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This article uses a number of sources to provide a detailed account of the forces Moscow has committed to its operations in Syria. Coverage of the conflict by Russian state media currently provides many opportunities to identify specific elements participating in the Kremlin’s Syrian enterprise. For instance, broad coverage of Russian air operations allows the identification of nearly every plane the Kremlin has sent to Syria. These data have been cross-referenced with data available from earlier Russian publications (including specialist forums and social networks), making it possible to find and confirm the military units from which corresponding pieces of military equipment originate. The manpower of Russian forces has also been estimated by applying information on the standard structures of Russian military units to those units identified as being present in Syria.
The results suggest that the overall manpower of what could be called the Russian Expeditionary Corps in Syria has increased recently by approximately 25–35 per cent and can be currently estimated as between 3,500–4,100. This estimate excludes the crews of naval and cargo ships, and the transport aircraft involved in logistical support for the Russian combat forces in country. The list of Russian units and force elements involved in the Syrian operation, as well as hardware identified or estimated on the basis of the current study, is presented below.
The land forces committed to Russia’s Syrian operation include:
- A battalion tactical group of the 810th Marines Brigade (Sevastopol) which consists of the 542nd Marines Assault Battalion and the brigade’s command and control elements – approximately 580 men
- 162nd Separate Reconnaissance Battalion of the 7th Guards Air Assault Division (Novorossiysk) – approximately 320 men
- Reconnaissance battalion of the 74th Guards Motor Rifle Brigade (Yurga, Siberia) – approximately 440 men
- A battalion tactical group of the 27th Guards Motor Rifle Brigade (Moscow) consisting of two motor-rifle companies reinforced by one tank company – approximately 300 men
- One Spetsnaz battalion probably of the 3rd Spetsnaz Brigade (Tolyatti, Saratov Province); it is possible that this battalion originates from the 22nd Guards Spetsnaz Brigade (Rostov-upon-Don) – 230 men
- A sniper team of the ‘Senezh’ Brigade, SOF Command (Solnechnogorsk, Moscow Province) – unidentified number of men
- Six 2A65 Msta-B towed howitzers from the howitzer battery of the 8th Artillery Regiment (Simferopol, Crimea) – seventy men
- Eighteen 2A65 Msta-B howitzers from the howitzer battalion of the 120th Artillery Brigade (Kemerovo, Siberia) – 270 men
- Four 9A52 Smerch vehicles forming two MLRS batteries which might originate from the 439th Guards Rocket Artillery Brigade (Znamensk, Astrakhan Province) – 50–60 men
- Six TOS-1A Solntsepek heavy flamethrower vehicles from one heavy flamethrower company of the 20th NRBC regiment (Nizhniy Novgorod) – thirty men
- An electronic-warfare (EW) company with six R-330B UHF jamming stations, three R-378B HF jamming stations and six 1L29 SPR-2 Rtut-B radio-proximity-fuse jamming/initiation stations, most probably from the 64th Motor Rifle Brigade (Khabarovsk) – approximately sixty men
- A long-range jamming (EW) company most likely of the 17th EW Brigade (Nizhneudinsk, Irkutsk Province) with one set (two vehicles) of 1RL257 Krasukha-4 aviation fire-control radar-jamming stations – approximately twenty men.
The overall size of the Russian force’s land component in Syria appears to be approximately 2,400 men. There are signs that Russian artillery assets are already involved on an ad hoc basis in providing fire support for the Syrian army 4th Assault Corps’ operations near Aleppo and there are some reports of Russian artillery fire near Homs and Hama.
