A Russian Briefing on the Syrian War

We’ve seen a lot of US DOD briefings over the years, from the Five O’Clock Follies in Vietnam, where most of the Saigon press corps jeered at their military briefers and then went back to the hotel bar to make up whatever story advanced their side — the enemy side — to the masterful displays of Norman Schwartzkopf in Desert Storm, who did what no PAO will ever do, stand up to fabricating reporters.

Russia no longer has an independent press to any great extent, but likes to maintain the fiction that they do, and so they put on a show from time to time. Here’s one of December’s briefings (Russian language). [Update: in the time it took us to write the story, someone made a version with English subtitles. That’s the version we embed]. Afterward, we’ll look at some of the slides.

Any briefing begins with a splash screen.


This one says: Briefing of the Chief of the Main Operations Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, Lt. Gen. S. F. Rudskoi. Each of the side illustrations illustrates one of the facets of Russian military power: strategic rocket forces, long-range aviation, air defense missiles, ground forces, surface navy, tactical air forces, frontal aviation, intermediate nuclear weapons forces, air defense artillery, and nuclear missile submarines. It is meant to convey an impression of raw Russian power.

The briefing begins with a rundown on airstrikes, by a combination of tactical aircraft and strategic bombers — what the Russians have long called Long Range Aviation.


“In the period from 30 September [to 15 December – Ed.] a total of 4,201 combat sorties have been carried out,  145 of them by airplanes of Long-Range Aviation.” The general military definition of the term sortie (in Russian Bilyot), is one aircraft, one mission, so a flight of four Su-24 jet bombers would count as four sorties. NATO would also count combat support aircraft like jammers and forward-deployed tankers as sorties; we don’t know if Russia does.

The general then goes on to show us some video of strikes on petroleum targets. These have the advantages of being unscathed till now (the US lawyers, supported by DOD suits, forbade strikes on this basis of ISIL finance, calling it “collateral damage”), and easy enough to hit with Russian technology. Russia has no such qualms and has hit storage, micro-refineries, and hundreds of tanker trucks that have been “off limits” to American and Coalition air.

This screenshot is from an attack on a petroleum storage facility in eastern Deir ez-Zor. province.


A Digression on Precision Bombing, Russian Style

The most-used Russian PGM systems do not work like American or NATO ones do. Indeed, they resemble such ancient (from our point of view) computers as the A-6E bombardier/navigator’s computer-intervalometer system, or the several generations of systems for accurate bombing that were rolled into the F-111F during its long service life. The pro of this system is that it allows smart bomb level of performance from dumb bombs. The con is that it puts a premium on precision airmanship. Putting the brain in the plane is the same concept as the World War II Norden bombsight (although given vastly more power by modern, digital electronics). Like the Norden sight (although to a lesser extent), the Russian system limits the pilot’s ability to maneuver defensively during the bomb run. The pilot has to put the plane in the right place at the right speed for the system to release the bomb (the navigator, or in single-pilot ships the pilot, commits the bomb, giving the system authority to drop it, but the system uses is own digital judgment on when to fire it off). If he’s maneuvering, accelerating in any direction when the bomb pickles, it may go somewhere unintended. This is probably the cause of the market and residential area bombings we’ve heard of — not, as some reports would have it, deliberate bombing of noncombatants by Russian forces. (They have enough combatant and economic targets to keep them loading bombs until the stockpile they built to run the Fulda Gap is exhausted. Let’s assume they’re intelligent men prosecuting the highest-value military targets first, as intelligent men do, shall we?) It is certainly one reason that the Russian attacks in Syria have been conducted at medium altitudes (~5,000-15,000 feet),

And Back to the Briefing

Much of the briefing was given over to video of aerial attacks. Here, a PGM strike is made on a tank farm.ru_briefing_attack_on_tank_farm_2

Closing in, a single storage tank is singled out as aim point.


We continue this analysis of the briefing after the jump, including some more comments on aerial operations and some slides on the ground situation.

