We can hear the roar of helicopters this morning, as on most mornings here in the city of Tartus. A few people gathered in a small workshop are waiting for the power outage to end. One guy prays for the victory of the air force and the end of the “crisis.” A second guy laughs at his stupid friend, who seems to never learn or get bored, waiting for the other friend to also begin praying for the aircraft to beat the “terrorists and thugs.” The third guy, however, just nods at them with his head down: “Whatever… as always they claim they’re fighting terrorists… and at night we watch children being murdered on television.”
This last man used to be an agent for one of the security agencies. As we looked at him in astonishment, he told us the story of how he was humiliated and beaten at a checkpoint for absolutely no reason, concluding by cursing the country, the regime, and the President!
The Announcement of Russian intervention
“The Russian Air Force started launching airstrikes on Syrian territory on September 30th, 2015, following the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s request for military support from Moscow, and then the Federation Council’s approval of the mandate of President Vladimir Putin to use Russian forces outside the country.”
That is the news of the beginning as recorded by Wikipedia Arabic. Facts, however, are differ. Russian intervention in Syria had begun with the Soviet Union’s support for the regime of President Hafez al-Assad. We are not here to examine an already well-known historical fact, but it is important to point out Syrian people’s historical familiarity with Russia’s presence, let alone its weapons.
The majority of Syrian men had been trained to use Russian weapons during their compulsory or voluntary military service. Perhaps, in the beginning, this existing familiarity made people less than cautious about embracing Russia. But since the regime declared its bloodiest war against those who rebelled against it, leaving them with no choice but to resist, a more impactful Russian intervention began to happen. It was only after the degeneration of the Assad army and its supporting militias, which resulted in an expansion of the areas outside of their control, that Russia was involved most directly.
Daily human and material losses on battlefronts has been leading many of the regime’s loyalists to go against its whims. But ever since Russia announced its support for the regime’s war, the latter has taken advantage of this support as a way to raise the morale of its social base. Security agencies began to promote false promises, such as an inevitable outcome, an immediate transformation, the end of the crisis… They also called on deserters to rejoin the Army, promising that they would put their status in order, just as they would put the whole country’s status in order following the success of the Russian intervention.
Announcements were also made about an immediate return of the Syrian pound to its former value, and a speedy, gradual decline in the dollar exchange rate. This would change the nature of the battle and put an end to any “impending danger.” Rising prices are exhausting regime loyalists and negatively impacting the entire community under its control, which makes propagating the news that the pound is recovering its value all the more relevant. Economic frustration is one of the regime’s most effective tools for luring its supporters to join its war, either through the Army or the other paramilitary groups. These are often directly supported by Iran, and given their relatively high salaries, they strive not only to absorb deserters but to also attract non-deserters.
Security agencies also disseminated a rumor that they gained full control over Aleppo’s Castello Road, which is considered the true measure of domination in the north. They managed to lift the loyalists’ spirits and to motivate more of them to join in the fighting. It is remarkable that the facts were quite the opposite of what the Assad regime was circulating. Since the Russian Air Force joined in the battle, the dollar exchange rate against the pound has only increased, directly causing prices to continue rising. Additionally, the road to Aleppo was still blocked and stayed outside of the regime’s control for two weeks during that period.
The impact of Russian helicopters’ daily hovering
Since Russia announced its entry into military battles, Russian aircrafts have been hovering almost daily at a low altitude over the coastal cities. Almost every morning, four helicopters fly directly over the cities’ buildings, roaring in the loyalists’ both ears and hearts. More than one observer has confirmed that they intentionally fly over the Industrial Zone, which contains large numbers of workers from all areas of Syria.
Tartus Industrial Zone is populated not only by residents of Tartus, but also by large numbers of displaced people, most notably from Aleppo, but also from Homs and other places. It is where most places of business congregate, and where economic action is developed and encouraged by senior professionals, especially the Aleppans. In an attempt to satisfy factory demands and promote industrial and commercial activity, the authorities ensure the availability of electricity in the Industrial Zone from the morning until the afternoon, without any outages.
As helicopters hover over the Industrial Zone, they leave everyone present horrified and observant of the horrors of others. Some of the displaced workers nod their heads, some even pray for the airborne Russians; maybe they will triumph and relieve them from this hellish displacement. The loyalists from Tartus are often comforted by watching such submissive reactions to the passing helicopters, which often get all the more exaggerated in front of their arrogant gaze.