The air-forces elements committed in Syria include:
- Four Su-30SM heavy fighters of the 120th Mixed Air Regiment (Domna air base, Chita; all four aircraft positively identified with tail numbers ‘26, 27, 28, 29 red’)
- Four Su-34 bombers of the 47th Mixed Air Regiment (Buturlinovka, Voronezh Province; all four aircraft positively identified with tail numbers ‘21, 22, 25, 27 red’)
- Potentially between twenty-four and thirty Su-24M and Su-24M2 bombers (equivalent to the Tornado-GR) originating from the 2nd Guards Bomber Regiment (Shagol air base, Chelyabinsk; seven aircraft positively identified with tail numbers ‘04, 05, 08, 16, 25, 26, 27 white’) and 277th Bomber Regiment (Khurba air base, Komsomolsk-upon-Amur; five aircraft positively identified with tail numbers ‘71, 72, 74, 75, 76 white’)
- Ten Su-25SM attack aircraft and two Su-25UB combat trainers of the 960th Attack Air Regiment (Primorsko-Akhtarsk, Krasnodar Province; all twelve aircraft positively identified – Su-25SM tail numbers ‘21, 22, 24, 29 red’ in brown-green-blue tri-colour camouflage scheme, and ‘25, 27, 28, 30, 31, 32 red’ in grey livery, and Su-25UB tail numbers ‘44, 53 red’)
- Twelve Mi-24PN gunship helicopters and two Mi-8AMTSh transport – air-support helicopters of the 113th Combat Helicopter Regiment (Novosibirsk; all fourteen helicopters positively identified – Mi-24PN tail numbers ‘03, 13, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 30, 34, 36, 37, 40 yellow’, and Mi-8AMTSh tail numbers ‘212, 252 yellow’)
- Up to eight Mi-28N attack helicopters – most probably originating from the 2nd Squadron, 487th Helicopter Regiment (Budenovsk, Stavropol Province)
- One Il-22M airborne command post/relay aircraft (registration number RA 75917) from the 144th AWACS Regiment (Ivanovo)
- One or two Il-20M signals intelligence/jamming aircraft (tail numbers are not yet identified) of the 257th Mixed Air Regiment (Khabarovsk); there are some unconfirmed reports that one Il-20M aircraft has been operating from the Al-Takaddum air base near Baghdad in Iraq which might be one of the two aircraft deployed by the Russian Air-Space Forces to Syria
- Six 96K6 Pantsyr-S1 (SA-22) vehicles forming one air-defence battery with logistics elements, probably originating from the 1537th Air Defence Regiment (Novorossiysk) – approximately ninety-five men
- Airfield-logistics battalion – 360–80 men
- Airfield-logistics company (helicopter) – 90–110 men
- Communications and air-traffic-control battalion – 240–70 men.
The overall manpower of the Russian air component in Syria appears to be 1,200–350 men, including 150–80 pilots, 280 aviation technicians, 690–760 men in aviation support and around 100 men in the air-defence battery. Air-traffic-control hardware and airfield support elements recently spotted aboard Russian ships in the Bosporus heading for Syria suggest that the Russian command might be considering the establishment of another air base in addition to the main Khmeimim air base which is adjacent to Bassel Al-Assad international airport. Although the majority of Russian air strikes originated from Khmeimim until recently, Il-20M, Il-22M and Mi-28 helicopters never used it as their operational base. However, there have been independent reports from both Russian and foreign sources referring to the presence of the Russian Il-20/Il-22 and Mi-28 in Syria. So these planes and helicopters most probably operate from unidentified alternative bases.
Elements of the air component started arriving in Syria in the second half of September and immediately began reconnaissance and familiarisation flights over Syria. It is noteworthy that during that period and until approximately 7 October, after the Russian deployment had been officially announced and Russian air strikes had begun, Russian aircraft flew with their national insignia painted over. This changed after 7 October when Russian insignia were restored on the combat jets. Meanwhile Russian helicopters continue to fly over Syria without any national insignia. A single Mi-8AMTSh ‘212 red’ is the only helicopter carrying the Russian ’Red Star’ insignia, thus being an exception to an otherwise common practice.
As of 8 November, the Russian naval squadron operating near the Syrian coast consisted of the following combat ships:
- Three ships of the 30th Division of surface combatants (Sevastopol, Black Sea Fleet) including the Slava-class/Project 1164 Moskva missile cruiser (hull number 121), the Krivak-class/ Project 1135 frigate Pytliviy (808) and Kashin–class/ Project 01090 destroyer Smetliviy (810)
- One Nanuchka III-class/Project 12341 missile ship of the 166th Squadron of small missile ships (Novorossiysk, Black Sea Fleet), the Mirazh (617)
- One Tarantul-III-class/Project 12411 missile boat of the 295th Squadron of missile boats (part of the 41st Brigade of missile boats, Sevastopol), R-109 (952)
- One intelligence-gathering ship of the 72nd OSNAZ Squadron of intelligence-gathering ships (Baltiysk, Baltic Fleet), the Vasiliy Tatischev (SSV-231)
- The 250th Squadron of surface ships (Makhachkala, Caspian Sea Flotilla) delivered the 3M14 Kalibr-NK cruise-missile strike from the Caspian Sea – four missile corvettes participated including one Project 11661K ship, the Dagestan (693); and three Project 21631 ships, the Grad Sviyazhsk (021), Uglich (022) and Velikiy Ustyug (023).
Naval forces (that is, their combat element, as the transport/supply element is discussed separately) are deployed near Syria with a dual role. Firstly, they are intended to deter potential Western interference in Russia’s Syrian enterprise. Secondly, they aim to provide additional signals intelligence (SIGINT) capabilities and powerful long-range air-defence coverage to prevent any establishment of a ‘no-fly zone’ over the north of Syria. The Moskva cruiser, armed with S-300F Fort/SS-N-6 long-range air-defence system serves the latter purpose, while the Vasiliy Tatischev intelligence-gathering ship contributes to SIGINT-gathering operations, alongside Il-20M aircraft. The Moskva cruiser carries one S-300F battery capable of engaging six targets and has a capacity of sixty-four surface-to-air missiles. It is equivalent to the land-based S-300P/SA-10 system.