Here is another precision attack on a petroleum target, to wit, tank trucks transporting oil for the benefit of ISIL. For many in the West, this is a first look at Russian PGM capability, although our intelligence agencies have been following this technology’s development for years. Russian leaders long wanted such a capability; it would have saved many Russian lives in Chechnya, for example. These briefings suggest that the capability has been fully operationalized.  ru_briefing_attack_on_tank_trucks_1

The Ground Situation

Unlike the US, which has struggled to find worthwhile allies in the region, the Russians have a client state, Syria, which has a leader, de facto king Bashar al-Assad. While initial protests against Assad in the Arab Spring came from Western-oriented liberals, the only opposition apart from ISIL remaining in the field, and the recipients of US aid after months of DC dithering, are religious extremists like the Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda-linked Wahhabi group, and other groups. From the Russian (and Syrian government, the Syrian government still ostensibly recognized by the USA) point of view, the faultlines between the various Islamist terror factions don’t matter: they’re all enemies.

The principal difference between the groups, apart from minutiae of Islamic theology, Is that most of the small factions remain Syrian nationalists, while ISIL campaigns and intends to erase the border between Syria and the other islamic nations, as part of its imaginary global caliphate. The US’s bizarre, incoherent policy has it trying to navigate the alternately jagged and fuzzy borders between these factions, hoping to find one that appeals to the US Government and still contains a Syrian or two. To the Syrian government and the Russian helpers, the calculus is much simpler: these guys are all the enemy, and they’ve got a bomb coming. This more than anything else explains the Syrian advances.

This is an overview of the positions of the Armed Forces of the Syrian Arab Republic:


The briefing also shows detailed operational maps of Aleppo, Homs, Latakia, and the Damascus region. For example, these are Syrian positions around Damascus. Bear in mind that the Russian convention is to show friendly positions and units in red, and opposition in blue, the reverse of NATO practice:


And Syrian axes of advance, positions as of 15 December 2015. You can see that the Syrians have nearly encircled their enemies, and taken the suburbs of (clockwise from top center): Duma, Meida, Kasmia, Marj-Sultan and Zibdin. They’ve consolidated their hold on Mazrat-id-Dunair and are closing off enemy elements near Jaybar.


This map of Syrian positions north of Homs (sometimes spelled Khoms in English) is the same sort of status-quo ante map as we have seen above with Damascus, but there’s some combat intelligence on it. The city, north of Damascus, is held by friendlies (red positions and orange area of control). The black labels are place names: Clockwise from the larger town at the north center, which is Ir-Rastan, are Tel-Takhin, Mesherfa, Dar-el Kabir, Teir-Maala, Al-Masharia, Jebalik, and Sem-Ali. Isolated in the southeast is Mkhin.

The enemy elements are identified as Jabhat al-Nusra to the northwest, with up to 1300 personnel, and al-Asdika to the northeast, with up to 450.


Homs is of considerable importance to the rebellion. At the outbreak of the uprising in 2011, Homs was the center of the unrest and revolution. It was a mixed community with many Christian and Sunni families living intermixed, and Alawites concentrated in the south and east; a Syrian military academy was located in Homs. Many of the original inhabitants of Homs have become refugees in Turkey and Jordan, and even farther abroad, or internally displaced persons.


The map shows the positions as of 15 December. The Syrians have planted their national flag on most of the suburbs named above, or have them encapsulated. We wouldn’t read too much into the pink area of control, as the Syrian Armed Forces are thin on the ground and rebel groups bent on survival (rather than martyrdom) can always bombshell and reassemble at a rally point. But the real tale here is the encapsulated rebels. It’s classic Soviet-era tactics, as applied to the Wehrmacht in 1942-45, which the Syrians have been training on since the 1950s.

We hear occasional expressions of surprise from the usual Beltway / Harvard / Georgetown / Foreign Policy set that the Syrian Army has not only failed to break down, but has fought well. That’s one of the hazards of forming your opinions within an echo chamber. The SF guys who were coalition support teams to the Syrians in the Gulf War could have told you the pros and cons of the Syrians — and “fighting spirit” was not something they lack. The Israelis, who fought them on the Golan Heights in 1973, have a soldier’s respect for Syrian guts. The geniuses who thought they’d fight less fiercely in a civil war are that particular kind of stupid that can only be produced by many years of post-secondary education.

Exit Point: A Little-Noticed Detail of the War

This fact postdates this briefing, but Russia rang out the old year demanding that the Turks arrest and hand over for the usual Russian kangaroo court those responsible for downing their Su-24 and whacking one of the crewmen; Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova also seemed to demand that the Turks liquidate the newspaper Hurriyet, apparently believing that the Turks handle their newspapers and newsmen like Russia does.

