This column was originally written for the Unz Review: http://www.unz.com/tsaker/week-two-of-the-russian-military-intervention-in-syria/
The Russian offensive in Syria is still very much in full swing and it is hard to make sense of what is really happening or how effective it has been. According to the Syrians, 40% of all the infrastructure of “Daesh” (meaning ISIS+al-Qaeda+all the hundreds of smaller groups fighting together against the Syrian government) has been destroyed. Russian sources are less enthusiastic and speak of a rather slow and hesitant Syrian offensive. So far, no major victory has been reported, but since all sides agree that the Russian air campaign is devastatingly effective and highly disruptive for Daesh, I think that there is a good probability that the Syrians will soon achieve a major success. If not, then the Iranians most definitely have the capability to truly tip the balance. So this might be a good time to look at what options Daesh will have.
How Daesh can adapt to the new circumstances
First, up until now, Daesh basically could move around at night with total impunity because the Syrian Air Force simply did not have the technology to detect and engage Daesh units at night. This has now changed since all the Russian aircraft (rotary and fixed wing) engaged in the current campaign are fully night capable. This is a major problem for Daesh which will now have to operate in an extremely dangerous environment 24 hours a day. The solution? Camouflage and dispersal. Daesh forces will have to learn to pay much more attention to avoiding detection, including radio detection, and they will have to avoid as much as possible any detectable concentrations. Not an easy task, for sure, but one which has been successfully learned by others in the past.
Second, Daesh forces will have to adapt to guerrilla-style ‘hit and run’ kinds of attacks. Until now, both sides were willing to engage in a bizarre kind of “trench warfare” in which each side would dig in and shell the other. Now that Russian bombers and close air support aircraft can be called in by the Syrian frontline commanders, this will become very dangerous for Daesh, probably forcing them to switch to faster, ambush warfare.
Third, most sources agree that currently Daesh controls roughly 80% of the land and 20% of the population. This is mostly due to the size of the Syrian armed forces which are stretched too thin to hold on to lightly populated areas. Daesh can use that to its advantage and try to move around any attacking Syrian forces and then ambush any units whose flanks and supply routes are not secured. The Syrians will have to be very careful not to fall into a “cauldron” trap like the Ukrainians in Novorussia.
Fourth, if things become really ugly for Daesh, they can start using the Turkish, Iraqi, Lebanese and Jordanian borders to hide from the Syrian/Iranian forces and enjoy the kind of safe heaven the Afghans had in Pakistan during the Soviet invasion.
Fifth, Daesh might do what the Ukrainians have done and organized a ‘Russian atrocity’ false flag, maybe the bombing of a pediatric clinic or hospital. They could even try a “Russian chemical attack in fleeing refugees”. The corporate media will be more than happy to pick up and spread the story, no matter how ridiculous.
Finally, we can be absolutely certain that if the Syrian military is “too” successful, at least from the point of view of the Empire, then all the “friends of Syria” will join forces and demand a “peace conference” whose main purpose will be to save Daesh from complete destruction. This is the strategy used by the West with the Minsk-1 and Minsk-2 peace talks to save the Ukronazi junta from military defeat.
The world has seen numerous examples of Daesh-like forces (in military, not political, terms) adapting to a technologically superior enemy. Right now, the government’s superiority is primarily in the skies (thanks to the RuAF) and in intelligence (thanks to the OsNaz GRU units on the ground and the Russian “eyes and ears” in the sky and in space). With time, however, Russian could bring in new equipment (modern multiple rocket launchers, TOS-1 heavy flame-throwers, newer armor and artillery systems) which can make a real difference but at the end of the day, it will be ‘boots’, in the sense of infantry, which will decide the outcome. Will the Syrians and Kurds be enough to break Daesh or will the Iranians make a move? I honestly don’t know, but my bet is on Iran and Hezbollah moving in. As for a Russian intervention, Putin has now totally excluded such a possibility.
Options recommended by US politicians
US politicians have come up with two suggestions to help their “moderate terrorists”: supply advanced anti-air missiles to Daesh and impose a no-fly zone. I consider both of these suggestions highly impractical and very dangerous.
Delivering advanced anti-air missiles: which ones?! Daesh already has man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) like the US Stingers and Russian Iglas. These are fine missiles, but they don’t have the reach to hit Russian aircraft which mostly fly at 5000m. True, they can hit a low flying target like a SU-25 on a close air support mission or a Mi-24 helicopter. Both of these aircraft have been heavily modified during and after the wars in Afghanistan and Chechnia and they are well-protected against such attacks. Still, sooner or later a Russian aircraft will get hit by such a missile and it is even possible that it will be downed. Daesh already has this capability and sending them more MANPADs just makes no sense but is very dangerous considering the kind of use any terrorist group can make of them against civilian airliners. Syria is not Afghanistan and we are not in the 1980s. MANPADs are simply not likely to make a major difference in this war, especially not against the kind of aircraft the Russians are currently deploying.
