August 23, 2018

IntelBrief: Selling Russia’s Military in Syria

A welcome ceremony for Russian military personnel who returned from Syria at an airbase near the Russian city Voronezh, (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP).
  • On August 22 the Russian Defense Ministry reportedly claimed 63,012 Russian military personnel have seen combat in Syria.
  • The Defense Ministry video claimed that Russia tested 231 new weapons in Syria, essentially using the civil war as a promotional ad for future arms deals.
  • The Defense Ministry also stated that since September 2015, Russia has conducted at least 39,000 sorties, claiming to have killed over 86,000 militants.
  • Russia’s substantial military support has the Assad regime close to a military victory in Syria, but an uncertain and violent aftermath is likely.



.Russia has openly touted the performance of its weapons systems in Syria for years. It has used its sizable involvement in the Syrian civil war as a means to bolster the Assad regime and increase Moscow’s influence in the region—and to increase its arms sales. An August 22 video by the Russian Defense Ministry provided specific—though impossible to corroborate—details as to the scale of Russia’s military effort in Syria.

The video stated that Russia has ‘tested’ 231 new weapon systems, to include cruise missiles and air defense systems. In February 2018, Vladimir Shamanov, head of the Russian Duma's defense committee, stated that Russia had tested 200 new types of weapons in Syria. He went on to note that this had a direct and positive impact on Russian arms sales, saying ‘It's not an accident that today they are coming to us from many directions to purchase our weapons, including countries that are not our allies.’ In March 2018, Vladimir Kozhin, a senior aide to Russian President Putin for military issues, stated ‘It’s no wonder Middle Eastern countries want to buy Russian weapons that have proven to be effective.’

The August 22 video also notes that Russia has conducted over 39,000 sorties by its bombers and fighter jets, killing ‘86,000 militants.’ Russian air strikes have also killed thousands of civilians, including indiscriminate and repeated strikes on hospitals, shelters, and schools. Russia has categorically denied all civilian deaths by its air strikes, either labeling the dead as ‘terrorists’ or simply denying the deaths happened. Since January 2018, Russia had dramatically increased its air strikes in coordination with ground troops of the Assad regime, along with Iranian and Shite militias. The increased air strikes were crucial to the dramatic gains made by the Assad regime. Now Idlib is the sole remaining large-scale rebel-held territory—and will likely see an Assad regime offensive in the near future.

The Defense Ministry video stated that 63,012 Russian personnel have ‘received combat experience’ in Syria since 2015. It is unclear if this includes private military contractors (PMC) from firms such as Wagner. There was no information on casualties or deaths of Russian personnel serving in Syria. A February 7, 2018 raid led by Wager contractors on U.S. and rebel forces ended with an estimated 100 of them killed by U.S. artillery and air strikes. Even the Russian government acknowledged ‘several dozen’ Russians were killed in that raid, a rare acknowledgment of loses in its Syrian campaign.

Russian military support in Syria shows no sign of ebbing. President Putin said in December 2017 that he was ordering the withdrawal of most of Russian personnel from Syria; he later reversed that statement and said Russian personnel would stay there indefinitely. It is difficult to overstate how important Russia’s air support has been to the Assad regime. In September 2015, when Russia began air strikes in Syria, the Assad regime forces were battered and on the defensive. Three years later, the Assad regime is as close to a military ‘victory’ as it has ever been in the seven-year old civil war. Meanwhile, Russia has secured an influential foothold in the Middle East, increasing its arms sales across the region.


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