As Russian fighters begin their baptism of fire in Syria, it is worth pointing out there are at least three separate wars going on here. And they’re all quite distinct.
(1) The Actual War
Once again I urge people to familiarize themselves with a map of the Syrian conflict (e.g. here). All of Assad’s most critical fronts – the big region between Aleppo and Latakia, and the pockets around Homs and Damascus – are FSA/Al Nusra/Al Qaeda. So long as they threaten Syria’s three biggest cities, including its capital and the Alawite heartlands (where Russia’s airbases happen to be located), focusing on the Islamic State would be sheer military folly.
Striking ISIS intensively right now would be pointless because there are no ready SAA forces that could rush in to exploit it. The US coalition’s own record proves that. Which is not to say that Russia is avoiding striking the Islamic State on principle, as the more deranged neocons have been claiming. You will just not be hearing much of them, first because (as per above) Al Nusra/FSA are the main priorities right now, second because the Western MSM has clearly been given a directive to discredit the Russian intervention.
Here is a side-by-side map of areas of control in Syria, and of the location of the Russian air strikes. ISIS territories do get bombed, but the main targets are logically those that are closer to SAA positions.
As those of you who have been following my recent writings on the Arab militaries will know, one of the key problems that the SAA – as a conventional Muslim Arab army – continues to face even now is a relative lack of morale (compared to those who fight for God, like Al Nusra or IS, or those who fight for clan, like the Kurds, the Druze, and the Shi’ite militias). This means that although it is able to hold on quite effectively when defending its Shi’ite heartlands, it finds it much more difficult to make offensive gains, since its combat efficiency is lower due to those morale hits that typically accrue to any Arab conventional state army, and its superiority in military capital (tanks, fighters, etc) is considerably nullified by their incompetence in using them. Like it not, but the sad reality is that clannish, ~85 IQ peoples just do not make good soldiers for the purposes of modern combined arms warfare. Needless to say, it also doesn’t help that it is usually attacking well-fortified urban outposts (attackers generally need a 3-to-2 total combat power advantage to make gains in such conditions).
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.
Why are American air strikes hopeless? Because they are missing the ground element. Even in its most benign interpretation it is nothing but a big Whac-a-Mole game. It refused to countenance any sort of coordination with the SAA. If it had, then the ISIS takeover of Palmyra – which involved crossing 150km+ of open desert over a single major road over a period of a month – would have been impossible (and Khaled al-Asaad, the executed architect who became the object of many MSM crocodile tears, would still have his head attached to his shoulders). Even the Pentagon has admitted that its project to train “moderate” fighters to combat IS has been a colossal, expensive failure. It claims that its airstrikes killed 10,000 ISIS fighters but these are frankly dubious. Even if it did, considering that IS probably has close to 100,000 troops by now, it wouldn’t have made a major difference anyway.
(2) The Propaganda War
This pretty much says everything there is to say.
No wonder everybody sane from Russia to Hungary to Egypt are kicking out American NGOs!
Mark Adomanis sardonically points out that whereas the US couldn’t find moderate rebels in 3 years, the Russians did so in 24 hours.
Senile Cold Warriors from McCain to cuckservative icon Tom Cotton rave and demand to knock Russian fighters out of the sky to protect their beloved Al Qaeda proteges. On the off chance this leads to WW3 and the world of Stalker/Fallout, Americans should know that they did this to protect literal cannibals, genocidal fanatics, and – horror of horrors – homophobes.
Note also that there were no loud proclamations from Obama and his stooge Hollande when Turkey hit only Kurdish targets under the pretense of fighting ISIS.
This is because the US is disinterested in combatting ISIS and cares only about overthrowing President Assad, no matter if doing so involves flagrant violations of international law (Syria never gave it permission to use its airspace) and effectively allying itself with the people who carried out 9/11.
Perhaps the only redeeming feature in all of this is that, to the elites’ horror and bewilderment, the general public and their representative The Donald have stopped lapping up their lies and propaganda, something that is easy to observe from the comments sections on sites from YouTube to CNN (incidentally, has anyone else noticed how all the MSM sites are beginning to close their comments sections? What’s up with that LOL).
(3) The Geopolitical War
Remember my account of Egor Prosvirnin’s recent legal travails? Well, his Sputnik i Pogrom site has produced the following propaganda poster:
“The finale of Soviet regimes is remarkably simiar: Afghanistan, 1979 – Syria, 2015.”
