Putin’s Special Forces in Syria

How Russian special operations activity in Syria was no longer so special

Member of Russian Special Operations Forces in Syria. Source: YouTubeArchived

On December 11, state news channel Russia 24 published a video on YouTube reportedly depicting Russian Special Forces, including their activity in Syria.

We asked our followers to help geolocate the video and were met with success:

The footage in the video could be geolocated to specific locations within Syria. One particular shot of a soldier on a rooftop overlooking a plain billowing with smoke, could be traced to the town of Hakoura in the north of the Al-Ghab Plain in Hama Governorate.

(Left) Shot of a soldier observing an airstrike being executed allowed to geoloate the footage in Google Earth (right).

In the footage, the soldier is facing east toward the mountains on the border of the Idlib Governorate. The soldier is looking over the bank of a river (outlined in cyan) with a road (outlined in green) running perpendicular to it. The scene of the smoke is the town of Al-Qahira (circled in purple) to the east, which is being shelled.

Google Earth footage shows the site of the strike and Russian special operations activites.

Russian and regime forces have been involved in offensives and bombing of Al-Qahira at a variety of points over the last year, reportedly targeting both ISIS and rebel positions.

https://twitter.com/AlalamChannel/status/784701778222784512

Video depicting reported Russian airstrikes against ISIS positions in Al-Qahira from March 2016 (Source)

Questions remain over the degree of Russian involvement in Syria, including their role in the final days of the siege of Aleppo. The Russian government has consistently given conflicting signals regarding the involvement of their troops in Syria. While they have not denied involvement in a security capacity, the nature of their involvement in regime offensives is murky. Recently, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov refuted reports of Chechen battalions being sent to Syria (read our piece investigating that claim), including the statement that Russian soldiers “are not taking part in ground operations in Syria.” However, the Wall Street Journal’s Thomas Grove points out that Russian special forces have in fact been operating “in Aleppo for almost two months.” Their “ground deployments,” says Grove, “show the importance of the battle to the Kremlin.”

A year after its announcement of involvement in Syria, Russia has seen success in stabilizing Assad’s position, including in ending the stalemate of the siege of Aleppo. Their success against ISIS, however, has not been as pronounced, as seen by the recent recapture of Palmyra by ISIS. And in the aftermath Russian activities there is evidence of thousands of civilians casualties as a result of continued airstrikes.


Maks Czuperski is Special Advisor to the President of the Atlantic Council and Director of the Atlantic Council’s DFRLab. Nicholas Yap is the Program Assistant in the Atlantic Council’s DFRLab. Faysal Itani, Senior Fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East also contributed to this snapshot.

Follow the latest developments in Syria, and Aleppo in particular, via the @DFRLab’s #BreakingAleppo.

For more in-depth analysis from our regional experts follow the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Or subscribe to SyriaSource.