The transport assets committed to the Syrian operation include:
- At least three An-124 Condor heavy transport aircraft of the 566th Air Transport Regiment (Sescha air base, Bryansk; three aircraft have been positively identified with registration numbers RA-82035, RA-82039 and RA-82040)
- Unidentified number of Il-76 Candid transport planes of the 12th Transport Air Division (Tver)
- At least two Il-78 air tankers of the 8th Air Tanker Regiment (Tver)
- Six amphibious ships of the 197th Brigade of amphibious ships (Sevastopol, Black Sea Fleet) including two Alligator-class/Project 1171, the Saratov (hull number 150) and Nikolay Filchenkov (152); and four Ropucha-class/Project 775, the Novocherkassk (142), Azov (151), Yamal (156) and Tsezar Kunikov (158)
- One amphibious ship of the 121st Brigade of amphibious ships (Severomorsk, Northern Fleet), the Ropucha-class/Project 775 Aleksandr Otrakovskiy (031)
- One amphibious ship of the 71st Brigade of amphibious ships (Baltiysk, Baltic Fleet), the Ropucha-class/Project 775 Korolev (130)
- At least five to six transport ships of the 205th Squadron of auxiliary ships (Novorossiysk, Black Sea Fleet), the KIL-158 hulk ship, PM-56 repair ship (with voluminous holds); and ships recently bought by the Russian navy from foreign owners, including the already-identified Dvinitsa-50 (general cargo vessel, the former Alikan Deval registered in Turkey), Vologda-50 (general cargo vessel, the former Dadali, Turkey), Kazan-60 (general cargo/refrigerator vessel, the former Georgiy Agafonov, Ukraine which was bought by a suspicious Mongolian company, renamed Geo, then re-sold to the Russian navy) and Kyzyl-60 (unidentified previous name but the same type as Kazan-60)
- One special transport ship of the 432nd Squadron of auxiliary ships (Severomorsk, Northern Fleet), the Yauza which is subordinated to the 12th GUMO, the nuclear-weapons directorate of the Russian Ministry of Defence (MoD)
- Seven and probably up to sixteen chartered cargo vessels including the Atlantic Prodigy (container ship, registered in Antigua and Barbuda); UCF6 (general cargo vessel, formerly the Zhejiang Hengyu 2 until 2014 which is now owned by the Russian company United Fleet and registered in Moldova); Kareem R (general cargo vessel, previously the Pioneer Kazakhstana, Cambodia); Transfair (general cargo vessel, previously the Captain Rashad, Panama); NS Concord (oil-products tanker owned by the Russian company Sovkomflot and registered in Liberia); Aleksandr Tkachenko (the ‘roll on-roll off’ (RO-RO) ferry, which until recently served the ferry lane from mainland Russia to Crimea); and Novorossiysk RO-RO/passenger ship (previously the Ulusoy-1, then Soy-1 between July and November 2014, Palau)
- Unidentified logistics and cargo-handling battalion (Tartus) – 300–50 men.
Delivery of cargo directly associated with the current Russian deployment to Syria started in ?? this year, when the frequency of Russian landing ships passing through the Turkish Straits almost doubled compared with the previous, normal level. It was carried out almost exclusively by sea until early September, when transport aircraft joined the operation. The naval part of Russia’s supply operation to Syria is unofficially referred to as the ‘Syrian Express’. It originates in the sea ports of Novorossyisk (Russia) and, surprisingly, Oktyabrsk (Ukraine), and terminates in Tartus and Latakia in Syria. The logistical requirements of the Russian forces in Syria (and possibly enhanced military supply efforts to President Bashar Al-Assad’s government) is so high that the Russian landing ships which operated the ‘Syrian Express’ are now no longer sufficient. Therefore, the Russian navy has covertly bought eight to ten general-purpose cargo vessels from foreign owners and converted them into naval auxiliary transports (four of them are already positively identified and listed here). The commercial vessels involved in transportation of Russian military cargo to Syria switch off their automatic identification system (AIS) responders while approaching Syria or Novorossiysk as is common Russian practice. This is one of the tell-tale signs which allow outsiders to identify vessels participating in the ‘Syrian Express’.
The aerial part of the Russian supply operation is served by An-124 and Il-76 cargo planes departing from Krymsk and Mozdok air bases in southern Russia. Some loads are delivered by An-124 aircraft to Latakia, originating in Novosibirsk (Siberia). Tu-154 and Il-62M passenger planes operated by the Russian MoD are involved on an ad hoc basis in ferrying high-ranked officials between Russia and Syria. One notable example is Bashar Al-Assad himself who used a Russian MoD Il-62M aircraft to fly to Moscow for his snap visit in October and to return back to Syria afterwards.
Dr Igor Sutyagin
Senior Research Fellow, Russian Studies, RUSI.