The Russian marine forces which began landing in Syria this week (see separate article) are assigned with four primary operational missions, DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources report.
1. To stabilize Syrian President Assad’s regime.
Bashar Assad has proven time and again during the nearly five-year war Syrian war that he has nine lives: Whenever his situation looks desperate and his regime teeters on the brink of collapse, he is able to climb back on his feet and grab a central role, both on the domestic front and in the international arena.
This time, his survivability is demonstrated strongly by the grim anomaly of the United States and Europe struggling practically and morally with the Syrian refugee issue, whereas the Syrian president has shown no concern for the millions of his citizens dispossessed by a vicious war.
Despite this extreme callousness, he has strangely enough won full military backing from the No. 2 global power.
It is not by chance that not a single Syrian refugee has fled east towards Russia, knowing that its doors would be shut against them. Rather, they have all turned in the opposite direction, towards Western Europe.
Arrival imminent of 1,300-1,500 Russian marines for rapid response
It must be said Assad’s situation has been suddenly enhanced by Russia’s military intervention. He no longer looks like the embattled ruler, barely held up by Iran’s military and Hizballah crutch, but has grown in stature and importance.
But in the immediate term, his improved fortunes hinge heavily on his army’s military situation being stabilized on all its warfronts. And that’s where the Russian marines come in.
DEBKA Weekly reports that, by the coming weekend, some 1,300-1500 marines are due to land in Syria. They will move into the operational base the Russian engineering corps built for them by in Jablah, next to the Syrian Mediterranean port Latakia.
Runways have been built for takeoffs and landings, and a mobile Russian air control tower put in position. It is fitted with electronic measures for blocking outside monitoring, jamming or disruptions that might hold up the rapid response of Russian marines, when they need to be flown by helicopter to prop up a front on the verge of collapse.
Russian-Iranian military liaison set up last month
2. Creation of new pro-Iranian buffer force
Iran has been assigned a special military role in the Russian plan. Our military sources report that a mobile pro-Iranian force was set up in the last few days, with the special task of rushing first to any front in trouble as a sort of “buffer force.” If this first-aid action is inadequate, the Russian marines will step up.
Ilyushin IL-76 cargo planes, belonging to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, have been making daily landings at the Mezze Airbase at Damascus airport. They are ferrying in the thousands of Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani Shiite fighters for manning the new “buffer force.”
This Iranian airlift’s correlation with the Russian marines’ landing attests to the total sync in the Syrian arena between the Russian General Staff and the Iranian al-Qods Brigades and its chief, Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
That was the purpose of Soleimani’s visit to Moscow in the last week of August, at the head of a big delegation from the Brigades. The Iranian officers were also then chosen for service as liaison officers with the Russian forces in Syria.
3. Cornering North Caucasian and Chechen extremists
A chance to cut down Chechen jihadis is not to be missed by Moscow. The Russian marines, while bolstering Assad’s army, will also seek out and destroy the hundreds of Chechen and North Caucasian extremists who have joined up to fight the Damascus regime under assorted flags, ISIS, the Nusra Front and a number of secular Syrian rebel groups. The Russia Federal Security Service has estimated that about 1,500 Russian citizens are currently fighting with Syrian opposition groups, and are believed to be largest contingent of foreigners fighting in the Syrian civil war.
At least 57 Chechens were reported to have been killed in Aleppo alone.
Chechen militants bring with them Russian-made, shoulder-fired SA-7 anti-aircraft missiles that could be used to target civilian commercial airliners. Like the Europeans, Moscow too fears they will return spoiling for terrorist action at home.
High combat skills of Russian extremist fighters
Abu Omar al-Chechen, leader of the “Brigade of Martyrs,” has said “Jihad needs many things. Firstly it needs money. Much is dependent on money today for jihad. [We] have missed many chances, but truly today there is a chance to establish an Islamic state on earth”.
The Chechen-led Jaish al-Muhaijireen wal-Ansar, which was said to be cooperating with the al-Nusra Front, is one of the leading recruiters of radical fighters in the Russian Federation. Its online forum provided a convenient access route via Turkey that was to serve a large influx of fighters joining ISIS.
Opposition combatants have high praise for the fighting skills the Russian extremists honed in the First and Second Chechen Wars against the Russian army and further developed in the recent spillover of violent jihadism into the Muslim populations of their neighbors, Ingushetia, Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria.
Russian marines are directed to hit Syrian rebel groups when they include fighters from Chechnya and the Caucasus. This is tantamount to a blanket license to go for any and every Syrian rebel group, not just the Islamic State and the Al-Qaeda- affiliated Nusra Front.
4. Focus on northern front
The Russian forces are directed to devote a special effort to releasing rebel pressure on Aleppo, Syria’s second city, commercial center and gateway to the north, in view of three considerations, outlined here by DEBKA Weekly’s military sources:
First, a Russian military takeover of Aleppo would restore Assad’s control of the north, including the province of Idlib. Purging rebels from the Aleppo region and Idlib would, in turn, remove the Nusra-led rebels’ threat to Latakia, the important port city, which is the core of Assad’s political power. The Russian forces in Syria have made their provisional home base nearby.
Relieving Latakia of danger would also lighten the threat to the Alawite Mountains, the Assad clan’s homeland. This coastal mountain range, on average 32 km wide and elevation of 1,200 m, runs north to south along the coastal plain in northwestern Syria. Its tallest peak, Nabi Yunis, 1,562 meters high, looms over Latakia from the east
Theses coastal mountains hold most of Syria’s minority Alawi population (around 2 million, and one-tenth of the total population).
Russian troops to within range of Turkish-based US air units
Second, Moscow has adopted Assad’s generic term of “terrorists” for all the regime’s enemies. It applies not only to the Islamist State, but the entire range of rebel groups. In particular, the Russians are preparing to attack the Nusra Front, a branch of Al Qaeda, which is concentrated mainly in the north.
Finally, Russia’s military operations will advance up to the border of southern Turkey, fetching up at a point less than 150 km from this NATO member’s Incirlik air base, which serves US warplanes attacking ISIS targets in Syria, and less than 140 kilometers from the American military intelligence command at Gaziantep.