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How Russia Is Saving Syria

Conduct of military campaign shows that it is carefully weighed to achieve Russia's political objective of a united and secular Syrian state

Sat, Nov 7, 2015 | 13,249 Comments
Russian SU34 Fighter Bomber Taking Off at Russia's Air Base near Latakia

The Russian military campaign in Syria has now been underway for several weeks. 

This provides a good opportunity for an overview.



There has been no increase in the forces Russia has deployed in Syria since the start of the campaign there.  

There have been no further cruise missile strikes on jihadi positions in Syria from the Caspian Sea.

The Russians have publicly ruled out enlarging their force. They have said they will not engage in ground operations. There are no plans to launch strikes with long range TU22 bomber aircraft flying from Russia.

The Russians say the present force is adequate to achieve their objectives.

That provides an important clue as to what those objectives are.

The Russians have also said they have held no discussions with the Iraqis about deploying Russian aircraft in Iraq, or about bombing the Islamic State there.

That shows the objectives the Russians have set themselves concern only Syria.

The Russians have provided detailed reports of the targets they are striking. There is no reason to doubt the truth of these reports.  

The reports show the Russians’ primary target is the infrastructure the jihadis have built up to support their war effort: command centres, weapons depots, training centres, and communications facilities as well as oil pipelines, workshops and factories. 

The Russians have on occasion destroyed jihadi vehicle convoys (there are reliable reports that a 16 vehicle convoy belonging to the Islamic State was destroyed in this way) and they regularly report the destruction of major items of military hardware belonging to the jihadis such as tanks and artillery. However, these targets appear to be secondary.

There are also a few reports of the Russian airforce providing direct air support to Syrian troops engaged in offensive operations, though the extent to which this is happening appears for the moment to be limited.

What conclusions can we draw from all this?

Firstly, it is clear that the purpose of the deployment is not to defeat the jihadi insurgency in Syria or to destroy the Islamic State through air power.  

The strike force in Latakia - which the Russians insist they have no plan to increase - is obviously inadequate for such a task.  

That the Russians have ruled out expanding their strike force suggests that they do not think that it is possible to defeat the jihadi rebellion in Syria by air power alone.

This is consistent with Russian military philosophy. The Russians have never bought into the US idea of “victory through air power”. Russia’s operational military doctrine is based on the principle of “combined arms” in which every arm of the military service is used together in a complimentary way to achieve victory.

The pattern of Russian activity in Syria in fact bears out what we said previously about the purpose of the deployment: it was done to prevent the US from declaring a “no-fly zone” over Syria.

If the size of the strike force is obviously inadequate to win the Syrian civil war and destroy the Islamic State, it has proved fully adequate for the purpose of preventing the US from declaring a “no-fly zone”.

We know the US planned to set up a “no-fly zone”. The US has admitted as much.

We know the US was in active discussion with its allies to set up such a “no-fly zone” over the course of the summer.   

Deployment of the Russian strike force to Syria has forced the US to abandon the idea.  

There have been some worries - exacerbated by excited talk from perennial war hawks like Zbigniew Brzezinski - that the US might attack the Russian strike force in order to humiliate Russia and impose the “no-fly zone” despite Russian opposition.

As we discussed previously, the launch of the Russian cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea - demonstrating that all US bases in the region are within striking range of a potentially devastating Russian counter-strike - has put paid to that idea.

The reason there have been no further Russian cruise missile strikes is not because Russia’s Caspian Flotilla has run out of long range cruise missiles, as some have suggested.  

It is because the cruise missile strike achieved its purpose, which was to demonstrate to the US Russia’s ability to launch a counter strike if its strike force in Syria is attacked.

The Russians’ success in forcing the US to drop its plan for a “no-fly zone” has had a dramatic effect on the strategic calculus.

In contemporary parlance “no-fly zone” - whatever its original meaning - is now simply shorthand for “US bombing campaign”.

Had the US declared a “no fly zone” it would have rapidly evolved into an all-out bombing campaign against the Syrian government and military.

That is what happened in Yugoslavia and Iraq in the 1990s and in Libya in 2011, and the same would have happened in Syria.

The “no fly zone” would have been accompanied by the declaration of “safe havens” inside Syria. We know this was the plan, and incredibly there are some people who still demand it (see here and here). 