It’s tough, what happened to that Russian airman, but it’s the nature of war in the Middle East. It’s happened to a few of ours over the last decade. Our sympathy is with his friends and family. He, and they, deserved better, and the Russian desire for reprisal is understandable.


17 thoughts on “A Russian Briefing on the Syrian War

  1. Neil S.

    Hognose: I’d be interested in hearing your views on the pros and cons of the Syrians. I’ve only worked with Iraqi National Guard and I use the term “worked” loosely. More like “tolerated”, considering we had a really bad interpreter and were advising/training them for show only. My impression was that they would fight if they had Americans with them, they preferred using the in’shallah aiming concept, and they had a deep appreciation for American pornography.

  2. Doug

    Russian’s certainly are displaying how to wage total war on a concentrated geographic scale. They seem to have learned something from their old Soviet days in Afghanistan fighting the Mujahideem in the style of tactics and strategy.
    I’ve often wondered how germane it is to take into account the Russians perceive Islam as a great existential enemy and its policies and strategies are tempered upon that view. It borders every mutant islamic faction imaginable.

  3. Mr. Chubbins

    What is the reason for not hitting the oil/cash supply of ISIS? Calling it collateral damage is cute and all, but stinks to high Heaven.

    1. Haxo Angmark

      in general, ISIS is Israel’s Sunni hammer for breaking the Shi’a Crescent, this in order to cut off weapons shipments from Iran to Hezbollah in south Lebanon. In particular, ISIS oil is launder’d through Turkey, then sold to Israel. Given the, ah….peculiar relationship…between Tel Aviv and DC, Obama has to fight ISIS with one hand, coddle with the other. Russia’s intervention has now upset the entire Zionist applecart. But Mrs. Clinton (see: Chaim Saban) has an excellent idea for protecting ISIS: she’ll tell Putin that Syria is a “no fly zone” for his Air Force. That’s sure to work

      1. Hognose Post author

        If you think Israeli officialdom views ISIS/L/EIEIO with anything but fear and concern, you are letting the wily desert dwelling sons of Abraham rent way too much space in your head. Like everyone else who isn’t living in the 7th Century, the Israelis are just more targets for the wannabe caliphate / sharia-compliant Murder Incorporated, albeit ones that get singled out a bit because they’re called out by name for beheading in the ISIL Murder Manual, aka Koran and Hadith.

        This comment is really, really close to the kind that got you banished to whackland in the first place.

        As far as your comment about Clinton, note that about half of the Republicans have proposed the same thing. (Jeb! and Rubio for example), which ought to make people ask: is there any reason to go to war with Russia? And if one thinks there is, is Syria the reason?

        I should also note, that while the Russians started out bombing the rebels indiscriminately, some of the factions that the geniuses in Foggy Bottom thought were “ours” have now joined the fight against ISIL and the Russian and Syrian strikes are supporting them, too.

        This is what happens when you fill the political appointee chairs with credentialed-but-uneducated academics. 9/10 of the people working the Syrian desk at State (and a higher percentage at the intelligence agencies) have never been to Syria, and don’t know a single Syrian citizen except perhaps a fully cosmopolitan diplomat.

        Two friends of mine, both safely retired now, traveled through the mideast right after 9/11. Their report was:
        1. Everywhere but Israel and Jordan, the masses hate us and are gleeful over the attacks;
        2. The Israelis don’t hate us, but they don’t like us, either. To the extent that they need us, they resent us;
        3. The rank and file Jordanians actually like us; the rest of the Arab world thinks something’s wrong with them.
        4. In all the other Arab countries, we’re popular with a thin slice of the upper class, pretty much to the degree it’s cosmopolitan and worldly;
        5. Most people are religious, and an awful lot of their imams are educated by, supported by and identify with extreme salafism and wahhabi ideology, for which we can thank our other ally in the region, the KSA;
        6. Sunnis and Shias are straining at the leash to kill one another over Wrongprayer.

        They were clear in 2001 already that our friends in Egypt were that cosmopolitan slice and the military (whose officers come largely from that slice, or aspire to join it). “If there’s ever a public vote, the Ikhwan will win.” Therefore, it was in US interests in keeping what was essentially a military dictatorship in power in Egypt.