This poster encompasses two big criticisms of Russia’s new Syria adventure from the (nationalist) Right.
(There are is also the usual predictable whining in Russia from pro-Western liberals going on about how Russia is supporting a “bloody dictator” and hoping the freedom fighters knock Russian fighter jets from the sky but nobody cares about their opinions except the American NGOs who finance them).
(1) The idea that Syria will become an Afghanistan-like quagmire.
After all, the Soviet Union never *invaded* Afghanistan either (even if it was presented as such by the Cold Warriors). It came by request of the legitimate Afghan authorities. And it ended getting bogged down and losing the lives of 15,000 soldiers, in an ultimately futile attempt to preserve some semblance of civilization against mujahedeen financed and sponsored by the Saudis and their best friends the Americans. According to Islamist propaganda, which neocons admire greatly (at least so long as it is aimed against Russia), this provoked the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The key difference: So far Russia is only sending fighter aircraft, and military advisors who will not be actively taking part in the fighting. So long as things stay that way, the Syria intervention will not constitute a major financial commitment, or a major commitment in terms of morale and approval ratings. The worst that can happen is that a fighter pilot is captured and gruesomely executed by Al Nusra or ISIS.
That, however, runs the risk of provoking a larger-scale Russian ground intervention, especially if the SAA fails to make the hoped for advances with the help of the Russian Air Force. They could get gradually sucked in like the Americans did in Vietnam. At least this is how this argument goes in Russian liberal and some nationalist circles. But I assume the Russians are familiar with that particular history and will not fall into a similar trap, no matter how much the neocons might be wishing otherwise.
(2) The idea that it involves abandoning the Novorossiya project.
There is, in fact, a recent Guardian article to that effect, which happens to quote Prosvirnin himself:
In Moscow, too, there are rumblings that the “Novorossia project” to carve out a pro-Russian statelet in east Ukraine has been well and truly closed down. Egor Prosvirnin, editor of the nationalist blog Sputnik and Pogrom, has been called in for questioning in recent weeks over suspicions that his website may contain “extremist material”.
The article in question, while advocating for Russia to take full control of eastern Ukraine, does not contain anything that could not have been heard regularly on Russian state television over the past year and a half, and Prosvirnin believes Russian authorities are now trying to stuff the genie back into the bottle.
“The conflict is being frozen and we are too strongly in support of the Novorossia project, we’re too independent. This is a warning to us to stop what we’re doing,” he said.
As a result, there is currently a great deal of hatred for Assad and Syria in Sputnik i Pogrom circles. (The hatred for Putin has always been there).
At this point, it’s worth quoting the main parts of SiP’s “conspiracy theory” as I recounted it (otherwise known in Russian discussions as “Putinsliv” theory, lit. Putin flushing [Novorossiya] away):
But then again… back in July of this year, Prosvirnin on his Facebook page – I can’t locate it now, but it was certainly there – predicted that Novorossiya would soon be betrayed (nothing new) and replaced with a propaganda campaign in favor of Russian involvement in Syria, including boots on the ground (very new!).
He even argued that this would be a way of mending US-Russian relations, which certainly cuts against the conventional wisdom – both in the mainstream and the altsphere – that the West and Russia are fundamentally at odds in Syria and that the US is committed to seeing Assad go.
In effect, Russia would doing the “dirty” work of wrapping up the Syrian Civil War with the quiet acquiescence and approval of the West and the Gulf Arab states while they get to wash their hands of it, condemn Russia, take meaningless symbolic actions against it (e.g. requesting that Greece close its airspace to Russian military cargo only for Greece to promptly refuse it), and otherwise quietly shake Putin’s hand and congratulate him with the restoration of order in the Levant and, in the Europeans’ case, for helping end the refugee crisis.
And for all my, and the Saker’s, prior skepticism… some of this does seem to be happening.
Russians tanks and gunships are appearing in the Alawite heartlands. Bases are getting expanded. According to the latest reports from gazeta.ru (an anti-Kremlin publication), Russian military contractors are being sent to Syria to fight for Assad against their will.
It looks increasingly that Prosvirnin must have either guessed very, very well… or that he had very, very senior informants in the Kremlin.