These “safe havens” would have been presented as areas for civilians and refugees to flee to for safety from attack (“barrel-bombing”) by the Syrian army and airforce. Based on what happened in Yugoslavia and Iraq in the 1990s and in Libya in the 2011, they would quickly have become base areas under rebel control.

Before long, to the accompaniment of a furious media campaign, the “safe havens” would have been extended to all and every part of Syria where refugees and civilians were supposedly “in danger” from the Syrian government. It would have been only a question of time before they included the whole of Damascus and Aleppo, and towns like Homs and Hama.

The US airforce, supported by those of Britain, France, Turkey and probably Jordan, would then have gone into action “to protect” “the safe havens” by bombing the Syrian military and - as was the case in Yugoslavia, Iraq and Libya - the civilian infrastructure upon which the Syrian state and military depend.

Many more civilians would of course have died but as was the case in Yugoslavia and Libya that would not have stopped the bombing.

As the bombing campaign escalated, weapons and special forces to “advise” the rebels would have poured in, and it would only have been a matter of time before the Syrian government and military collapsed.

It was to prevent this scenario that the Russians acted. By acting as they did, they stopped it in its tracks.

That the Russian action was first and foremost intended to stop Western military action against Syria - and has been completely successful in that respect - is best illustrated by the effect it has had in Britain.

To the dismay of Britain’s war hawks, the British government has been forced to abandon its plan to bomb Syria. A report by a House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee makes clear it was Russia’s intervention that was the decisive factor (see paragraph 28 of the report here).

The US for its part has been forced - very much against its will - into an accommodation with the Russians.  

It has agreed to a technical agreement with the Russians to coordinate the flight of US and Russian aircraft in Syrian airspace. It has even been obliged to undertake joint exercises with the Russians to iron out problems.

The US is deploying F15C fighter aircraft to its base at Incirlik in Turkey and F22 fighter aircraft to its bases in Saudi Arabia, and has stepped up supplies of weapons - including TOW anti tank missiles - to the rebels.

These are not steps preparatory to an attack on the Russian strike force. They are an attempt to redress the balance in the region, which is tilting heavily to the Russians.

With Russia’s SU30 and SU34 aircraft technologically superior to all other aircraft deployed in the region, the US urgently needs to reassure its allies - especially Israel and Turkey - that it can match the very advanced aircraft Russia is deploying in the region.

Similarly the supply of weapons to the rebels is intended to reassure the rebels - and their supporters in Washington - that the US is not abandoning them. The US knows the weapons are insufficient to change the situation on the ground, especially as the Russians are more than capable of matching them.

Once it is clearly understood that the purpose for Russia’s deployment of the strike force was to prevent the US bombing Syria - not to defeat the jihadi insurgency single handedly by airpower alone - everything else about the Russian deployment falls into place.

By preventing a US attack on Syria, the Russians have bought time for diplomacy to work and for the Syrian army to regain its strength.

The diplomacy of recent weeks has been thoroughly discussed by the Saker and by Patrick Armstrong and I will say no more about it other than to repeat what I have said before - that the plan the Russians are pushing is in all essentials the same plan that was agreed in Geneva in 2012 but which was wrecked by the Syrian rebels and their Western backers when they made the resignation of President Assad a precondition for talks.

There is no sign the Syrian rebels or their Western sponsors have backed off from this demand. On the contrary what looks like a deliberate Western misinformation campaign about Russia’s position on the question suggests they have made no shift at all (for a detailed discussion of Russia’s position and the reasons for it see my article from 2012 here).

The inclusion of Iran in the talks is however a breakthrough. 

It suggests that whilst the hardliners are still in the ascendant, the realists in Washington led by Secretary of State Kerry understand that US objectives in Syria are no longer achievable.  

It seems that they are playing a waiting game - engaging Russia and Iran in talks and keeping negotiations going until the situation on the ground changes to the point where all but the most stubborn of the hardliners in Washington are forced to accept that a diplomatic settlement along the lines agreed in 2012 in Geneva is unavoidable.

What are however the prospects for a change in the situation on the ground?

If the Russian deployment has bought time for diplomacy to take place, it has also bought time for the Syrian army to recover.

Three years of intense fighting has left the Syrian army an exhausted force. 

Casualties in men and equipment have been very high. The Syrian army has been forced to withdraw from large areas of the country in order to concentrate on defending what it can.

