The New York Times reports: Russia’s war in Syria is slowly fading from view here, even as events on the ground give every indication that Russian forces remain heavily engaged.
President Vladimir V. Putin, when he talks about it at all, tends to refer to Syria as an accomplished victory, yet hedges a bit. “We did indeed withdraw a substantial portion of our forces,” Mr. Putin said in response to a question on his live national call-in show on Thursday. “But we made sure that after our withdrawal, the Syrian Army would be in a fit state to carry out serious offensives itself, with our remaining forces’ support.”
That support, according to numerous military analysts and diplomatic sources, amounts to virtually the same level of engagement since Russia first deployed in Syria in September. The tenor has changed, however. Syria is gradually becoming another more secretive, hybrid war of the sort that fits into Mr. Putin’s comfort zone, they said.
Russia’s agenda in Syria at the moment is a tightrope act. It wants to keep enough forces engaged in Syria to ensure it can influence any political transition, so that Damascus remains a client. Yet, it does not want to become visibly mired in a messy, prolonged war, as American officials predicted it would.
“The level of Russian involvement in Syria is relatively high, and includes a wide range of assistance to the Syrian government forces,” said Mikhail Barabanov, a senior research fellow at the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies.
He and others suggested that Russia was providing close air support, including attack helicopters on the battlefield; high-precision strikes with missiles like the short-range Iskander; artillery support; special forces backup; intelligence; targeting; electronic warfare and, as seen recently in Palmyra, mine clearance.
Although the bulk of the fighter jets flew home to great fanfare, they were replaced by attack helicopters that are less susceptible to the sandstorms that blow this time of year. [Continue reading…]