also includes greater use of artillery batteries.” The “assault corps” title evokes a bit of the ethos of the Soviet “shock army,” such as the 3rd Shock Army that fought its way into Berlin in 1945. But the Syrian 4th Assault Corps is currently a miscellany of units: OE Watch noted the pro-Hizbullah al-Hadath News gave the composition of the corps as “several Syrian army formations intermixed with elite forces led by Col. Suhail Hassan, units from the Syrian infantry, and others from the National Defense Forces. The forward forces are supported by mortar cover and artillery regiments behind the support lines, as well as aerial cover from the Russian Sukhois.”
These regional sources are sensitive to the possibility that by moving toward a Russian model they are simultaneously drawn away from the “Iranian model.” The “Iranian model” refers to the many militias that were often mobilized and motivated by local, sectarian, and defensive principles without direct regime sponsorship. In many cases, members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps themselves may have organized and trained these units. A potent 4th Assault Corps that put these militias directly under SAA command would certainly have political overtones.
If the Syrian 4th Assault Corps is to realize the Russian model’s greater emphasis on artillery, it will require much more than simply acquiring new equipment. Bringing artillery units — batteries or the claimed “regiments” — to a standard of supporting their maneuver elements with indirect fire will require improvement in the skill of both Syrian artillerymen and the supported formations. Fire control is a crucial requirement for such indirect fires, and Russian observers had noted that even for the pre-war Syrian artillery “fire control at the battalion level was problematic.” The supported formations themselves will need to either be able to adjust fires themselves or acquire forward observers from the artillery unit. In either case, the supported formations must grow confident that artillery fires really can be brought close to their positions safely in order to effectively support their operations. None of this is easy, and it is not clear that the introduction of Russian advisors for these roles would be either welcome or effective.
Beyond the question of acquiring technical proficiency, there is the more profound issue of whether moving toward the “Russian model” would permit the SAA to regain battlefield maneuver and avoid the urban combat that slowed operations to a crawl and led to protracted attrition warfare. The recent ceasefires, negotiations, and subsequent evacuations of anti-Assad insurgents and their supporters from some Damascus suburbs indicate some success, and increasing the threat of encirclement by adhering to the Russian model may force even more such situations.
The Russian moves do not promise immediate victory, only improved warmaking. Whether the Syrian Arab Army itself can motivate more effective performance with this support or whether the militias are open to serving under a more effective army in offensive operations remain open questions as the battlefields move farther from their current locations. As an American general observed on the recent Iraqi rejection of helicopters: “It is kind of hard to inflict support on somebody.”
James T. Quinlivan is a senior operations research analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.