Moscow’s Game of Poker – Russian Military Intervention in Syria, 2015-2017
Author Tom Cooper is an Austrian aerial warfare analyst and historian. What makes him qualified to author a book on a very non-linear and confusing chapter of history is the vast network of contacts he garnered throughout his time in the Middle East and Africa. He has authored/co-authored about 60 books, over 1,000 articles, and the Helion Series Editor for Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, Middle East, and Technology at War. When someone with Tom’s credentials writes a book about a topic that you’re interested in reading, you pick up the book and prepare to be educated. He is also the talented artist for the color profiles (pp i-xiv).
Moscow’s Game of Poker – Russian Military Intervention in Syria, 2015-2017 is a revised edition (the original edition, Middle East @ War No. 14, was published in November 2018; ISBN 9781912390373 and featured a Su-34, Bort 27 Red, and MiG 23 on its cover).
According to Helion, “This revised edition of Moscow’s Game of Poker now includes over 130 full colour photographs, maps and specially commissioned colour artworks of vehicles, aircraft and combatants.”
The book is presented logically, complete with photographs, maps, tables, color profiles, leaders of note, etc composing the following seven chapters:
- Geo-Strategic Backgrounds
- Tools of War
- Into Action
- March on Aleppo
- Decisive Battle
- Russian Dominance
This book picks up where his previous book, Syrian Conflagration – The Syrian Civil War, 2011-2013, left off. At the end of 2013, the future of President Bashar Hafez al-Assad’s government wasn’t assured. What had started as a non-sectarian conflict against the government had evolved into sectarian violence and Assad’s government was propped up and supplied by Iran. The Free Syrian Army (FSyA) fought the Syrian Arab Army and Air Force (SyAA and SyAAF). Other countries weighed in with their interests, with conflicting alliances and goals that all but assured that chaos ensued. Hojatolesalm Mahdi Taeb, one of the key planners of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force (IRGC-QF) stated, “Syria is the 35th province of Iran and is a strategic province for us.”
Author Tom Cooper begins this book with, “On 15 March 2018, the civil war in Syria entered its seventh year. This extremely brutal and bloody conflict had long been far more than ‘just’ a ‘civil war’: it was a war with geo-strategic dimensions, the effects of which could be felt all over the world.”
In early 2015, Iran’s influence, military training, arms, and combat forces were being countered to the point that Assad needed further assistance. Russian President Vladimir Putin answered the call, despite the two countries on-again, off-again relationship. President Putin, always an opportunist, was perhaps trying to get back on the international stage after being shunned for the Russian invasion of the Ukraine in 2014, trying to shift attention from unpopular domestic economic realities, and subscribing to the belief that Russia was always in a continuous proxy war with the United States, abandoned Russia’s 30-year absence from Syria and decided to support Assad.
In 2015, Russia decided to throw its hat into the ring on Assad’s side. Author Tom Cooper’s title for the book came from the following text, “Moscow thus entered a long-term gamble, an outright game of poker: it put its bet on a factor in need of massive financial, logistical, and military commitment for years to come, without a certain outcome.” Russia used Article 2(4) of the UN Charter dictating that all the states that are members of the UN shall refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any other member state. Any use of military force by one member state against another member state is illegal. There are three exceptions; military action based on “principle of intervention upon invitation” was the clause used by Russia to assist Syria. The question that Syria’s elections were valid are moot. Russia officially offered assistance to Syria on 30 September 2015, although Russians first began arriving on 1-2 September 2015.
As Tom Cooper is an aviation expert, it is no surprise that the bulk of the book focuses on air power. His background on the Russian air forces is as impressive as his earlier work on the Syrian Arab Air Force. The Russian Aerospace Forces, also called the Russian Air and Space Forces is known as the Vozdushno-kosmicheskiye sily, or VKS (ВКС in Russian) became its own branch on 1 August 2015 (this was a merger of the Russian Air Force (VVS) and Aerospace Defence Forces (VVKO).
The timing was perfect for Russia to test its new branch; it was an incredible reach for a non-expeditionary mindset, complete with its logistical challenges. For example, most military pilots previously logged in 20-40 hours of continuation training annually; by the end of the first year of combat operations, most pilots were logging in between 130-180 hours. Mission training and C2 (command and control) remained largely a historical anomaly with higher headquarters doing most of the planning. A Russian piloted summed it up, “We drop weapons only on the coordinates that come from the headquarters and, therefore, have already been clarified. Therefore, if I strike, I am sure: this is a blow to terrorists.”