The helicopters continue eastward towards the countryside Homs. In videos taken in Ter Maaleh, Rastan, Talbiseh and other towns, one can clearly see them returning a few hours later with a lighter load. They have cast their missiles over the neighborhoods and civilians in those areas, their roaring filling up the air and the land so intensely that one thinks he can almost catch them if he jumps.
In addition, clips were circulated last summer of Russian pilots teasing people on the shores of Latakia, flying their helicopters back and forth, up and down. Watching the admiring glances and prayers for victory, one can deduce that these low-flights are pre-meditated for their psychological impact. They cannot be simple entertainment, and of course, militarily speaking, they have no strategic benefit.
Describing how his children are affected by the passing helicopters, one displaced man from Aleppo stated that the roaring scares them and reminds them of the sounds of shelling. They think that the aircrafts have returned to kill them, and they begin to scream and cry. Displaced people experience a similar situation due to the thunderstorms that proliferate along the rainy coast throughout the winter. The sound of thunder confuses children, who think they are hearing bombs terrorizing their nights. Some people here have developed a distaste for rain due to the intense panic that thunderstorms cause in the hearts of youngsters.
Another displaced person said, “due to our miserable state, we are just hoping that any party will take control. We want to return to our homes. Ever since they closed the Lebanese and Turkish borders in our faces, we have no way to leave the country. We often wish that the Air Force will triumph and that the claims being made by the loyalists around us will come true. Let anyone win, we do not care, but these helicopters remind us of our tragedy every day.” He concluded his statement by saying, “won’t there be a tomorrow to this everlasting day?”
Russian control over the air and military information, as well as the minds and the destinies of people, goes hand in hand with control over land territories. The Russian forces took control of the Hmeimim Air Base in Latakia and prohibited the entry of any Syrian, regardless of their rank, without inspection or authorization. Syrian military vehicles have been sighted moving between military sites, loaded with old military blankets and mattresses. This sight is reminiscent of Syrian troops exiting Lebanon in 2005.
Despite the general unrest sparked among the regime loyalists by such scenes, security agencies were quick to disseminate news about how the two armies are sharing checkpoints, even inside the Air Base, aiming to absorb the discontentment and shut down any angry comments or independent conclusions. Naturally, this was not a way to interact with public opinion and to address its concerns, but rather felt like a command: “You have to stop expressing discontentment, and this is a narrative that helps you do so.”
One scene drew a great deal of attention: normal Russian military vehicles were spotted driving away from Latakia on Damascus-Homs Highway, without any Syrian escort. There were no more than four trucks, all of their drivers and passengers were Russian soldiers, and there was no Syrian soldier or vehicle anywhere in sight. Russian soldiers come and go in their new trucks, sometimes wearing just their underwear, as if they are still inside their barracks, or on their own country’s land. They now know the way and need no directions from the Syrian Army.
This behavior causes anxiety for many people, who begin to chatter, saying, for example, that the Russian officers like Hezbollah soldiers better than members of the Syrian Army, because of their skills on the battlefield. This is an initial justification that one might think of after witnessing such a clear disparagement of the Syrian regime’s authority and its army. At the same time, it also hints at a shared sense of uncertainty regarding the goals of Russia’s presence on Syrian ground.
A private from the Military Intelligence spoke about how in the beginning he used to accompany Russian soldiers within Latakia, but that they went on to suddenly abandon all escorting agents. He concluded his statement by cautiously boasting that he became friends with many of them, adding that most of them are criminals, sentenced in their country with penalties ranging from life imprisonment to death. After a question about whether he was surprises that Russia has been unable to put a decisive end to the battles, the private shared that a Russian soldier told him “as a friend” that Russia is focused on Syrian ports; their real mission is only to protect them. The rest is just backing up the Syrian Army.
This was the Intelligence agent’s final comment: “They are scoundrels just like the Americans. We are all cleaner than them, no matter what we do.”
Announcement of the Withdrawal of Russian Forces from Syria
On March 14th of 2016, Moscow announced that Russian forces had begun leaving Syria, and that the first aircrafts had already departed for their permanent bases. The next day, the Russian Ministry of Defense published a video clip of what they said was the first squadron of Russian aircrafts to leave the Hmeimim Air Base in Syria.
