Deputy President of the Russian Academy of Sciences
for information policy, Doctor of Military Sciences
Translated by Scott Humor
The American withdrawal from Syria is inevitable. It will proceed voluntary with minimal reputational, material, and human losses or it will be forced by the pressure of irregular armed formations. In the latter case, it will be perceived as a shameful military defeat with significant losses in personnel, equipment, and resources.
An American convoy was shelled by the Pro-Turkish militants. There were no casualties. The convoy was probably under cover of a special operations force unit. There is no doubt that the Pro-Turkish militants knew well who they were shelling. This event is a manifestation of very serious developments in the situation in Syria, fraught with dangerous consequences for the United States.
Attention is drawn to the fact that the convoy was fired on by Pro-Turkish militants. Just like that, without the knowledge of their curators from Ankara, this could not happen. They had to at least confirm a neutral attitude of Ankara to the action. That is, quite serious; forces are interested in ending the American presence in Syria.
Force without a social base
Damascus needs to restore the territorial integrity of Syria. American troops are an obstacle in achieving this. Moreover, it has long been obvious that the United States initiated the civil war in Syria, spawned so called “fighters for democracy” and continue to plunder its natural resources. The fight of the United States against the Dash (banned in our country) was more of an imitation nature, pursuing the goal of not destroying the terrorist organization, but taking it under control. Moreover, US troops in Syria are illegally and in accordance with international law they are the aggressors. It is unlikely that the Kurds loyal to the Americans will treat G. I.s well. The United States abandoned them in the most difficult moment, leaving them one on one with the Turkish military machine, the second most powerful army of NATO (and if you take only the land component and morale, then certainly the first, superior to the American). The Kurds, to survive, had to negotiate with the legitimate Syrian government, which they did. So for the American contingent it’s not worth it to wait for their support. On the contrary, the Kurds, in order to earn a better place in Syrian society, after their attempts to participate in the partition of the country in alliance with the American aggressors, might begin active hostilities against former allies.
The surviving militants of Islamic radical organizations after the US strikes on their leaders, in particular the destruction of the leader of the Daesh “al-Baghdadi,” are also unlikely to remain on the sidelines if the opportunity to take a revenge presents itself.
The “democratic” Syrian opposition, which is under Turkish control, seems to have realized that the armed struggle in Syria will be completed in the near future. The most important sign for them can be the agreements reached by the presidents of Russia and Turkey. This means that they will have to re-integrate into the Syrian political field. Accordingly, they need decent groundwork, without which it is hardly possible to count on something. The negative image of the opposition in the mass consciousness, left by its participation in the war on the side of the aggressor, can be compensated by the contribution to the expulsion of Americans from Syria. Moreover, Turkey will most likely look at their actions as “pranks,” favorably and might even help. After all, the United States did not find anything better than “stepping on a sore Turkish corn”: it recognized the Armenian genocide that took place 1915 and, in addition, imposed economic sanctions against Ankara. The Turkish leadership is not yet ready to directly take really effective measures against the United States, for example, to expel it from Incirlik military base. But to hint to the Americans by shelling the American troops by Turkey controlled militants is quite acceptable. If they do not understand, there may be more “hints” with personnel loses.
The Americans have no reason to count on the full loyalty of the local Arab tribes. They are well aware that the United States in Syria is the losing side. To appear as collaborators with the expelled aggressor for them worth very little‑-the aggressor will leave, and will abandon them to answer before the lawful government of the country. In such situation, it would be a boon for the Americans if these tribes remained simply neutral. But there will always be some “passionaries” and offended who will want to settle scores with invaders.
So today, the United States has no social base in Syria to maintain a military presence. Nevertheless, the American leadership shows no desire to leave the country. Rather, on the contrary–by withdrawing fighters from areas that have lost importance, into the most important oil-bearing region of Syria, Washington stays and even assumes to increase its troops numbers and weapons. Obviously, the US is betting on its military power in the hope that Syria and its allies will not dare to face a direct clash, and that they will cope with irregular armed formations. Several such incidents took place already, and the Americans defeated some hostile groups that infiltrated into the Eastern Euphrates.
The United States is right to assume that Damascus and its allies in the face of Moscow, Tehran and especially Ankara will never go to a direct armed conflict. But their confidence in their own ability to withstand the blows of irregular armed formations is greatly exaggerated. After all, the lessons of hybrid wars unleashed by the Americans in different regions of the world have already been well learned by their victims and other countries. And these knowledge can be successfully used against the G. I.s in Syria.
