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Can Russia Sustain Its Military Operation In Syria?

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A Syrian man holding portraits of President Bashar Assad and Russian leader Vladimir Putin joins several hundred pro-government demonstrators near the Russian embassy in Damascus on Tuesday to express support for Moscow's air war in Syria. Two rockets later struck the embassy compound and sparked panic among the crowd. No one was killed.

The nightly news on Russia's state-run television is full of the whine of jet engines as warplanes launch sorties from a dusty airfield in Syria. Russia has just over 30 fixed-wing combat planes in Syria. The Ministry of Defense says these planes are flying dozens of missions every day.

Russia's bombing campaign in Syria has entered its third week, and military officials are claiming daily successes in striking what they say are "terrorist targets."

The United States and its Western allies question Russia's goals in Syria and doubt whether Russia's military can sustain its commitment long enough to make a difference in the war.

The U.S. learned in its Middle East wars that these operations can quickly demand more troops and equipment than was originally planned. But Russian analysts say their force is big enough for its current mission.

"Actually," says Evgeny Buzhinsky, a retired lieutenant general, "we don't need a huge contingent of air force in Syria because the Russian air force plays the role of aviation support for the ground forces."

Buzhinsky, chairman of the PIR Center, a defense think tank in Moscow, says Russia's effort will be more effective than that of the United States because it's coordinated with President Bashar Assad's Syrian Army. He says the Russian military can keep its troops supplied with equipment and ammunition, at least for a limited mission. And if more force is needed, he adds, there are also cruise missiles — which Russia has demonstrated it can fire from ships based in the Caspian Sea, more than 900 miles away.

"Of course," Buzhinsky says, "that was a surprise for the United States, which thought they were the only one country which had the privilege of launching long-range cruise missiles."

The U.S. said that at least four of those missiles went astray, crashing in the Iranian countryside, but Russia's Ministry of Defense has denied this.

What about the danger of being drawn into wider involvement on the ground if, say, one of Russia's jets malfunctions and a pilot is forced to eject?

Wouldn't more ground troops be needed to rescue a pilot, especially one who falls into the hands of the Islamic State, which has shown its willingness to publicly torture enemy pilots to death?

"On the ground, Russian air group is relying on the support and help of the Syrian armed forces," Buzhinsky says.

As to whether that means the Syrian armed forces are providing force protection for Russians, "I hope so," Buzhinsky says. "I hope so."

Not everyone is so optimistic about Russia's prospects in Syria.

Russian defense analyst Alexander Golts, a columnist for the Moscow Times, says Russia can sustain its operation if it sticks to a limited role in the war. But, he says, the danger of being pulled into wider involvement on the ground is very real, because Russia's air base is not far from the battle zone.

Russia already has a contingent of marines to protect the pilots and their planes.

"If this battle group of marines will not be enough to protect the base, you have to deploy new forces," Golts says. "So you deploy more troops, then you have more casualties."

Although the Russian public supports the Syria campaign now, he says, it may not accept the loss of its soldiers in a foreign war.

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