It was clear from the way things played out on the ground that the decision was a surprise to everyone, including the Syrian regime. The story of imminent decisive victory with Russia’s help, a narrative that was promulgated by Assad and his supporters, was crumbling. It became apparent that the Russians were not after a decisive “victory.”
No one could hold a position. Everyone flip-flopped, linking the actions of Russian forces mentioned above to some mysterious decisions. This led some to say that “Russia isn’t an ally,” and “Russia has its own interests, just like everyone else.” The most accurate statement was finally uttered and reached peoples’ tongues. Meanwhile, however, everyone was watching the security agencies, waiting for instructions as to what should be said thereafter.
The regime street was at a loss. Public debates between optimists and skeptics had become terrified anticipation of what might happen next, as well as fundamental disagreements about the importance of dealing with wars and battles. The Russians were abandoning them before any “front” was determined, and there is a great disdain for the regime. The true nature of the relationship between the Russian and Syrian regimes was exposed; it is the relationship of one regime with its underlings, not with its allies.
Confusion overwhelmed Assad’s loyalists. Its symptoms were clear and audible.
Palmyra’s Pseudo Battles
The regime’s loyalists and fighters had arrived at unfavorable conclusions, which rattled them to their cores. The regime, therefore, had to transform the scene once again to its advantage. After less than ten days, the regime announced a battle to restore Palmyra, which had been taken by the Islamic State on May 21st, 2015. Some of the groups who took part in the battle, such as the Desert Hawks Brigade or the Tiger Special Forces Unit, called it the Palmyra’s ready-made and pseudo battle.
The regime diverted everyone’s attention towards this battle, which would restore the ancient city of Palmyra after it was left to ISIS, or rather, according to a more probable analysis of the well-known facts, “given” to ISIS. This turned into a global issue, since Palmyra is listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List due to its great archaeological importance. Time had come to win it back. After years of panicking ever since the first revolutionary cry was raised against it, the regime finally decided to provide the world with a practical lesson and proof as to who can really fight terrorism.
Snippets of conversation from those who participated in the fighting confirm that the battle was a theatrical performance. There was no need for bombardment, because ISIS had promptly withdrawn, but the regime had nevertheless severely bombed the city. In addition, there were a number of Russian generals on the ground, commanding the operation and taking part in the counter-terrorism performance. It is worth noting here that, those who fought were paid $100, i.e. not in the Syrian currency, let alone the doors that were also opened wide for them to loot the city and rob its houses, in both the residential and archaeological areas. According to more than one fighter, the heavy bombardment exposed ancient rooms underneath the city, from which statues were haphazardly stolen. This looting of archaeological relics was not monopolized this time by the “competent authorities.”
This performance overturned Russia’s image in the minds of the loyalists. In terms of manufacturing delusion and selling them, Russia became no different from the regime. The daily monologue that the loyalists repeated to themselves became more decisive. Regardless of whether Russians are present or the regime is by itself, the results are the same, and there is no place for asking questions. Over the course of these events, the internal plot to falsify facts has become too obvious. There is no more ambiguity about it. The forces at play are fully involved in theatrical performances. As long as there are benefits to be reaped, no objections are raised.
On March 27th, 2016, the regime regained control over Palmyra, with support from the Russian Air Force, thus proving that the announcement of Russian withdrawal was a successful deception. Palmyra’s recovery was offered to skeptic loyalists and soldiers as a dosage of optimism: Given an endless amount of lies, you cannot give up hope that the regime will emerge victorious and will end the daily flood of deaths suffered by loyalists. Everyone has become well versed in curing themselves of doubt by colluding with the ready-made stories.
The Russians announced their return to the battlefront. They would abandon neither their allies nor their share in the restoration of Palmyra. On May 5th, 2016, the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra held a concert on the stage of ancient Palmyra, led by the famous Russian conductor Valery Gergiev. The ceremony lasted about an hour, and was watched by 400 spectators. Among the audience were clerics, journalists, Russian soldiers, and a few of the city’s residents, including children. It was broadcasted live on Russian television, and the Russian president spoke highly of it, calling it an “exceptional humanitarian action.”
The news of the battles in Palmyra and its surrounding areas remained trending. Parts of the area would go outside of the regime’s control only to be recovered with the participation of army deserters, while Sha’er gas field battles would begin and never end. Colonel Suheil al-Hassan (The Tiger) became a joke for both his supporters and detractors after bombing the field and letting it burn. This was an absurd move, serving no purpose other than to demonstrate the endlessness of battles waged by the regime in order to regain control of territories, even if that means destroying them. After that, many fighters returned to their homes and did not return to participate in the Sha’er battles, except for the main soldiers in the Tiger Unit.
