Russians In Syria, Zaslon, and the risks of going native

SyriaIt is behind a paywall, alas, but I just wanted to note that Bearing Down: Russia to defend core Syrian government areas, a composite article on the Russians in Syria (me on the Russian side of things, Jonathan Spyer of the Rubin Center on the Syrian dimension) has come out in Jane’s Intelligence Review. There’s a short extract here, and some of the interested satellite photography has also made it into the general press. There has been a great deal of discussion about the deployment of Naval Infantry, Su-25 bombers and the like, but I did want to quote one paragraph of mine to highlight another aspect of the Russian commitment:

There is also a team from the Russian military Main Intelligence Directorate (Glavnoye razvedyvatelnoye upravleniye: GRU) attached to its Syrian counterparts, the Mukhabarat, working in the Ministry of Defence building on Umayyad Square, Damascus, according to IHS Jane’s sources. Western intelligence sources have also told IHS Jane’s that a small special forces team in Damascus is reporting neither to the GRU or to regular military cells, but instead to the Russian embassy on Omar Ben Al-Khattab Street. This implies that it may therefore be a unit from Zaslon, the highly-secretive special forces of the Foreign Intelligence Service (Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki: SVR).

So first of all I think it’s important to note the extent to which the Russians may also be playing an increasing role in intelligence operations and military planning. Understandable, and they may well do some good for the regime. However, if we look at the Soviet experience in Afghanistan, while working alongside the locals can sometimes breed exasperation, even contempt, it can also lead to a Stockholm Syndrome of sorts as the outsiders begin to acquire an emotional commitment to their in-country counterparts. I wonder how this will affect the reporting going back to Moscow, and and if they will press for greater deployments when — I suppose if, but honestly I expect when — the war continues to go badly for Damascus.

But at the same time if that SF unit is from Zaslon — and that is just my speculation based on what little I have heard, and the way the reporting chain is not what I would expect for military Spetsnaz — then that would suggest that Moscow is at least willing to contemplate the possibility of the fall of the regime. The last time I heard with any confidence of Zaslon being deployed (other than a few individuals in extreme diplomatic protection missions) was to Baghdad in the final days of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. Then, their role was to secure (retrieve or destroy) particular documents, military tech and whatever else Moscow wanted to ensure did not end up in American hands. It could be that, as higher tech Russian kit begins to bolster the regime’s capabilities, Zaslon is being deployed again as a precautionary measure.

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  1. Zaslon (Barrier) was created in March 1998, with an initial structure of 3 Departments and around 320 men. It can broadly correspond to the CIA SAD. But the force responsible for the CSAR mission in Syria seems more likely to be a marine Spetsnaz unit, flying Mi-17Ish combat search and rescue choppers and Mi-24’s , of course,

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