The probable methods of hybrid warfare against the Americans are determined by the characteristics of their activities, bases and composition of their groups. The US contingent in Syria is relatively small — about two thousand people. They are stationed within the bases, equipped with engineering and have a powerful defense system, as well as at the protected facilities of the occupied oil complex of Syria in the province of Deir ez-Zor. The main us base – “Al-TANF” in the province of HOMS near the border with Iraq. On its territory the American have heavy weapons, armored vehicles (but no tanks as of yet, according to open sources), MLRS and HIMARS. The perimeter and surrounding areas are constantly patrolled. The Americans are building two new bases in the province of Deir ez-Zor near the village of Sur. To do this, an additional contingent of up to 300 people was sent to the district. Between bases and protected objects of the occupied oil extracting complexes the Americans move columns of troops and vehicles transferring oil it carried out. Supply is mainly by air. The AL-TANF base is supplied by the ground from Iraq.
This is not Khmeimim
Analysis of the basing system and the activities of the US forces in Syria suggests that the irregular armed formations can force them to leave by causing unacceptable damages, blockade of bases, and protected facilities. For strikes they will use drones and shells (both industrial and artisanal production). Routes of movement of the American troops and convoys will be mines. The flank attacks using MANPADS and rockets launchers are expected.
Examples of such actions were the attempts of the rebels from Idlib to use UAVS against our base in Khmeimim. These attacks have not reached the goal – they were all rebuffed. However, the American bases are another case.
First, they can be attacked from almost all directions, whereas Khmeimim was attacked only from Idlib, where terrorist groups were surrounded. The remote distance of Idlib did not allow militants to use short-range rockets. They didn’t have any others. What remained were only the handcrafted drones. In case of the American bases, the situation is exactly the opposite — U.S. troops sit in isolation, and the “irregulars” are free to choose any position and direction of the strike. So, the Americans need to create an omni-directional air defense system designed to deflect a wide range of different SVN or средства воздушного нападения (means of air strike) — from handmade UAVS to quite modern RS (rocket projectiles).
Secondly, American troops do not have effective air defenses capable of repelling attacks of the simplest drones. Oddly enough, the US NAVY has no effective small-caliber anti-aircraft artillery. Long-range air defense is represented by the SAM “Patriot”, which unable to do anything against such targets as homemade UAV. And short-range SAMS are represented by models, which are based on the missile complex “Stinger” with thermal Heatseeker (Тепловая головка самонаведения), effective against aircraft with jet and turboprop engines, helicopters, etc., but powerless against handmade drones.
What remains is the 25-mm gun of the Bradley IFV with a night vision collimator. It can fire at air targets at the range of up to three kilometers. But its effectiveness on the handmade or just a small UAV is unlikely to be higher than the heavy machine guns MZA of the World War II on the aircraft of the time: then also fired using collimator vision. That is, one “Bradley” will be able to shoot down the drone during its stay in the fire zone at a speed of about 40-80 kilometers per hour with a probability of no more than 15-25 percent. It is extremely small for effective reflection of group RAID. And when shooting at night, the probability of hitting the UAV will decrease to several percent – “Bradley,” even with the help of its highly effective passive means of night surveillance, will be difficult to detect and accompany such a target as a small drone, due to its low visibility in the infrared spectrum. They’ll have to use floodlights, as in World War II. But even in this case, it will be very difficult to detect a small-sized low-noise target in the sky, even with the targeting from the air surveillance radar.
An attempt to use EW means and, intercepting the control of the UAV, taking it aside or landing on its territory will be effective only against semi-autonomous drones controlled from the ground. But the target can be completely autonomous, carrying out flight according to the set program. In this case, EW won’t help. However, the dispersion of UAV drop points might be wide. But their target is also rather big – an entire base. And UAVS can arrive in large numbers making total damage from them to be very noticeable, especially if expressed in wounded and dead soldiers. The losses might be great enough for the militants of irregular armed formations to “squeeze out” the Americans from Syria.
Even more effective might be the strikes on the protected and used by the Americans objects of the oil production complexes. How effective this can be has been demonstrated in Saudi Arabia by the Houthis. At the same time, losses among the troops personnel can be serious.
