The Influence of Air Power upon Syrian History
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.
A Geopolitical Coup?
From a geopolitical perspetive, Russia’s involvement is beginning to look like a coup of the first order.
Three weeks ago, in Syria and the Three Wars, I identified a few possible pitfalls as well as advantages that could accrue from this. To date, Russia hasn’t fall into any of the pitfalls, and lapped up all the advantages.
Afghanistan-like quagmire – Nope. Still no ground intervention on the horizon. One suicide, zero direct military casualties. (Though the Saker does identify incipient mission creep).
Will enable “Putinsliv” (abandonment) of Novorossiya – Contra Prosvirnin & Co.’s fears, there is no indication that this is happening either. (At the moment tensions are beginning to heat up again there. Considering the multitude of false war scares we’ve had there, however, chances are it will continue to remain frozen for the foreseeable future).
Provide RL training – Is happening.
“Politely” demonstrate Russian military power – This plan was not just fulfilled but overfulfilled, with many second-rate Western analysts apparently shocked – shocked! – that Russia with its decades-old Orc Tech built a functional air base from scratch within a few month from which it maintains extremely high fighter sortie rates that put the USAF to shame, and flings cruise missiles from thousands of miles away with pinpoint precision. Even observers otherwise familiar with Russian military capitabilities were impressed by the magnitude of the improvements since the South Ossetian War. Incidentally, and exactly as I suggested, this also makes a mockery – in the most graphic and explicit terms possible – of the Ukrainian junta’s tall tales that it was “at war” with Russia and beat back Pskov paratrooper brigades and Buryat divisons by the dozen.
That I hadn’t spelled out in detail, but which are becoming increasingly evident.
Very good PR both for the Russia Stronk! crowd and beyond – To be fair, at least until the Paris Attacks, this was limited to Putin’s usual Western fans – i.e., those not under the spell of neocon “Assad killing his own people” propaganda (i.e. a decided minority). But nice to have nonetheless. The world defender of Christian civilization, and not just in word, as was the case before, but in deed.
And the “only one” such, according to a remarkable recent statement by Assad (this does make one wonder if there is anything to the rumors that Alawites are actually crypto-Christians).
The Russians are now getting called crusaders by Islamists, an honor previously reserved for just the US and its allies (not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that). Here is an inspirational video on this “Holy Crusader Order” theme by a Russian “patriotic trolling” group:
Western narrative shift after Paris? – It was clear that Russia was going to be at loggerheads with the US and its allies/satraps once it waded into Syria. Indeed, some of the crazier neocons and US Republicans were calling for the US to establish a no fly zone (which would have been a direct act of military aggression against Russia), though I never expected anything to come out of that since it was inevitable that the hotheads would be set straight by the hard realists at the Pentagon if things ever went that far south. Nor was I expecting anything particularly game changing in the wake of the Paris Attacks (in the bleakest version, if anything, the Western elites would merely use them as a cynical ploy to double down on their anti-Assad stance).
But in the event, things appear to be surprising to the upside, and in a very major and unexpected way. Hawkish Hollande, more American than the (post-Bush) Americans in his zeal for intervention, has finally admitted that ISIS is France’s prime enemy, not Assad. Not perfect, but good enough. The Russian military in the Levant has been told to treat the French soldiers incoming on the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier as allies. Although speaking of any wider rapprochment in West-Russia relations is very clearly premature, the worst outcomes now appear to be ruled out and things are looking up. Obama has even called Putin a “constructive partner” in the Syria talks, which would have been unimaginable just a year ago when he was the butt of Western opprobrium at the Brisbane G20 summit. Considering that Putin remains constant to his position – the same as that proposed by Kofi Annan at the 2012 Geneva Conference – that Assad must be included in any negotiations between the regime and (truly) moderate factions about political transition, the apparent dropping of the removal of Assad as the West’s Number One priority in Syria basically implies that the Western political elites have been forced come round to the point of view of their worst international bugbear.
These political developments are getting reflected in the Western media. Even the neocon rag The Daily Beast has gone from “Russia’s Giving ISIS an Air Force” to “Russia Pounds ISIS with Biggest Bomber Raid in Decades.”
Irish journalist Danielle Ryan has a very good article on the diplomatic aspects of this development at The BRICS Post:
Before the Paris attacks, some analysts had been worriedly warning that Putin was winning the “PR war” in Syria. In the aftermath, Moscow’s articulation of its position looks less like PR and more like an appeal to common sense.
To risk an understatement, it’s depressing that 132 innocent people had to die in Paris before Obama, Cameron et al realized that Russia could be an indispensable partner in the fight against ISIS, and that disagreements over the fate of Assad should not be “the altar on which the country of Syria is slaughtered”.
If only this realization could have been made in 2010, when the Syrian government offered Western powers a chance to join up and fight ISIS together. Or in 2012, when Russia is rumoured to have offered the West a proposal which would have seen Assad step down as part of a broad peace deal.
Shady actors hurrying to tidy themselves up – So very conveniently soon after the Paris Attacks, Qatar arrested 6 men who had been supplying arms, including MANPADS, to Islamic State.
Their provider? Ukraine.
Perhaps the Ukrainians took Interior Ministry bigwig Anton Geraschenko’s injunction to “help ISIS take revenge on Russia by the canons of sharia” a bit too literally. So pathological is Maidanist village hatred for Russia that many of them lack the self-awareness to comprehend that ISIS and their own Western sponsors don’t exactly see eye to eye. (Ironically, it is not altogether impossible that this was because they took conspiracy theories from the more unhinged elements of the Russian nationalist scene about how the Americans control ISIS at face value). Certainly the Maidanist types have never had any compunctions about allying with people who ultimately despised them just to spit in Russia’s soup, from the Nazis in WW2 to Islamist fanatics today.
The alternative, less exciting but admittedly far more realistic possibility, is that this is a mere consequence of Ukraine’s failed state status.