The first sign that Russia’s military intervention was not going according to plan came in October, when a Russian-backed plan to recapture the strategically important northern Syrian city of Hama was halted by stiff rebel resistance. Western intelligence sources say one decisive factor was the delivery to the rebels of 500 U.S.-made TOW anti-tank missiles, believed to have been provided by the Saudis.
In what has since become known locally as the “massacre of the tanks”, nearly 20 tanks and armoured personnel carriers fielded by the Assad regime were knocked out of action by the highly accurate TOW missiles.
The fierce resistance put up by anti-government forces, which also claimed the lives of several senior Iranian Revolutionary Guard officers, dealt a serious blow to the morale of regime loyalists. It also resulted in a significant change of tactics on the part of the Russians who, aware of the limitations of the regime’s ground forces, have increased their reliance on air power to achieve their objective of defeating the rebels.
But while the Russians insist that their main attacks in Syria are being directed against fighters associated with the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), the reality is that they are bombing a large variety of anti-Assad forces – including those backed by the U.S.-led military coalition. One of the explanations given for the Turks shooting down a Russian SU-24 jet was that it had been bombing rebel groups backed by Turkey rather than ISIS, as the Russians later claimed.
The lack of progress made in Syria since Mr Putin first authorized Russian military involvement could soon have serious repercussions for the Kremlin.