What are Russian special operations forces doing in Idlib?

Despite promises of a withdrawal, it appears the Kremlin has boosted its military presence on the front line in Syria.

Russian soldier
A Russian soldier waves a flag with a Syrian woman during the reopening of the road between Homs and Hama in Rastan on June 6, 2018 [File: Reuters/Omar Sanadiki]

In mid-July, as fighting was raging on in southern Idlib and northern Hama provinces in Syria’s northwest, Reuters reported that Russia has deployed its special forces in the area. Quoting sources from the Syrian opposition, the news agency said that the Russian troops were sent in after Syrian regime forces failed to advance against the rebels.

The Russian defence ministry predictably denied the involvement of Russian “ground forces” and “special forces” in the hostilities in Idlib, calling the report “fake news”.

The military pointed out that in line with the Russian-Turkish agreements of 2017, Russian military police is manning observation posts set up around the perimeter of the Idlib de-escalation zone. 

Whether Russia has indeed deployed special forces on the ground to fight in northwest Syria is difficult to determine with absolute certainty, but it is quite clear that the defence ministry has had to boost Russian presence on the ground in recent months.

The evidence

Whenever reports on the alleged presence of Russian special forces operating in Syria appear, they tend to be highly speculative and based on data that is semi-official or hard to verify, often posted on blogs and social media.

The details of Russian military presence are seldom officially disclosed for operational reasons. Identifying Russian security personnel has also proven difficult for one more reason: They often tend to be confused with contractors from private military companies (PMCs).

The rumours about the presence of Russian special forces on the ground in northwest Syria started in May, when, photos and footage of Russian armed men making their way through al-Ghab plain between the Hama and the Idlib provinces were circulated on social networks and media outlets. Some speculated that those were Russian mercenaries and not members of the Russian military.

Then, a few days later, the ANNA News Agency, a Russian media outlet that covers the operations of the Syrian troops with strong pro-Assad bias, reported that Russian special forces actively engaged in fighting in al-Ghab. They reportedly directed aircraft to targets and countered enemy fire with sniper rifles, anti-tank missiles and mortars on their own by using counter-battery radars.

The media outlet added that Russian special forces made a “major contribution” towards the “weakening” of the opposition’s defence in the plain but that it was not covered by the media “for security reasons”.

Shortly after the defence ministry denied the Reuters report, ANNA News did a u-turn on its “reporting” and claimed that the Russian military presence in Syria was limited to the air force.

The same day, Russia’s Nezavisimaya Gazeta noted that Russian mercenaries, with whom “the Russian Ministry of Defense has, in fact, nothing to do”, are helping the Syrian forces in their fight against the opposition in Hama and Idlib.

This statement is at the very least misleading: It is unthinkable that any employees of a Russian PMC could carry out any tasks close to the battlefield – or even train local units at the rear – without coordinating their activities with Russian national security, defence and law enforcement agencies.

As Novaya Gazeta, a Russian newspaper known for its criticism of the Kremlin, has reported, PMCs like “Shchit” (Shield), which the media first reported on in 2018, are directly linked to Russian generals and the 45th Spetsnaz (Special Forces) Airborne Brigade.

There appears to be enough evidence to confirm that Russian fighters – whether members of the Russian military or a PMC – are present at the front lines in Idlib and Hama and are taking part in the fighting.

The reason

Since 2015, when Moscow launched its military campaign in Syria, personnel from nearly every existing intelligence unit of the Russian armed forces has participated in operations, including the special forces of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff (GRU) and Special Operations Forces, police and army units of the National Guard of Russia working undercover.

The presence of military police and military advisors, which Moscow officially acknowledges, has provided a cover for other forces to operate, including special operations. It has also been known that Russian officers have staffed Syrian army units devastated by desertion, including the 5th Corps which has now been deployed to Hama and Idlib.

Russian troops have repeatedly used this scheme at different phases of the Syrian war. In the battle of Aleppo, for example, official records show that only Russian military advisers took part in the military operations, but unofficially, reports have circulated that various components of the Russian military also took part, including military engineers.

Although in December 2017 President Vladimir Putin announced “victory” in Syria and the withdrawal of Russian troops, except for “advisors”, it is clear that Russian military presence on the ground has continued (whether they be regular soldiers, special ops or mercenaries).

Currently, the Assad regime seeks to establish control over the M4 and M5 highways running through Idlib so that it can open the flow traffic between Aleppo, Damascus and Latakia. To counter that plan, Turkey redeployed opposition forces from northern Aleppo to Idlib and pushed reinforcements to surveillance points.

For weeks on end the advance of the pro-governmental troops was quite slow, accompanied by major losses of troops. This not only motivated Russian commanders to consent to a greater military role of Iran-backed militias and the 4th Armoured Division led by Maher al-Assad, the brother of the Syrian president, who is close to Tehran, but also the use of Russian reinforcements in the more challenging operations against the opposition.

Information on their presence has been purposely kept secret not only because of counterintelligence considerations but also because of possible domestic sensitivities. If their presence in Syria is revealed, this could anger the Russian public, which in its majority wants the country to end its military involvement in Syria.

The ultimate goal of the Kremlin is to help regime forces (with aerial cover and Russian reinforcements) advance against the opposition and to try to corner and fragment it while appearing to negotiate truces with Turkey. At the same time, it is trying to gain more influence and say within the regime and its security structures, so at the end of this conflict, it emerges as the kingmaker in Syria.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.