It has become increasingly clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement that Russian forces would begin a withdrawal from Syria was nothing more than a ruse. Instead of withdrawing forces, Putin has simply replaced his fighter aircraft with more maneuverable helicopter gunships.
The Kremlin’s March 14 announcement that Russian forces in Syria would begin to return home came as a surprise. Since around November 2015, the Russian intervention in Syria was growing and engaging in increasingly diverse operations in an effort to shore up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian dictator’s fall was being widely predicted in the summer of 2015 as opposition forces continued to gain ground, however, that all changed when Putin, in conjunction with Iran and its proxy terrorist force Hezbollah, sent in forces which quickly outmatched the poorly trained and equipped rebels.
Just days after the withdrawal announcement, reports claimed that Russian strike aircraft were leaving their base in Latakia and returning home. The removal came as a shock to most, and for some, it was a sign that a ceasefire, or “cessation of hostilities” as it was being termed by the international powers, could be a success.
Justin Bronk, a fellow at the Royal United Services Institute specializing in combat air power, noted in a piece for Al-Jazeera Thursday that in reality, the strike aircraft were in fact replaced with a larger, more capable force of helicopter gunships.
“What has changed is the force mix and capabilities Russia is now deploying to support President Bashar al-Assad’s war effort,” said Bronk. “The combat-proven Mi-35 Hind helicopter gunship detachment has seen its numbers increased, while the more modern Mi-28 Havoc and state-of-the-art Ka-52 Alligator have joined the fight for the first time.”
According to Bronk, the withdrawal of some aircraft and deployment of helicopter gunships shows a change in Russia’s objectives.
Now that Putin has pounded the Syrian opposition into relative submission, and secured a cessation of hostilities, he has turned his eye towards supporting al-Assad in his fight against the Islamic State. The tactics have thus changed with the objectives. Carpet bombing civilian population centers was clearly effective against the Syrian opposition, but in the more conventional fight against ISIS, helicopter gunships are far more useful.
“It therefore makes sense for Russia to increase its forces with helicopter gunships as opposed to fighter jets,” explained Bronk.
You can see Russian attack helicopters in action against ISIS below.
Of course, Russia has maintained other assets in Syria. Several of its strike fighters still remain in the country, a possible deterrent to any potential future uprisings from the Syrian rebels. In addition, Russia has deployed the S-400, its most advanced and deadly missile defense system capable of downing both ballistic missiles and aircraft. As many as 800 Russian military personnel are believed to still operate in Syria.
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