How Russian special forces are shaping the fight in Syria

March 30th, 2016  |  Source: Washington Post

The troops that recently recaptured Palmyra, Syria, from the Islamic State included Syrian, Iranian and Hezbollah forces. And on Monday, Russian officials said there was another group that contributed to the victory: Russia’s elite special forces, also known as Spetsnaz.

Russian troops are nothing new to the Syrian ground war. Since their arrival in September, the Russians have used naval infantry to secure a key port in Tartus and the perimeter of an airfield in Latakia. But Russian special forces operating on the front — aside from a small number of artillery and tank units — have remained mostly out of the public eye.

With the seizure of Palmyra, though, that is no longer the case. Russian officials announced Monday that Palmyra was “liberated with participation of Spetsnaz and military advisers.” The Islamic State took Palmyra in May and shortly after partially destroyed a number of the city’s historic sites.

Russian special forces have come to the forefront of Russia’s Syria narrative because the battle for Palmyra plays directly into the anti-Islamic State rhetoric that Russia used as a pretense to initially intervene, said Chris Kozak, a research analyst at the Institute of the Study of War.

[Here’s what an advanced Russian tank looks like after getting hit with a U.S.-made missile]

Involvement of Russian special forces in Palmyra “looks great,” Kozak said. “Whereas their involvement against opposition groups in Aleppo or Latakia doesn’t fit the narrative.”

It is unclear exactly when Russian special forces began operating in Syria, though prior to Russia’s intervention there, Russian troops had long helped advise and train Syrian forces. According to Michael Kofman, an analyst at CNA who focuses on Russian military operations, Russia currently operates several special forces units in Syria, Zaslon, KSO and detachments of reconnaissance teams.

Part of the Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, Zaslon is a highly secretive detachment often responsible for security in high-threat areas. KSO is Russia’s equivalent to the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command and was formed within the past few years.

“Russian special forces are doing a lot of the targeting for Russian airstrikes and a lot of advising for the Syrians,” Kofman said, adding that they provide most of the intelligence on the ground for Russian airpower and help run Syrian operations.

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