If this version of affairs is in any way accurate, then it appears that Putin is setting himself up for a fail of epic, 1989-like proportions.
My operating assumption is that the US does not tend to honor those of its commitments that are not both written and binding (just ask Gorbachev about NATO expansion). Imagine that Russia “sorts out” Syria, assuming onto itself the opprobrium of keeping “bloody Assad” in power and doubtless taking some military casualties in the process to boot. Assume it also betrays Novorossiya, as Prosvirnin has been insisting it would for over a year now. Assume it does all this on some promise from the US to drop sanctions, accept Crimea, and help reintegrate Russia into the international (read: Western) community.
But why would it?
Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, shame on… shame on you, as that old Texan saying somewhere in Tennessee goes. If Putin falls for a trap this obvious, he will have nobody to blame himself. And with an approval rating now presumably in tatters, he will find both nationalists and liberals coming at him with knives unsheathed (unless, perhaps, he takes care of them beforehand).
And indeed the points in support of this theory have arguably grown since then. Now we know for sure that Russia’s intervention in Syria is 100% real. We have evidence of a real de-escalation in the Donbass, perhaps even in preparation for “stuffing back” the LDNR into Ukraine (though I should remind panicky readers that the DNR is preparing to go forwards with local elections on October 18th and the LNR on November 1st, which is is evidence against Putinsliv because these elections do not abide by the conditions of Minsk 2). And, away from neocon and Cold Warrior hysterics, it seems that the CENTCOM and the Russian military, and Obama and Putin at the higher level, are initiating a real dialog on avoiding costly “misunderstandings” in Syrian airspace.
All of this must be very distressing for those Russians who consider Novorossiya to be orders of magnitude greater importance than what is going on in Syria. That is perfectly understandable.
But as I also wrote in my Ask.fm answer to a question on the future of Novorossiya:
The military power of the NAF continues increasing. It now has 40,000 well-equipped troops and (reportedly) 450 MBTs. A year ago, it had no more than 20,000 troops, with just a few dozen MBTs. More importantly, it is a *real* army now, with centralized C&C, whereas a year ago it consisted primarily of independent militias. These can be adequate in defense, but you cannot carry out coherent, large-scale offensive operations with that kind of structure. Prosvirnin and Co. say the purging of the most recalcitrant militia leaders is “proof” that a zrada is nigh. But it could just as plausibly be interpreted as rational, consecutive steps to increase the NAF’s military power. I do not think these changes could have been possible without Russia’s support. Ultimately, why would Russia bother with upgrading the NAF if it planned to give it all back to the junta anyway?
In the meantime, with any luck, the Ukrainian economy will continue to degrade, and Poroshenko finds himself trapped between a rock (the Minsk Accords) and a hard place (the Maidan absolutists and the hardliners of the Far Right), and we will see a collapse into complete chaos, which may finally convince the Western powers to give up on Ukraine and create many other opportunities. But it’s also quite possible that the system will manage to pull through. That is the risk Putin took when he decided against military intervention last April.
Ultimately, the military power of the Novorossiya Armed Forces (to say nothing of the Russian Southern Military District) is still incomparably bigger than Russia’s current, ultimately modest investment in Syria.
The transfer of a couple dozen modern ground attack fighters to Latakia does not represent any real diminution of Russia’s military capabilities relative to the Ukrainian junta.
It will however provide valuable “real life” training opportunities for the Russian Air Force, much like Spain in the 1930s or Korea in the early 1950s.
And another potential advantage (though one I expect absolutely no-one will exploit) is that observing the fighting in Syria will serve to better demonstrate what real Russian combined arms warfare actually looks like in practice. So that the next time some two-bit neocon propaganda stooge like Paul Goble or Roderick Gregory claims a bazillion Pskov paratrooper casualties in the Donbass they would be laughed off the stage instead of getting endlessly and respectfully requoted in MSM outlets. But in fairness I don’t expect any of this to happen, since Poroshenko is in the West’s pocket and the “independence” of the Western media is mostly a fiction, while Russian soft power doesn’t have the requisite reach and sophistication.
So as before I still say that the Putinsliv theory remains unproven, and as such, there is no reasonable cause for dismay just yet. It’s not a very satisfying answer, to be sure, but if I was in the business of giving simple, satisfying, and self-confident answers, my readership would be a lot higher than it actually is.