As the Russian drawdown from Syria continues, more information continues to emerge about the forces Moscow had committed to shoring up the Assad regime. One telling aspect is how involved Russia’s Spetsnaz special forces were in the deployment. They were involved in two of their three core missions — reconnaissance and special security missions — but not the third, direct combat operations. The implication is that from the outset of the deployment, Moscow planned to minimize its exposure in this messy and bloody war.
As one would expect, there had been Russian special operations forces in Syria even before the formal Russian intervention in September 2015, largely to provide training for their Syrian counterparts and enhanced security for the Russian embassy and other facilities. The Zaslon force of the Foreign Intelligence Service, for example, deployed some of its men in their usual role of reinforcing regular embassy security.
As Russia began its deployment, Army Spetsnaz were involved in securing the Hmeimim airbase at Latakia and Tartus naval facility, and subsequently in providing some limited reconnaissance to assist in the targeting of airstrikes. The majority of targeting sets came from the Syrians (which may help explain the concentration not on Islamic State but on other rebel groups posing a more immediate threat to the regime), but Spetsnaz appear to have been involved in the fighting on the ground around Aleppo in January and February.
As more Russian forces arrived, so too did more Spetsnaz from GRU (military intelligence). At the peak of the deployment, there was an otryad (detachment, the Spetsnaz equivalent of a battalion) of 230-250 men, probably drawn from several units, including Naval Spetsnaz from the 431st Naval Reconnaissance Point (or brigade). There was also a team of operators from the newly formed Special Operations Command (KSO), mainly snipers (or rather counter-snipers) and scouts. Indeed, the Conflict Intelligence Team, a civilian group that investigates Russian operations abroad, uncovered the first death of a KSO operator in Syria: Captain Fedor Zhuravlev, whose death in November 2015 was eventually confirmed this March.
In Syria, the Spetsnaz appear to have engaged in or been prepared for two of their three primary missions. The core mission is battlefield reconnaissance, which in Syria especially involved guiding Russian artillery fires and air strikes.
The second mission is carrying out special security missions. From Zenit to the KSO, they were conducting force protection missions in an environment where the threat from terrorism was as great as conventional attack. Spetsnaz may have already been in Damascus as a contingency in the event of the regime collapsing. This would not be too surprising, as Zaslon is believed to have been tasked with “clean up” in Iraq in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein, removing documents or other materials Moscow did not want falling into U.S. hands. In other words, this would not be a new mission for the unit, if this is true.
However, the Spetsnaz as a whole are a very substantial corps, most not trained to the level one might expect in the West from “special forces.” Indeed, although now a minority, there are even conscripts in their ranks. While units such as the KSO are undoubtedly Tier One operators, in many ways the Spetsnaz are best thought of as expeditionary troops, well-trained light infantry a distinct cut above the regular Russian military, but nonetheless essentially deployed not in squads and platoons but battalions.
However, in a conversation before the drawdown was announced, one current officer made the point to me that “this is the kind of war for which the Spetsnaz have been training for thirty years” — he was referring to the Soviet experiences in Afghanistan, which very much set the tone for them. He continued, “if we wanted to fight the war [in Syria], we’d be using Spetsnaz.”
That they didn’t — that there was no willingness to deploy Spetsnaz in the kind of “tip of the spear” assault and interdiction missions for which they train — demonstrates that from the first Moscow had no intention of being sucked into the heart of the ground fighting. There was slight mission creep as T-90 tanks deployed to secure Latakia were used to spearhead some attacks, and the introduction of long-range 152mm MSTA-B howitzers necessitated more security units, too. However, the Spetsnaz were kept to a relative handful and focused on their reconnaissance and security missions.
There are still some Spetsnaz reconnaissance forces on the ground, and Russian press sources have spoken of more than 60 GRU and military advisors. However, Moscow seems to be looking to de-escalate its role in Syria, and the third face of the Spetsnaz, that of assault troops, is unlikely to be turned to the Middle East for the moment — at least if the Russians can help it.
Mark Galeotti is Professor of Global Affairs at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and director of its Initiative for the Study of Emerging Threats. His most recent book is Spetsnaz: Russia’s Special Forces (Osprey, 2015).