By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
A recent report says that 63,012 Russian personnel served in Syria since 2015 when Russia intervened significantly to support the regime of Bashar al-Assad. This has been tweeted and shared as if these are huge numbers or some smoking gun regarding Russian involvement. But anyone paying attention over the last few years in Syria should not be surprised.
Let’s look at what the numbers reveal: 25,738 officers and 434 generals served.
In addition 4,349 artillery and rocket specialists, Russia’s ministry of defense said. The Russian air force carried out 39,000 missions striking 86,000 enemies and destroying 121,466 targets. Of particular interest is that Syria became a testing ground for weapons. “231 types of modern weaponry,” according to a report.
We don’t have all the details on how many contractors served in Syria, but there are addition numbers there as well.
Also we don’t know exactly how the campaign unfolded. For instance in December 2017 a total of 48,000 military personnel had taken part in Syria.
Now, what does that mean? It means that between 2015 and December 2017 there were 48,000 and then seven months later another 15,000 had served. That’s a big increase. But didn’t Russia announce it was withdrawing soldiers in December 2017? it also said it was beginning that withdrawal in January 2017? So 2,100 different soldiers served a month in 2018?
Russia intervened in a major way in September 2015. So for 27 months there were 48,000 military personnel in Syria. That’s 1,777 a month on average. So actually the numbers increased in 2018 to 2,100? That’s odd.
The number of Russian personnel serving tours in Syria appear to have increased in 2018
Now let’s look at some comparisons. Between 2001 and 2015, 2.77 million service members served in deployments. That’s around 16,488 a month over those years.
Now let’s look at just the last four years of Operation Inherent Resolve. “At its height there were an estimated 5,000 U.S. military personnel in Iraq and in recent months reports have indicated another 2,000 U.S. military personnel in Syria,” one report notes. Units were rotated in and out at different intervals, for instance the 10th Mountain was scheduled for a 9 month tour. Let’s say between 10-20,000 a year served in rotations in Iraq and Syria between 2016 and 2018, when the war was at its height. The numbers could easily reach 45,000 or more personnel. So is Russia’s role in Syria so large?
Let’s look at airstrikes as well. In 2018 the US dropped 2,911 munitions in Afghanistan.
The total number of airstrikes in Iraq and Syria is not entirely clear. “As of Aug. 9, 2017, the Coalition has conducted 13,331 strikes in Iraq, and 11,235 strikes in Syria, for a total of 24,566 strikes total in support of Operation Inherent Resolve,” the Coalition says.
The US carried out 24,566 strikes in Syria and Iraq in three years, the Russians carried out 39,000 in Syria in three years
So that’s 24,566 in three years of war (August 2014-August 2017). Russia flew 39,000 sorties in basically the same amount of time (September 2015 to August 2018). By July 2017 the US also said it had killed 60-70,000 ISIS members. So Russia flew more sorties and claims to have killed more, but the numbers are not so dissimilar.
Of course there are differences in tactics between the two countries and allegations about civilian casualties and the agenda of the different missions. But by the numbers, what the Russian numbers tell us is not that extraordinary.
Another criticism Russia has faced in Syria is the use of “shadowy mercenaries” or contractors. In February 2018 the US even allegedly killed dozens, or hundreds, of “Russian mercenaries” in a battle near Deir ez-Zor. But Russia’s use of contractors is not that different than what the US has also been doing in the region.
In 2016 in Afghanistan contractors outnumbered US personnel by 3 to 1: “The latest figures available, for the first few months of 2016, show nearly 29,000 defense contractors still in Afghanistan, with fewer than 9,000 U.S. troops stationed there. About two-thirds of the contractors were foreign nationals, but only about 10 percent were providing security services.” So many of them are not involved in security or fighting. Another report noted that there were 2,500 defense contractors in Iraq alongside 4,000 US troops in 2016. US publications have accused the US of being “addicted” to mercenaries and that they were the “silent majority” of Obama’s military up until 2016. By May 2016 Foreign Policy claimed there were 7,773 contractors in Iraq. In Syria one group that employed Russians called Wagner was reported to have up to 5,000 men.
Once again the tasks of Russian contractors might be different than US contractors. Where the US might contract out training or logistics, Russia might send fighters. Certainly the scant evidence points to the fact that Russia’s contractors were more than just cooks and trainers. But the larger point is that the stories about Russia’s role in Syria, painting at as either larger than it was or somehow surprising in its scope is wrong. 50,000 Americans served in Vietnam between 1960 and 1964 when it was considered a minor police action of advise and assist. Less than 400 Americans had been killed by that point. So it’s relatively easy to have large numbers of troops in a country when you are cycling them in and out on tours.
However Russia’s role in Syria may have been a bit different in that it wanted some soldiers to get combat experience in Syria. Either way a look at the numbers doesn’t reveal that the overall number of Russians in Syria was surprising given its commitment. But some questions are unclear, such as why the numbers appear to have increased more recently.