Russia’s intervention is now in “open-ended” mode. Diplomacy has gone nowhere, and almost no one in Russia is even talking about a way out anymore. Anyone still think it was a good idea?
The antecedent to this article "Curb Your Enthusiasm, Russia is Not Winning in Syria", provoked heated discussion on RI, and a rebuttal from Alexander Mercouris, entitled "Actually, Russia IS Winning in Syria". The debate continues.
As of today, it has been almost three months since Russia launched its Syrian air campaign, and about two months since the Shi’a axis-of-stubble commenced its Big Offensive in that country.
It has also been one month since Curb Your Enthusiasm, Russia is Not Winning in Syria, which may have set a record for comment activity on RI.
So there has been a good deal of time for Assad and his patrons to turn things around.
Yet despite some modest territorial losses, the rebels and most of the Jihadi groups are clearly neither broken nor on the run.
In fact, they have inflicted heavy casualties on Hezbollah (see here for the most current dispatch as of press time), killed a number of Iranian senior officers, expanded their territory in a few places (here, for example), and even recovered lost ground in cases where the Russian air force was limited by weather or simply distracted elsewhere, again proving that all of Assad's horses and all of his men can no longer hold on to territory (much less advance) without intensive foreign air support.
Moreover, anyone who believes the Syrian regime’s mouthpieces with their reports of thousands of dead “terrorists” each month (if not week or day) should consider that Kiev and its press lackeys were claiming the very same thing about Donbass rebels in the spring-summer of 2014.
Human psychology is the same everywhere; the tendencies to exaggerate success and to cheerlead based on spurious sources—what Russians call выдавать желаемое за действительное—are universal.
Fact is, airstrikes over such a large area by a few score planes, along with mostly lightly-armed militias fighting over isolated checkpoints and hilltops, can’t produce those kinds of losses on just one side in three months—unless we include all the wounded and perhaps “collateral damage” as well (such as this from day one of the airstrikes—and that’s just day one.)
Not to mention, if the “terrorist” body counts cited by Assad's mouthpieces (such as this one which typically claims 100 or more per day killed by Syrian forces alone) were real, then—as in the Donbass—the side racking them up would have taken much more territory than it did. After all, we're not talking about a World War in which every 50-kilometer stretch of front is contested by tens if not hundreds of thousands of combatants.
If Assad and his patrons had a Donbass-style “cauldron” to boast of, that would be something, but it is interesting that talk of anticipated cauldrons has almost completely disappeared from the Russian media and blogosphere since mid-November if not earlier.
And in the absence of successful encirclements and the butcheries or mass surrenders or barefoot-midnight-evacuations-without-equipment they engender, it always comes down to a war of attrition, which almost always favors demography (in this case, Assad and his sects and foreign Shi'as against a 70-percent Sunni Arab nation, 350 million Sunni Arabs and Turks in the region, and 1.2-plus billion Sunni Muslims globally, of course with material support from across the ocean.)
Also, Russian Ministry of Defense and pro-Kremlin media reports from October and early November, which had rebel or Jihadi groups collapsing as their fighters shaved off their beards and surrendered or fled to Turkey en masse, have proven to be complete fantasy, reminiscent of “Baghdad Bob” or the best days of Pravda. As I wrote a month ago, the pro-Assad forces on the ground are simply not large enough to follow-up effectively on the Russian airstrikes.
Then there is the comical rebel evacuation of Homs, portrayed as a regime victory, except that it is at least the second negotiated evacuation of Homs on record. Somehow the 2014 evacuation was held up as definitive and final, yet it turns out there was another district holding out, which only evacuated this month. How many other holdout districts have we yet to read about? Or did the same mice simply return to another district? In which case, they will be scurrying out of some other part of Homs again next year. Memories are short.
Also, Moscow’s apparent dreams of pulling the rug out from Uncle Sam by convincing secular rebels to fight alongside Assad have not come to fruition, despite a fantastical claim from President Putin himself—later absurdly denied by his press secretary—that Russia is arming and supplying “Free Syrian Army” units in four (yes, four) Syrian provinces.
So I’m afraid that выдавать желаемое за действительное has infected the very top of the Russian government. As we have seen from recent U.S. history, there are few things more dangerous in military affairs than getting caught up in your own propaganda.
On top of that, the (alleged) grand coalition against ISIS is still dominated by Uncle Sam, with Russia on the outside. In short, the diplomatic side has not progressed much at all since Russia started bombing. All that “Paris changes everything” hope and hype quickly smashed up against the reality of U.S. near-control of European foreign policies. Yes, the French made a little show of telling their ships to talk to Russian ships, but what ever came of that? Nothing.
If the goal of Russia’s involvement was to facilitate a diplomatic victory, that effort is failing, with the exception of some “Assad can stick around for a few minutes” rhetoric that is belied by Uncle Sam’s own stepped-up support of the insurgents and rabid opposition to Russia’s bombing even of ISIS.
Meanwhile, all the talk of a peace conference only masks the fact that Assad's sugar daddies don't think they can win—otherwise, why negotiate with "terrorists"? More importantly, as long as Uncle Sam, most of Europe, Turkey, and the Gulf states refuse to see the Assad clan or any minority regime remaining in Damascus over the medium-to-long term, their role in the negotiations becomes just a PR exercise and a means to facilitate an honorable surrender from the enemy.
