'Now you can feel Russia's power:' Russian military in Syria eager to show its victories

Russia has been at war in Syria since September 2015, supporting President Bashar al-Assad. Ever since, its military has been bringing reporters from Moscow to showcase what it says are the positive aspects of Russia's involvement in Syria's six-year civil war.

At home, Russians fear getting bogged down in another war, but military looks set to stay

Under the gaze of their president, Bashar al-Assad, Syrian army officers host a lunch for visiting journalists. (Pascal Dumont/CBC )

Standing on a runway less than 10 metres from a Russian Su-34 fighter jet reaching takeoff velocity leaves one rattled to the core.

The intensity of the engines' roar makes it impossible to not cover your ears and look away. 

The first stop on the public relations tour of Syria with the Russian military was on the airport tarmac in Latakia, Syria. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

"Now you can feel Russia's power," said a Russian officer. He smiled as he watched the effect on the international media just arrived in Syria as part of a public relations tour of Russia's military activities in the country.

Russia has been at war in Syria since September 2015, supporting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Ever since, its military has been bringing domestic and foreign reporters from Moscow to showcase what its leaders say are the positive aspects of Russia's involvement in Syria's six-year civil war.

Foreign journalists were flown around Syria in Russian military planes. (Corinne Seminoff /CBC)

Most of those tours begin with an early morning trip to the tarmac at the Khmeimim airbase to watch the start of the day's bombing missions.

Punishing attacks

When the first sorties were launched two years ago, opposition forces fighting the Syrian government were a mere 30 kilometres from the base outside Latakia, on Syria's coast.

Now, the closest enemy troops are more than 400 kilometres away, and territory held by ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) is shrinking by the day.

They've been driven back by unrelenting, punishing attacks from the air by Russian bombs and missiles and on the ground by Syrian government troops and Iranian-backed militias supported by Russian "advisers" and special forces.

Young children collect pop cans for money amidst the ruins of Aleppo, Syria. (Corinne Seminoff)

Tactically, Russia's intervention has turned the course of the conflict. Assad's regime, which was on the verge of collapse, is now resurgent. 

Russian generals now openly talk about shifting to the next phase of the war, which is hunting down and taking out other militants from formerly al-Qaeda-affiliated groups elsewhere in Syria.

The threat posed by ISIS being on Russia's back doorstep was one of the major motivations for President Vladimir Putin to join the conflict. Another was Russia's desire to show the world that it could be a major power and reliable ally in the Middle East once again.

Thirty thousand people were killed in Aleppo during the civil war. Those who remain face a difficult recovery. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC )

Still, despite the constant barrage of positive headlines in the Kremlin-friendly publications and on Russian TV, the Russian public remains less than enthusiastic.

Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer said Russia is trying to cement its tactical victories in Syria with a concerted effort to win over more hearts and minds back home.

"It's an unpopular campaign, despite the Russian TV propaganda machine working overtime to sell it as a great victory," said Felgenhauer. "It doesn't have overwhelming support."

Pollsters from Russia's independent Levada Centre released a survey at the start of September suggesting as many as 49 per cent of Russians do not support military intervention in Syria.

Journalists visited Aleppo's main square, which is one of the few places in the city to have been significantly restored after damage from the civil war. (Pascal Dumont/CBC )

"People are afraid we'll get bogged down there, like in Afghanistan in the 1980s," said Felgenhaur.

A series of Russian-negotiated ceasefires in four so-called "deconfliction zones" have brought a pause to much of the fighting between the rival Syrian groups. They've allowed both the Russian-backed Syrian army and opposition forces supported by the United States to focus on crushing ISIS.

Felgenhauer said the goalposts on how long Russia intends to stay in Syria have been constantly shifting, with the Kremlin at first suggesting Russia's direct military involvement might only be a few months. 

Then in May, the defence minister suggested a Russian presence in Syria "on the southern flank of NATO" has fundamentally changed the "strategic balance of power" in the region, hinting at a far longer commitment.

"For the time being, it seems permanent," said Felgenhauer.

This Aleppo school stayed open throughout the six years of civil war, even after a rocket attack killed nine students. (Pascal Dumont/cbc)

Disturbing questions of civilian casualties also continue to dog the Russian mission in Syria. Human rights groups say hundreds — if not thousands — of innocent people have died — and continue to be killed from Russian bombs.

Among the recently liberated villages journalists were taken to on the recent tour was Okierbat in Hama province.  

Once home to 10,000 people, it is now deserted and unlivable as a result of the near total destruction of all the buildings there. Russian generals rarely mentioned casualties in their public statements to journalists, and when prodded on the recent trip, they provided only vague assurances about the absence of collateral damage to civilians.

We don't consider terrorists as humans, one military official told reporters.

Felgenhauer, the military analyst, put it differently. "Anyone who is killed by a Russian bomb is a terrorist, by definition," he said.

Report 'facts'

Staff in charge of the media tour seemed frequently impatient — even annoyed — by the off-message questioning on casualties and other topics.

At one point, journalists received a long lecture about how to report on Russia's successes and not to rely on the faraway insights of groups such as the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is tracking deaths from the conflict. It is generally seen as being opposed to the Assad regime.

"See the facts in front of you," implored a general.

For Russia, the fact that matters most is that the victories on the ground in Syria are adding up.  

About the Author

Chris Brown

Moscow Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s Moscow bureau. Previously a National Reporter in Vancouver, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.