As the Russian experience shows, an effective tool to combat such a threat is the ZAK (anti-aircraft artillery systems), which have their own radar for reviewing the airspace and a shooting station, ensuring the defeat of an air target in automatic mode without the inclusion of an operator. Such, in particular, is the Russian anti aircraft missiles and gun complex “Pantsir-S”. But in the United States, it has no analogues. The last anti-aircraft gun the M163 Vulcan Air Defense System (VADS) which was a 20-mm six-barreled aircraft gun “Volcano,” coupled with a shooting radar and placed on the chassis of the APC M-113, has long been removed from service. Of course, Americans can rent something similar in other countries. For example, in Saudi Arabia, where there are about a hundred M-163. However, this complex was removed from service because its firing range is about 1.5 kilometers, and the probability of hitting the target is low – from 0.05 to 0.4, depending on the type of SVN(means of air strike). In addition, it does not have its own radar survey of airspace. Yes, there is a German Cheetah. It is able to solve the problem of combating small-sized UAVS with acceptable efficiency. The complex was created on chassis of “Leopard-1” tank with appropriate for a tank size and mass. So their transfer to Syria in the near future is very problematic.
The Americans have no antidote against rockets at all. Meanwhile, as experience shows, the militants may use single launchers of industrial production on a simple tripod, for example for 122-mm shells from “Grad” or similar and make their own makeshift rocket, they can get help from irregular armed groups who already have such experience, such as Hezbollah, which itself willing to join the fight against the Americans. At the same time, as in the example with the UAV, the requirements for accuracy are extremely lax – the target is large and you just need to hit it. A projectile can cause serious damage. Thus, the 21-kilogram combat unit of the Grad RS creates a zone of destruction of manpower and light armored vehicles with a radius of more than a dozen meters.
The Americans have one real way to deal with such a threat – the destruction of UAV launch groups and RS before they strike. However, it is very difficult to provide real-time control of space within a radius of 40-50 kilometers from the base by existing forces. The main problem will be not so much the detection of groups of people, animals and equipment as to classify them: who they are, are they a threat or not. How difficult it is, can be judged by a long-known episode in the post-war Iraq, when in Baghdad (the capital, where the highest density of occupational troops) Apache helicopters shot a group of TV journalists only because the pilots could not distinguish the camera from the MANPADS. In the desert at night, under the threat to be shot by a MANPADS or a machine gun, it is impossible to identify a real threat. The Americans will simply have to declare no-go zones around their bases with the destruction within them of all suspicious objects. This will inevitably lead to casualties among the local population and as a consequence the locals will join the ranks of those who want to get even with the Americans.
To sum up: US bases in Syria are extremely vulnerable. And if they have not yet suffered damage, it is only because no one has yet set a task to attack them. And when such a decision is made, the loss of Americans will begin to grow rapidly.
Militants, of course, will deploy the “war on communications” to isolate American bases and cause losses in personnel and equipment on the routes. The whole set of means and methods of action, which is well known from guerrilla wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries, can be applied here. In addition to the arsenal that has been already used there, it’s reasonable to expect the large-scale use of ATGMs and MANPADS. Irregular armed formation fighters may have these weapons in sufficient quantity.
With this development, the existing contingents of US troops in Syria will not be able to exist for a long time even with intensive air support by tactical and carrier-based aircraft. Therefore, if the US leadership decides to stay and gain a foothold, it will be necessary to radically strengthen the group deployed here. Then it will be possible to reliably control the territories at a sufficient distance to ensure the safety of bases, as well as cover communications. It seems that the American leadership has chosen this path and is preparing for the upcoming war with the guerrillas, having decided to build up their group. Statements have already been made by representatives of the American establishment about the decision to send tanks to Syria.
Each posting of the convoy on communications will be built in the form of a full-fledged military operation with the appropriate expenditure of forces and means. But even in the presence of heavily armored vehicles with aircraft, tangible losses are inevitable, since the militants have enough means to fight, including the most modern ones. In American society, it will be perceived as being drawn into another Afghanistan or worse – Vietnam. Of course, the losses of the militants will likely be an order of magnitude greater, but after all, they have much less sensitivity. In addition, public opinion in Syria will certainly support those fighting against the American aggressor.
The United States has no real reason – neither political, nor social, nor military-strategic – to stay in Syria for any significant political or economic period. The sooner the American leadership understands this, the better it is for them. Trump seems to have realized this, so he seeks to get rid of the Syrian “suitcase without a handle.” However, an influential part of the overseas elite thinks otherwise or wants to create problems for Trump in the upcoming elections
It can be assumed that the fate of the American contingent in Syria will be decided in the next year: the United States will leave this country.