In that context, Moscow's efforts to spin the mere existence of peace talks as some kind of tentative victory fall rather flat.
So it is clear that Russia miscalculated and is bogged down for the long haul.
And while good people may have argued the “bogged down” part a month ago, no one can deny it now; even Russia’s Defense Minister admitted it to parliament.
Yet some readers may feel that “Russia had no choice” but to intervene, as the Damascus government was about to fall, and that would have been a disaster.
Of course, no one disputes that it would have been a disaster for the Assad family and those nervous religious minorities that cling to its bizarre, hereditary-Stalinist rule.
But a disaster for Russia?
Notwithstanding any loss of face for the Kremlin, if someone can explain how events in Syria have any bearing on the well-being or prospects of the average Russian, or the health of the Russian economy or state, I’d really like to hear it. Because I’ve never actually heard it.
And in its absence, I believe the case for Russian involvement is pure jingoism and knee-jerk interventionism, a faith-based religious argument and a perfect mirror image of the disease that plagues Washington, DC.
(Again we see that psychology is constant across cultures.)
After all, we now see legions of freethinking, cosmopolitan sophisticates in Russia and the pro-Russia camp globally, including this chap, cheering on a bunch of bearded hillbillies calling themselves the “Party of God.” (This is the Shi’a Taliban with its core membership of eight-child families where the women dress in identical black body-bags with only their faces showing, and never mingle with men in public, not even at weddings or funerals.) Is that not a sign of muddled thinking?
Keep in mind that developments in Ukraine—which all sides of the Colosseum mob, in their never-ending search for bloodier, noisier spectacles, seem to have forgotten about—are of immeasurably greater consequence than the distance urination contest now under way in Syria.
Believe it or not, critical nodes of Russia's defense industry are still located in Ukraine. Ukraine is still a crucial source of life support—food, refined petroleum, and despite all efforts, electricity—for Russia's Crimea. It is also home to many millions of desperate Russian speakers living under U.S./NATO occupation-by-proxy—and these people are losing hope by the day.
Syria, on the other hand, is almost nothing at this point, just a bunch of bombed-out cinderblock shanties by the looks of it.
So, no, Russia's geostrategic frontline has not objectively moved from Ukraine to Syria.
Rather, Syria is a sideshow, a fully optional adventure to show the world that Moscow—unlike Uncle Sam, who has no memory or honor—stands by its clients through thick and thin, across generations if need be. Even the Russian press has offered no other coherent explanation of its country’s involvement in Syria. (Believe me, almost no one in Russia is spinning theories about Qatari gas pipelines—that's just sci-fi by non-Russians for non-Russians.)
But that's not “national security”, that's just politics and pride.
As President Putin himself said last April, “For us, of course, there is no direct threat at all from ISIS.” That statement naturally carries over to any Syria-based group less scary than ISIS. Thus, since making that statement, Putin has chosen to fight someone else’s war, which is not Russia’s war by any means.
(The fact that Putin didn't care about ISIS until this past September also tells you all you need to know about why Russia is in Syria, and what its priority targets are.)
I’m not sure how Moscow will extricate itself from its Syrian adventure. What objective measure of success can there be?
Yes, the Assad clan has been stabilized for the time being; it is no longer in danger of imminent collapse.
So can Russia go home now?
Because the estimated $8 million/day that Moscow is spending on its Syria operation (not counting the cost of supplying Assad’s army itself) could be used, for example, to pay Russian firemen in at least three provinces who have been told they won’t be paid until further notice.
Because, you know, war fever only works until the cupboard is bare.
Because if oil comes anywhere near its nominal 1998 lows and stays there, then the Kremlin better hang on to every kopek or they can write the final chapter for this classic and just turn off the lights.
But if Russia can’t go home now, then what else is required so that Assad can survive the minute his “foreign bayonets” check out?
Can someone articulate an answer?
And let's not forget, a lot of things have yet to go wrong. (We just don't know what they are.)
This adventure has so far cost Russia a plane full of innocent tourists, two military aircraft, an unknown (but probably low-double-digit) number of military personnel, good economic and political relations with Turkey, the ability to bring gas to the EU without having to negotiate with the EU directly, the ability of tens of millions of Russians to take affordable vacations in Turkey and Egypt, and the ruble equivalent of hundreds of millions of dollars in military operational expenses as well as arms and ammo giveaways to Damascus. And that's just for starters.
What's next? An Israel-Hezbollah war? A couple of Russian planes and pilots falling onto ISIS turf due to maintenance issues? Another terrorist attack against Russians, maybe in Thailand? (We know they are trying.) That last one would leave the average Russian with no convenient, safe foreign destination he can actually afford.
As I suggested a month ago in Curb Your Enthusiasm, Russia is Not Winning in Syria, Russia doesn't have the resources to deal with the chain of unknowns like Uncle Sam does.
I'm glad nothing has blown up since then, but given how eventful October and November turned out to be, it's really just a matter of time.
I'm sorry to say this, as I had hoped for the best, but already you can see they are in over their heads, and the water is only getting deeper.