Russian Elite Spetsnaz Trounced in Face-off with ISIS
The Russians first admitted to putting boots on the ground in the Syrian war 10 months ago, when the elite Spetsnaz unit took credit for the victory over the Islamic State in conquering the ancient Syrian town of Palmyra.
After that, Spetsnaz was limited, according to official accounts, to guarding Russian military facilities, especially the air bases and the S-300 and S-400 air defense systems. But this week, the Russian elite unit turned out to have engaged covertly in direct combat on at least two fronts.
One was Aleppo, where the Syrian government owes Spetsnaz for its “success” in gaining 99 percent of the rebel-held eastern quarters, DEBKA Weekly’s exclusive military and intelligence sources reveal. For two weeks, the Russian elite troops slashed through street after street, block after block, clearing the way for Bashar Assad’s army. They were followed by Lebanese Hizballah and other pro-Iranian Shiite militias, who went in to hold the territory captured against the rebels’ return.
It was then that the wanton mass murders, executions and other horrors were committed.
The strategy for the recovery of Aleppo, Syria’s largest town and former commercial capital, was designed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, to be a breakthrough towards ending the bloody five and-half-year civil war and serve his own agenda. He appears to have sought to impress on the incoming US President, Donald Trump, as well as Iran, that Moscow now calls the shots for all the players in the Syrian arena and it is Putin who charts their moves.
But then, the Russian president and his generals’ careful planning was rudely shoved off-course by an ISIS maneuver to retake Palmyra.
The Russians made the mistake of putting all their eggs, namely Spetsnaz, in one basket, namely Aleppo, leaving Palmyra exposed. On Saturday and Sunday (11-12 Dec.), after ISIS saw Russian elite forces being pulled out of the ancient city and moved to Aleppo, it sent 5,000 jihadists racing from Raqqa and Deir ez-Zour to swoop on the lightly-defended town of Palmyra, nine months after ISIS was driven out by that same Spetsnaz unit.
The Russian comedown was especially mortifying. Putin had marked their initial victory over ISIS, with a triumphal, widely televised concert in Palmyra’s Roman ruins on May 5, under the baton of the distinguished conductor Valery Gergiev. Little did he expect the Islamic State to turn the tables just a few months hence.
While taking heavy casualties from heavy Russian bombardment by planes, helicopters and jets from the Admiral Kuznetsov carrier, ISIS relentlessly drove back into Palmyra.
The Spetsnaz defeat in Palmyra was too humiliating to be obscured by its success in Aleppo. Like the concert, the downfall was well noted by the Americans, Turks, Iranians and Syrians and gave ISIS a valuable shot in the arm.
Heads are bound to roll among Russian generals and colonels to pay for the Palmyra fiasco. At the same time, DEBKA Weekly’s military sources note that not all the blame should be laid at the Russian door. ISIS’ strengths and the ease with which it moves thousands of fighters at high speed between locations in Syria owe much to the US-Kurdish-Sunni militias’ assault on Raqqa grinding to a halt (more about which in a separate article).
When ISIS saw Raqqa was safe, it detached thousands of fighters for the return to Palmyra.
A spokesman for President Putin pointed the finger at Washington, blaming the second fall of Palmyra on America’s refusal to cooperate with Russia in Syria.
A Kremlin official added that some of the ISIS fighters who descended on Palmyra had come from Mosul. They were free to leave the beleaguered Iraqi city, because the US.-backed Iraqi army offensive launched for its recovery was stalled after less than two months.
Since most Russian elite troops are pinned down in Aleppo, none are left to spare at this time for a second campaign to recover Palmyra. But our Moscow sources report that the Kremlin has no intention of letting ISIS have the last word. As soon Spetsnaz finishes it mission in Aleppo, the elite troops will bend every effort with massive Russian air support to recover Palmyra once again.