Though tempered by war, the Syrian army appears to suffer from many of the structural problems that afflict all Arab armies (see here).  

The fact that it is said to find it difficult to maintain an advance in the face of small numbers of rebel anti tank missiles (according to some reports just 50 TOW anti tank missiles were sufficient to defeat an advance by the Syrian army in 2014 to relieve Aleppo) suggests its infantry lacks aggression and offensive spirit, and is poorly coordinated with its tank units.

It may also mean that supplies of tanks - or of the technicians and spare parts necessary to keep them going - are running low, so that the few tanks still in running order have to be carefully husbanded. This may explain the reluctance to risk them when there are anti tank missiles present.

It is the condition of the Syrian military that explains the character of the Russian air campaign.  

By targeting the rebels’ infrastructure the Russians are disrupting the rebels’ logistics chain. By doing so they are preventing the rebels from sustaining an offensive. That gives the Syrian army the time it needs to recover and rebuild its strength.  

Once the Syrian military has been rebuilt - with Russian supplies and technical help and with men, material and training provided by Iran - the damage to the rebels’ infrastructure will make it more difficult for them to withstand the Syrian army’s offensive when it comes.

In the meantime limited operations - all the Syrian army seems presently capable of - are being conducted to relieve pressure points.  

Syria’s northern city of Aleppo - once Syria’s largest city and its economic capital - has been under continuous siege since 2012. A few weeks ago it was practically cut off. Russian air support has helped the Syrian army break the siege and reopen roads and supply lines into the city.

Elsewhere, under cover of Russian aircraft, the Syrian army appears to be engaging in limited offensive operations in the direction of Palmyra - a site of immense cultural significance - and near Damascus.  

Information on the progress of these offensives is limited and contradictory (see for example here and here) but what evidence there is suggests that for the first time this year the Syrian army is gaining ground overall rather than losing it.

The Russian air campaign is therefore carefully judged and is achieving its objectives. 

1. It has prevented the US and its allies carrying out their plan for a bombing campaign that would have resulted in the overthrow of the Syrian government;

2. It has provided time and space for a renewed diplomatic effort paving the way for an eventual political settlement based on Russian ideas.  These exclude the setting up of an Islamist jihadi state on Syrian territory. As the Saker correctly says the US appears to have conceded the point;

3. It has provided time and space for the Syrian army to recover, so that it can eventually go on the offensive, creating the conditions for the political settlement the Russians want to impose; and

4. It is weakening the rebels’ infrastructure, preventing them launching an offensive and weakening them in preparation for the Syrian military offensive which is to come.

Of these four objectives the first is the most important since without achieving it the other three would be impossible.

As things stand, the first objective has been achieved. The US bombing campaign has been called off in a major success for Russian policy.

The other three objectives continue to be a work in progress.  

The Syrian conflict provides a text-book example of how the Russians conduct foreign policy.  

They do not separate the military from the political in the way that Western powers do. 

Nor do they allow the military to dictate the whole approach. 

Nor do they see war and diplomacy as mutually exclusive, with the one beginning when the other stops.

On the contrary the Russians see war and diplomacy as complimentary instruments the Russian state uses to achieve its objectives, which are invariably set by the country’s political leadership, and which are always framed in strictly political terms focused exclusively - and unashamedly - on Russia’s national interests.

In the Syrian conflict the objective is to preserve the Syrian state as it was before the conflict - independent, united, functional and secular - so that an Islamist jihadi state that might pose a threat to Russia is not established on Syrian territory.  

Grandiose ideologically conceived objectives dressed up in moralistic language of “remaking the Middle East” or of spreading “democracy” there form no part of Russia's objectives.  

Since such megalomania has no part in what the Russians are up to, they have no need to commit massive forces to achieve vague and over ambitious objectives which are in fact unachievable.

The Russian intervention can therefore be pitched more modestly - at precisely the level needed to achieve the objective the political leadership has set - which is what we are seeing.

Whereas Westerners often quote Clausewitz’s famous dictum - “war is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse carried on with other means. What remains peculiar to war is simply the peculiar nature of its means” - it is the Russians who actually apply it.

As for the Russian aircraft that crashed over Sinai, if it was destroyed by a bomb - as is looking increasingly likely - that will not change Russian policy in the least. 

Those who think it will do not understand the Russian approach to foreign policy, and underestimate the clearheaded and single-minded way the Russians pursue their objectives.

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