        It was clear to all of us that a policy based on Twitter perceptions and notions of the universality of democracy was cruisin’ for a bruisin’. Putting “human rights” on a pedestal set human rights back under Carter, and that dumb idea didn’t get any smarter in the last 40 years.

        1. Haxo Angmark

          well said. Except:
          1) Israel is allied with the 2 principal Sunni terror states – KSA and Turkey – against the Shi’a; ISIS is Sunni as well, and fights the Shi’a. The line-up is obvious now: US/Israel + KSA, Turkey, ISIS…vs. Russia/Iran, Iraq Shi’a, Syrian Shi’a, Yemeni Shi’a. Not 1914 quite yet, but it looks a lot like 1912-13. Maybe worse. I worry a good deal more about our neo-conz (Mrs. Clinton, Republicans) getting frisky with a nuclear weapon than I do the Norks. So far, there’s only one country that has nuked someone

          2) Israel fears no one except Hezbollah/Iran. The Sunni are murderous clowns, headchoppers and carbombers. Useful cannonfodder vs. the Shi’a Crescent. The Shi’a have shown, from time to time, a capacity for sustained, organized & guerrilla warfare. Were I an Israeli soldier/soldierette, I would not want to go waltzing into south Lebanon again the way they did in 2006

  4. S

    Old tech isn’t necessarily bad tech, and as Chuck said, it’s the man, not the machine.

    Think of how effective the Night Witches were in their crop-duster Po-2’s….a mere 80 slightly miffed ladies, 50 of which survived WW2, 23000 sorties over 3 years, 3000 tons of bombs delivered (Po-2 bomb load 350kg). The sewing machines kept the Krauts Sleepless in Smolensk, and soiling their drawers cellular.

    In a similar way, the Mk1* Rock is still hard to beat under the right circumstances, which is good; it’s about all we peons have access to over here in sufficient quantity. Ironic, eh….all those lovely historically significant cobblestones, polished smooth by centuries of traffic by foot hoof wheel and caterpillar track, ergonomically sized for both hurling and bludgeoning, ready to hand especially once you get the first one up. Merkel’s children are in for a nasty surprise if they think the spirit of Charles Martel is gone. A little inter-cultural gift, ain’t diversity and dialogue grand? Kohl’s little girl and her club shouldn’t forget what happens to revolutionaries, successful or not. The lamp-posts are likewise Teutonically robust; apolitical, gender/colour/ethnically blind and highly ecumenical.

    What’s next in Assadistan? I doubt the Russians in any position to matter actually give two hoots about the dead pilots, but will milk that screwup for all it’s worth anyway; and I too hope the families don’t get too badly done by (at least they don’t have the VA). Has anyone seen anything to indicate Vlad has started collecting that specific bill? Oh what a tangled web. It seems paradoxical to me that fleeing Christians, Yazidis, Alawites, Kurds and Shias would find much porosity in the Turkish border. Isn’t Erdogan not quite chummy with those groups, and perhaps already a little sore in the wallet with all this oil-burning going on? Does the family bizness also include travel agencies for eastern Med cruises…win-win for him and the tourists, big lose for the target hosts.

    There’ve been some strange comings and goings hereabouts (near the Czech border): peculiar Eastern European and Slavic types, Middle Easterners old and new and each flock dodgier than the last (they travel in small units, rarely alone), and distinctly worried looking Orpo’s and other strange birds thin on the ground, many in unconvincing civilian plumage. A vision….a man sitting on a keg of gunpowder with a dozen lit greasy reverse tapered candles stuck in the fundamental orifice. It’s not me, but I hope he doesn’t lose his grip before the barrel is removed, the candles go out, or I get the flock away from it. It isn’t just a Syrian War, it’s here.

  5. Kirk

    What I find the most disturbing about the whole thing is the evidence you see before you in the news, which demonstrates that our “leadership” in Washington, DC has no fucking clue what they’re doing. From the moment the “Arab Spring” began, they’ve been fucking it up by the numbers.

    And, when it is this consistent, I really start to wonder about how much of it is due to incompetence, stupidity, and malice towards our national interests. If you’d set out to destroy the whole Bush plan, which was to bring the modern world into the heart of the Middle East via planting a reasonable facsimile of a multi-ethnic democratic republic in the middle of the oligarchs and dictators, you couldn’t have done a better job than this crew of clowns has managed if you meant to. Which makes me think that they’re working to plan. Whose? I’ve got my guesses…

    I personally think that the early links to Obama’s political life, like Jimmy Carter’s before him, have Saudi Arabian fingerprints all over them. And, just like the last time they “bought” a US president, the law of unintended consequences has caught up to them, and the whole mess has blown up in their faces.

