It's not a silver bullet, but Russian air support offered to Syrian army has turned the tables on ISIS
A slightly older article that was pushed aside for a moment with the last week's downing of the Russian Su-24 bomber in Syria, but one that is still pertinent and represents another valuable and informed viewpoint to consider when deciding whether Russia is winning in Syria as argued by RI's Alexander Mercouris or failing to do so as feared by RI's Jacob Dreizin.
Originally appeared at The Unz Review
Here are some recent videos of Russian bombings of Islamic state oil infrastructure (LOL at the guy getting out of Dodge at 0:25).
And a bombing of a nicely arraigned line of oil tankers:
All of which raises a rather obvious question: If this is easy as easy as shooting fish in a barrel – and it sure looks like it – why are there still any such installations and orderly truck columns in the empty desert to bomb in the first place?
The US military claims that such attacks were “minimally effective.” Considering that this was not the case even in 1944, when Allied (primarily US) bombing crippled German mobility despite Germany’s formidable IADS and the much more primitive surveillance and targetting technology of the time, this is implausible. At least the US has since started doing the same thing, after getting named and shamed into doing so at the UN by Putin. (And attempting to attribute Russian strikes on ISIS oil infrastructure to themselves. I wonder if in two generations’ time most Westerners will come to believe the US played the most important role in defeating ISIS, as happened with WW2).
The reason is that the strategy has always been not to decimate Islamic State, but to “funnel” it away from “moderate” rebels towards the SAA. Had that not been the case, ISIS would have never been able to travel across the hundreds of kilometers of open desert to take Palmyra. To add insult to injury, neocon propagandists continually claim (actually: Project) that Assad is in a functional alliance with ISIS, a characterization that was extended to Russia when it waded in.
To be sure there were plenty of Whac-a-Mole type of strikes, but these by themselves are militarily meaningless. Offing individual scumbags such as “Jihadi John” makes for good propaganda, but those guys are a dime a dozen in ISIS. Ultimately, victory lies in regaining ground from the terrorists, and on that front the tide seems to have turned decisively in favor of the SAA.
This is where the Russian Air Force can hopefully make a big difference. Even the fighters already in place will allow the Syrians to effectively double their number of sorties, and Russian fighter pilots are much more skilled and have more modern armaments than their Syrian counterparts.
Effectively, this translates to a tripling or quadrupling of Syrian air power that can be concentrated in support of SAA ground operations. Air power can seriously degrade the combat power of enemy formations that do not have adequate AA counters to it (that describes both the FSA/Al Nusra and ISIS).
Whereas a front might have once been in equilibrium, due to roughly matching combat power on either side, a sustained air campaign could begin to systemically swing the advantage over to the SAA and eventually enable the reconquista of Syrian territorities currently under renegade Islamist control.
That is pretty much exactly what seems to have happened at Kweiris Airbase, finally relieved after a 2.5 year siege by an SAA armored thrust supported by Russian air power.
And the doubling of the Russian air contingent in Syria proper – together with the introduction of strategic bombers (the Tu-160 Blackjack has been used in anger for the first time ever) – has now for all intents and purposes amplified the air power available to the SAA relative to before the Russian intervention by an order of magnitude.
The pace of ground operations is likewise only going to pick up from here. With ISIS shattered around Kweiris, a further thrust through Deir Hafir to Jirah Airbase (captured by ISIS last August) would cut off the northern part of the organization from its capital at Raqqa; the last remaining connection, via Tishrin Dam, could be easily plugged with the air power now at the SAA’s disposal.
Palmyra would be the other obvious target, and indeed activity seems to be heating up there as well. That said, it would probably be worthwhile to wait for a few months before starting any assault. With air control, and the vast expanses of open desert between Palmyra and the Islamic State heartlands, it would make sense to starve the Palmyra defenders of supplies first.
In the meantime, ISIS is beginning to bleed dry. Not helped by its flashy policy of mass POW executions, which has predictably resulted in their opponents starting to fight to the death, they wasted a bunch of fighters in a last ditch attempt to capture Kweiris before its relief, and have continued to mount extremely costly frontal assaults against Deir ez-Zor (DEZ).
With ISIS now getting rolled back in both Syria and even more spectacularly in Iraq, it makes sense that it would want to focus on consolidating its internal communications lines, which the heavily fortified DEZ bisects. But that outpost is guarded by some of the SAA’s most elite units and commanded by the legendary Issam Zahreddine (see right). Having held out for years, the chances of it falling now with the arrival of Russian air power are much reduced.
So it will continue serving as a meatgrinder, admittedly largely for the hapless and judging from the rate of executions for desertion not overly enthusiastic conscripts that Islamic State increasingly has to rely upon.