This is perhaps the one of the biggest takeaways from this book. The Russian pilots dropped their ordnance on targets with information and intelligence that was between 12 and 48 hours old. The other enlightening mission parameter is that most of the strikes were against FSyA and non-IRGC affiliated groups, of which there were over 7,000 armed groups fighting against the Damascus government. The claimed fundamentalist terrorist organizations (ISIL, al Qaeda, etc, colloquially named Daesh, were not initially targeted). The targets were clearly any group not affiliated with Assad or the Iranians.
The Assad government shared only intelligence it wanted the Russians to know. A vast majority of the targets, plus the mission planning and limitation of weapon tactics and training, were civilian population centers and infrastructure designed to punish civilians for harboring anti-government forces. The Russian military and, particularly, the VKS, were instrumental in interdicting supply lines and, in conjunction with IGRC forces, systematically sealing off and destroying insurgent groups.
Russia’s support for Assad was tepid at best, and an argument could be made that Russia was testing its weapons, tactics and doctrine in Syria. The Russian Navy was active, including the aircraft carrier Kuznetsov and the guided missile cruiser Moskva, that was later sunk by Ukrainian forces in 2022. Russian bombers including the Tu-22, Tu-160, and the venerable Tu-95 were flown from Russian and Iranian (until Iranian protests made them leave) airfields. Russian response to Deash (the purported main terrorist threat for the deployment) was slow and mainly untouched. Tom Cooper summed it up concisely, “It is notable that the contemporary reactions of the Putin government, and those of the HQ GRF, were rather slow, reluctant, and frequently left the impression that they were keen to let their Syrian and Iranian allies lose – along the lines of the motto, ‘don’t tell me I didn’t tell you.’”
Russia announced withdrawing its forces for the third time in December 2017 since the Putin government announced that Syria had been “completely liberated” of extremists. Despite the “withdrawal” Russia’s Ministry of Defense (MOD) planned to form permanent bases at the Tartus naval facility and the nearby Hmeimim air base.
While the book’s title is Moscow’s Game of Poker – Russian Military Intervention in Syria, 2015-2017, the book covers through 2018, and Russia is still actively engaged in Syria as of this review. As of 2018, there are several conclusions to the Russian involvement in Syria:
- Russian airpower greatly assisted the IRGC-QF in dominating the Syrian battlefield and tilt the balance in support of Assad’s government.
- Syria became the testing ground for “re-established Russian military might”.
- The VKS reportedly exposed 80% of its tactical aviation crews, and up to 95% of its army aviation troops to combat
- The VKS learned about expeditionary operations and network-centric warfare.
- Fighting terrorists as an “away game” is much better than “at home” (this is particularly ironical as the Soviet Union, then Russia spent decades fermenting radical Islamic terrorism).
- The Russian military need not dominate the battlefield and win; the political maneuvering and propaganda, both in Russia and on the world stage is key and crucial. Russia created the impression that they were more effective than all the Western powers in the War in Terror; the Russians “won” the war.
The Russian playbook is being used again in the current conflict in Ukraine. One of the Russian commanders in Syria (April – December 2017), then Colonel General Sergey Surovikin, the “Butcher of Syria” was named by Putin as the overall commander of Russia’s special military operation. General Surovikin “showed callous disregard for the lives of roughly 3 million civilians in the area (Idlib, Syria)”, noted the Human Rights Watch. He is using the same tactics in Ukraine by targeting civilian infrastructure.
This book is a boon for modelers and has a plethora of color photographs for modelers with ground, air, and naval forces. The color profiles alone cover fourteen pages and include examples of all the Russian aircraft operated in Syria, to include Russia’s prototype Sukhoi T-50 PAK-FA (officially designated the Su-57 in December 2017, two of these aircraft spent a week in Syria), the Tu-214R, Beriev A-50U, Kamov Ka-31, along with Mi-24, Mi-28, Su-22, Su-24, Su-25, Su-27, Su-33, Su-34, Su-35, Mig-29, Tu-22, and Tu-95. AFVs include the BTR-82, T-90 and BRDM-2 with ZU-23-2. Color photographs throughout will also be useful to modelers.
Tom Cooper’s last paragraph sums up Moscow’s Game of Poker – Russian Military Intervention in Syria, 2015-2017,
“Precisely this is the actual tragedy of the Middle East – and Syria in particular. Ultimately, Moscow’s game of poker in Syria is as doomed to fail as dozens of Western interventions in this part of the world over the last 100 years: because it failed to remove any of the principal reasons for the crisis and brought prospects of a better future for the majority of the local population, it also brought no promise of lasting peace.”
Profuse thanks to Casemate (https://www.casematepublishers.com) and IPMS-USA for providing the review sample.