Russian special operations forces, which have been increasingly modeled on those of the US, were critical in realizing the fall of Aleppo. The longtime rebel holdout has been blitzed by a surge of Russian and Syrian air power, Assad’s troops, Iranian-backed Hezbollah fighters and Russian special operations forces since early November. This cocktail of capabilities proved far more than the rebels could handle, with the city falling officially on December 14th.
Photos and video of Russia’s special operations forces operating in Syria have trickled out over the last year or so, but leading up to and following the sacking of Aleppo we have seen more of them and heard how their abilities were applied to take Assad’s ultimate objective. These highly-trained units were used to advise Syrian and Hezbollah forces on tactics and strategy, to go after key leadership targets, to quickly fuse actionable intelligence with operations, and to help direct the brutal onslaught of air power that broke the city.
Videos showing a teams of commandos has surfaced today showing what appears to be a Russian special operations team outfitted with modern gear, much of it similar to what America’s special operations and special forces teams wear. One one of the soldier's arms is a bright yellow patch with an unmistakable logo—that of the Iranian-backed, heavily armed, Shiite militant and political organization Hezbollah. Another soldier can be seen with a pirate-like patch on his helmet and what appears to be a patch with a bat logo—most likely in reference to the Spetsnaz which has used the bat symbol prominently for years.
Caution, this video is graphic:
Having a Russian special operations soldier wearing the patch of Hezbollah has caused a stir because the symbology means very different things to different people, and few of those things are moderate in nature. To some in Lebanon and the immediate region it represents a political affiliation as much as a militant one. Hezbollah has a standing army of fighters and a huge arsenal of rockets alongside other advanced weapons, but it also runs schools and hospitals, and provides other key services and protection to Shiite communities in Lebanon.
At the same time, Hezbollah is labeled as a terrorist organization by the US, and is seen as major threat to Israel, who has fought the group directly during many conflicts. On a geopolitical level, Hezbollah is viewed as an Iranian proxy able to dole out Tehran’s deadly bidding far from Iran’s own borders. In Syria, Iran has mobilized Hezbollah fighters to fight along the Assad regime’s forces in an attempt to keep the dictator in power. Russia is doing the same, although for different strategic reasons. This is where Hezbollah and the Russian military have crossed paths, and the evolving strategic relationship between Russia and Iran has only bolstered this unique partnership.
Russian special operations units have fought and trained alongside Hezbollah now for some time, and the relationship is obviously a brutally effective one on the battlefield. This is something Israel is likely quite concerned with. The Isreali's fear that Hezbollah already poses a substantial threat to the Jewish State—and a battle hardened Hezbollah, supercharged by Russian special operations tactics, procedures and arms is far more menacing.
Worn in combat, that Hezbollah patch makes big statement of solidarity—but it is also a longtime tradition of special forces around the world to wear the unit patches of the indigenous forces they are embedded with to train, advise, and in some cases fight alongside.
This practice was controversially evidenced last Summer, when photos of a US special forces soldier wearing the patch of the YPJ surfaced. The YPJ is the all-female, battle tested militia that is an offshoot of the Kurdish Worker’s Party, also known as the PKK. The PKK is a bitter enemy of and deemed a terrorist organization by Turkey. The decades-long fight between the PKK and the Turkish government has indeed been brutal, and the fact that US special forces are directly supporting these units in Syria in an attempt to take out ISIS has infuriated Ankara, who is actively fighting a war against them.
The small international crisis sparked by the picture of the US commando wearing a YPJ patch was quickly extinguished by the Pentagon, with an official stating that the patch was unauthorized and action was taken to make sure it does not happen again. More on the subject was likely communicated by the US to Turkey, helping to temper the NATO’s ally’s disgust over the matter.
Even though a very fragile peace deal has been worked out among Turkey, Russia, Iran and the Assad regime that has a chance to bring an end to the Syrian civil war, Sunni dominant Turkey is no fan of Hezbollah either. They see the Shiite militant group as a direct threat, and want them to go back to Lebanon once the ceasefire is firmly in place. But now that the group is entrenched in Syria, getting them to abandon their expanded influence in the region will not be easy, and they seem to have no intention to bow to Turkey’s whims.
Left out of the ceasefire deal, of course, is the US. American involvement has been deemed irrelevant by Russia, as tensions between Putin and the Obama administration hit a crescendo. In the end, maybe this is for the better. This ceasefire deal has little chance of engaging all the international players involved, and Assad will see his power erode even further. Additionally, it does not include ISIS nor terror affiliates like Ansar al Islam, so the fight against those factions in Syria will continue regardless.
If anything else, the revelation that Russian commandos are wearing the insignia of the “Party of Allah” is just a reminder that on the modern battlefield, where social media is ever present, symbols really do matter.
Contact the author Tyler@thedrive.com