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Lessons Learned from Syria


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Not sure if we have an old thread on this, so I figured I'd start one.

Great piece over at the Institute for the Study of War taking some observations the Russians have made from their Syrian campaign.  Their website is being renovated, so they're putting their stuff up in no-frills blog format right now, but the good OSINT work is still there.


I've cribbed the key takeaways and my own thoughts:

"Russia is committing fully to hybrid warfare as the likely nature of its future wars. .... 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."

So much for the big ole Bear.  If you haven't got Gerasimov's chart in your head, your behind the times.

"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."

Although this sounds radical, it isn't really, and any reader of Sun Tzu or Chinese approaches to conflict will understand that war and peace are not black and white binary elements, but rather exist as shades within the spectrum of societal conflict.  This is a bit harder for our Western tradition that has bound war up in a tight legal framework that removes it from the "norm" of human interaction.  This legalistic view of war means that, despite near constant conflict since 1945, the US has not actually declared war since 1941.  We in the West need to start nuancing our view of conflict to enable the military to be a better contributor.

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. The Center is responsible for facilitating negotiations with opposition groups as well as organizing humanitarian aid deliveries. 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.

This is along the lines of our whole Combined-Joint-Interagency Task Force.  Interestingly enough, it appears the military commander has the lead, integrating political and humanitarian efforts into the military campaign.

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.

The Security Force Assistance element in full affect.  Probably easier to do when your national command isn't too worried about the background of the forces you are working with and advising.  There are also some interesting command concepts here that are worth unpacking through further study.

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.

Despite all the black magic ascribed to information, influence, and "hybrid" concepts, conventional, mobile warfare still has a prominent role in conflict.

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.

More train-advise-assist functions.

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. 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.

Fires are still critical to mission success, and an aspect of "joint warfare" is fires from any domain/element.  This mirrors our own Western contributions against ISIS.

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. 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.

Highly integrated national political-military strategic information operations that are tied to campaign planning.  Instructive.

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.  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.

Leverage diversity at home for expeditionary operations.  Pretty interesting.

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.  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.

EW as a critical battlefield support function.  Again, EW effects can be delivered from a variety of domains/platforms, and integrating this with proper command relationships is critical.

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.

This one I found to be really interesting.  There is the tracking piece, which I'm assuming we in the West could fit under our Air Defence Commander/ASCC concept, but the Russians have created a "Coordination Centre" tying in EW, comms, and ground/air fires to counter the UAV threat.  A pretty key piece of joint integration, in my view.

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. 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. The Tiger Forces used the ‘Syrian Shaft’ to attack stationary targets such as artillery and mortar positions while concealing and protecting their advancing armor.

Counter-tunnel operations and battlefield engineering, which includes "Train-Advise-Assist" efforts for locally procured, expedient close engineering support.  Another one to think about.

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.

Now, if a model like this is "exportable," then the Russians may be in the midst of a bit of a paradigm shift, to use the over-used term.  Compare this to an American defence budget that continues to grow, and calls for growth of conventional warfighting capabilities, and it makes one wonder if we in the West are conceptually reorienting ourselves on 1978 Russia, and not 2018 Russia?
Excellent link; thank you.

Infanteer said:
….it makes one wonder if we in the West are conceptually reorienting ourselves on 1978 Russia, and not 2018 Russia?
As you know, throughout history, militaries have seldom been bastions of innovative thinking.  Quite often, the 'mavericks' have been ignored -- patiently or otherwise -- until changes are forced through inevitability or desperation;  these thinkers often then become venerated in the past tense.  Sometimes the thinking just becomes buzzwords to be used in military writing, which is adopted, dismissed as passé, or thought of as "gee, that's just common sense; what's the big deal."  No one says "OODA loop" anymore (OK, maybe the airforce, since they'd only have Douhet and Mitchell otherwise  ;) )

So quite often, our thinking -- doctrine, procurement, et al  -- is relegated to protecting rice-bowls and 'building a better yesterday,' both of which may be of dubious value.


Looking forward to considering this, and ISW's follow-on work.  Again,  :salute:
Important here is that according to these Generals it was Russia directing operations.  Unlikely we'd take such an approach.  It's a lot easier to achieve unity of effort if you've got something approximating unity of command.  Having said that I suspect it is far from that clear on the ground and it later states that Hezbollah and the IRGC probably had more influence than is admitted by the Russians.

That counter UAV coordination center is pretty interesting.  I suspect they are ahead of us on this one, meaning they probably have some better ideas on how to use them against us as well.

The article ends with the statement that we should be focussing on deterring this approach to warfare.  How do we do that?  I think first we need to ask ourselves the strategic question of where do we actually need to deter such operations from taking place, then we look at how to inflict sufficient pain on Russia to prevent the deployment of such a force and failing that how to render the force irrelevant.  Related to this we should realize that we are on the strategic defence.  We have the world we want and are just looking to preserve it.  The Russians are trying to change the rules of the game in specific regions.

Once we figure out where we actually need to worry about operations like this taking place then we can look to how to stop them from happening at all.  I think those places are actually quite limited.  Probably one of the best sticks we could use would be sanctions.  Sanctions sidestep a lot of concerns over escalation.  If that isn't sufficient then we start applying pressure in the cyber domain understanding that we don't have a good understanding of the risks of escalation in the cyber domain.  What is a cyber trip wire?  Concurrent to this could be actions to deny access to certain areas.  Blockades, and no fly zones with the right information campaign could paint us in the light defending international norms and painting Russian actions as hostile.  Beyond this we start getting into clear warfighting territory.

While the character of war has changed as nations seek cheaper ways to wage war, as things escalate I think our traditional conventional forces will still look pretty appropriate... as will Russia's.
Journeyman said:
Excellent link; thank you.
As you know, throughout history, militaries have seldom been bastions of innovative thinking.  Quite often, the 'mavericks' have been ignored -- patiently or otherwise -- until changes are forced through inevitability or desperation;  these thinkers often then become venerated in the past tense.  Sometimes the thinking just becomes buzzwords to be used in military writing, which is adopted, dismissed as passé, or thought of as "gee, that's just common sense; what's the big deal."  No one says "OODA loop" anymore (OK, maybe the airforce, since they'd only have Douhet and Mitchell otherwise  ;) )

So quite often, our thinking -- doctrine, procurement, et al  -- is relegated to protecting rice-bowls and 'building a better yesterday,' both of which may be of dubious value.


Looking forward to considering this, and ISW's follow-on work.  Again,  :salute:

"An absolute doctrine is impossible, for once a doctrine and its articles become dogma, woe to the army which lies enthralled under its spell." JFC Fuller
They kinda of used this war a bit like like the Spanish Civil war to test doctrine and equipment. It also helps to enter with fairly simple and defined goals.