The return of Russian troops and aircrafts to the battlefield was slow, especially in Palmyra, but it peaked in the battle of Aleppo. In fact, it is no longer possible to expect any new “peak” in Russian involvement after Aleppo’s holocaust, which was a desperate attempt to support the regime’s play for control over the city’s eastern neighborhoods.
The Effects and Meanings of Russia’s Decisive Return
Many of the regime fighters returned to their homes during the various stages of the war. The state that their wages are too low, that officers would abandon them at checkpoints, and that the regime is not so sincere in its battles. The regime had to make its supporters fight again, but it was not so easy to clash with them. Everyone had weapons and justifications; they needed to feed their families and protect their children. The Military Police made several attempts to arrest army defectors from their homes, but their patrols were often confronted with weapons. The regime began to rely on air patrols to hunt deserters at the intersections and entrances of the city.
The regime decided to resolve the problem of army defectors by enlisting them into independent, paramilitary groups. One such group is the Desert Hawks, which is led by Mohamed al-Jaber and enjoys a great deal of support, including high salaries and distinctive uniforms that is heavily armed with individual munitions. From the outset, the Desert Hawks’ mission was to protect the road to Iraq, which is an important trade route that also constituted their main source of funding.
After Palmyra and the road to Iraq became outside of the regime’s control, most of them fled and sought refuge in the battle of Palmyra the Tiger Unit of Suheil al-Hassan, in addition to other groups related to Air Force Intelligence that were specifically formed for the placement of defectors. These groups would throw their volunteers directly onto the battlefront. The volunteers’ ability to return to their homes at any moment helped them accept the conditions. They would often fight for a week and then return home for a week or two. This is in addition to the high wages they received compared to other groups, and their greed to enter new areas and take part in looting.
The strategy of tossing army deserters into easy battles with convenient terms (as in the battle of Palmyra) was initially used to cover up news of the withdrawal of Russian troops, as we have said. Since then, however, it has become a permanent methodology for attracting anyone at all, defector and non-defector alike, to the battlefield. These groups have only become more attractive, and they increased in power and numbers since the pronounced return of Russian aircrafts to the battlefield.
The battles supported by the Russian Air Force were of great importance in attracting deserters. The presence of Russian fighter jets gave the impression of relative safety and offered a guarantee of achievement. But following the active return of Russian troops after their announced withdrawal, the hoped-for achievements changed: People are no longer waiting for an expedient triumph like the one they had expected at the beginning of Russian military intervention.
It follows that the intended effect of declaring the withdrawal of Russian troops was to separate the varying goals of the allies from one another, without waiting for the achievement of desired results such as advancement whatsoever. In this way, Russia separated itself from the stated intentions of its intervention, as well as from the propaganda that had promoted it. Without that separation, Russia would have been forced to accomplish a thunderous victory that matches its power, status and equipment.
The regime supporters now simply gaze at the low-flying helicopters with amazement and admiration, no longer feeling inspired to pray for them. It is as if the helicopters are crossing their sky just to pass from one country to another, or to go on a picnic every morning in order to say “hi” and see how they are doing. Now they live in a world where time is of little importance. There are no longer any promises in which to believe. There is nothing left but what they themselves call “pseudo battles.” They have no problem with this, so long as the roads from the coast to Homs and Damascus are secure.
To summarize, after examining the stages of Russian intervention and its effects on the regime loyalists, we can say that the Russians are not just observers in Syria. They are active participants in everything, including manufacturing lies and delusion. More than mere back-up, they are a branch of the regime, influencing its behavior, methods, and news. They demand that the regime doles out lies in order to justify their actions. They know what is going on and they take advantage of the regional and international powers that stand with them.
Perhaps a return to the first scene of our story is relevant here. The agent who arrived at the truth after being beaten and humiliated offers a clear representation of people’s knowledge about what is really going on. He is not the only example. Every time military gains decline, regime supporters start cursing the regime and its leaders, only to retract their words later.
Two days after the incident of the humiliation of the agent that led him to speak poorly of the regime, he returned to his previous status, idealizing and praying for helicopters. Meanwhile, helicopters continue to cross over our heads, like a daily warning that “For good or bad, your space is captive.”