    I remember the early days, of 2007-8, when people were starting to look into the background of this Obama character. One of the things that came out was how a well-known Saudi “fixer” here in the US had been key to him getting into Columbia and Harvard both, having written glowing recommendation letters on his behalf. Although, the status of Valerie Jarrett in the administration does argue against that, but who the hell really knows who was working for who, over there? All I know is that from the evidence, this clown is about as American as I am Saudi, and that he’s been acting against our national interests consistently from day one. It’s only by a miracle of fate that he hasn’t been that successful, given things like the fracking revolution. He’s still done enormous damage, he and his sycophantic hangers-on, like Jarrett and others in his administration.

    Shades of Carter’s family business being bailed out by Saudi money laundered through Pakistan…

    1. Hognose Post author

      Why do you think that the President was making a teary announcement on gun control today, where without a single vote, anyone who sells one gun to anyone is a “dealer” (whenever the partisan political police at ATF feel like enforcing that); where the mechanism is established for any GI who was treated for TBI or PTSD loses his gun rights or life; where there’s going to be a de facto national registry, not only with no legal justification but the XO, but where it’s expressly prohibited in black letter law.

      But that’s OK, because of Republicans are against it, right? Who? Chinless, gutless, nutless, Mitch McConnell? Paul Ryan, who personally stripped a bunch of pro-gun stuff out of the budget bill and went with Harry Reid’s anti-gun language, but who now says he’s going to fight for gun rights? How long will he do that? You’d think these guys like being cuckolded.

      And Ryan? “You don’t come here for the hunting, do you?” — the bear.

      Paul Ryan, if you’ve got any balls, spit ’em out. They’re not yours.

      1. S

        “where the mechanism is established for any GI who was treated for TBI or PTSD loses his gun rights or life”

        From your comment immediately above. A Freudian slip? An inopportune wayward globuli stuck under the “f” key? Or is it a veiled reference to the VA’s deepest desire? Ok, very unlikely the globuli; perhaps a tiny sliver of aircraft alloy swarf…

        Oh, and the Pauly shot…..brilliant! Weapons-grade snark must be part of the SF course…

  6. S

    Tsk, tsk. So crude, so fast. How about a mini Thunderdome/Hunger Games hybrid? One rabble of traitors enter, some time later one severely injured survivor leaves. Then ya just wait for one more scumbag to do that one in, and that’s the one ya hang. Think of the advertising and merchandising revenue….

  7. Jim Scrummy

    Is that a powerpoint briefing?? If it is…hahahahahahahahha…the Russian HQ sucks just as bad as the 5-sided puzzle palace. Misery loves company. Of course the Russian do blow up stuff.

    Nice to know I can become a felon if I decide to sell a gun to a relative.

    1. Jim Scrummy

      PS: Along with stripping the Constitution (toilet paper to 0), 0 also released 6600 felons today. Ahhh, Rome on the Potomac.

  8. Wes

    Thanks for the briefing. It seems the Russians, using the aim/release system they are, have no compunction about “earning their pay, and owing that 30 seconds down the slot” to get good hits when everything between their legs wants them to jink all over the place. Col. Yeager (from his RVN Canberra days) would be proud.

  9. Docduracoat

    As for the question of why the oil had not been hit until the Russians showed up…
    Turkey profits from below market priced oil sold by Isis and brought into Tukey.
    It is local Syrian people who refine and transport the petroleum and diesel.
    All local fuel comes from this home distilled kerosene/diesel used for irrigation, power generators and lighting.
    Even Isis’ enemies do business with them and buy, transport and use Isis oil.
    The U.S. was trying not to anger every single inhabitant of the area by destroying the non Isis owned trucks, refineries and storage tanks.
    After all, the war will eventually end. Not everyone there is an Isis supporter.
    The Russians don’t care if the locals hate them.
    As long as they fear them.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Well, consider two world leaders, Barack son of Barack, and Vladimir Vladimirovich.

      Which one read Machiavelli, and which one read Alinsky? “Is it better for a prince to be loved, or to be feared?”

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