A no-fly zone: against whom, Russian aircraft? For one thing, this would be insanely provocative and the potential consequences of the US shooting down a Russian aircraft are truly terrifying. But this also begs the question of where such a zone would be created. Hillary and the other Neocon crazies are suggesting a no-fly zone over northern Syria. Okay, what if in response Russia declares another no fly zone over the rest of the country? Then what? Setting aside the insanity of actually threatening to attack Russia in military terms, in legal terms the Empire has no mandate to declare such a zone while Russia is standing on 100% legal grounds should she declare one. And if the Empire really goes crazy and declares that it will impose a no-fly zone over all of Syria you can be absolutely certain that S-300s will “suddenly” show up in sufficient numbers to make that an extremely dangerous exercise. By the way, at that point, the Russians can declare that all the S-300s in Syria are manned exclusively by Syrian personnel and are under Syrian command and thus they will be able to shoot down US aircraft in total impunity (as they already have in the past in Vietnam and Lebanon).
A no-fly zone makes sense against a defenseless country, but against one armed with semi-modern or modern air defenses this is a very dangerous proposition. I want to believe that there are enough mentally sane men in the JCS and Pentagon to reject any plan which can end up triggering a nuclear war between Russia and the USA.
The “sulking superpower”
Right now, the USA appears to be completely clueless. First, they accused the Russians of bombing the “wrong” terrorists. The Russians then replied “okay, give us a list of “bad terrorists” targets and we will destroy them”. The Americans refused. Then the Russians told them, “okay then, in this case at least give us a list of “good terrorist” targets not to bomb, and we will not hit them”. But the Americans refused again! At this point, the Russian began making openly fun of the Americans and Putin even declared that his American “partners” have “mush for brains”.
Furthermore, the USA have also refused a Russian invitation to send military specialists to the Russian General Staff and now they have apparently even refused to receive a Russian military delegation headed by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev himself! I don’t think I have ever heard of a “sulking superpower” but that is what we are apparently observing right now. How long Uncle Sam will continue to pout in his corner is anyone’s guess, but this is clearly not a sustainable policy. In fact, it is no policy at all.
I see no sign of the USA having the courage to look at reality and act accordingly. Not only is the Obama Administration at an absolutely unprecedented level of incompetence and intellectual mediocrity, the upcoming Presidential election is just making things worse: with bona fide psychopaths like Hillary, McCain or Fiorina making irresponsible statements on an almost daily basis, the White House must constantly dodge accusations of being “too soft on Russia”. And since no US politician can afford to tell the American public the basic truth that the US is not omnipotent, US politicians are stuck in a never ending race to prove how “tough” they are on “defense”. As for the Europeans, they probably have the brains to see all of the above, but what they lack is the spine to say anything to their American overlords.
Just like in the Ukraine, the West has made created a total mess and now is completely clueless as to what to do about it.
Contrary to the impression given by the western media, the Russian force in Syria is still a very small one. The main reason for that is that the airfield near Latakia simply cannot accommodate a larger Russian force. As far as I know, there are no other locations in Syria where Russia could deploy more aircraft. True, the number of sorties flown by the Russians has baffled USAF experts who could never have achieved that kind of figures with US aircraft and pilots. Still, the Russian force is small and vulnerable. Of course, one option for the Russians would be to expand the airfield near Latakia, but that would take time and more resources and my understanding is that they want to consolidate their current airfield first. However, as a stop-gap measure, the Russians could use Russian-based bombers. If Iran allows Russia to conduct in-air refueling in Iranian airspace or if Iran allows Russia to use Iranian airbases, then many more SU-34/SU-35SM or SU-34/SU-30SM “air force packages” that could be engaged in Syria. In theory, Russia could even provide her Tu-22M3 to deliver gravity bombs, her Tu-95MS to deliver cruise missiles and her Tu-160 to deliver either one or both. I don’t think that there is any military necessity to use these strategic bombers right now, but it might be a good idea to do so for political reasons – just to flex some more ‘military muscle’ and show the Neocons that Russia is not to be messed with. Submarine launched cruise missiles would also work, especially if launched by a Russian sub in the Mediterranean which the USN did not detect. What is certain is that after the first volley of Russian cruise missiles the US withdrew its only aircraft carrier – the Theodore Roosevelt – from the Persian Gulf.
[Sidebar: some Russian observers have suggested that the first volley of Russian cruise missiles included 26 missiles because the 26th President of the United States was Theodore Roosevelt, the name of the only carrier which was in the Persian Gulf, and that this was a subtle message to the USA. Dunno. Maybe so. Maybe not. But if it is a coincidence, it is a neat one. What is certain is that for the first time in a very long while there are no US carriers in the Persian Gulf]
The main problem with any military escalation or increased Russian involvement is that Putin would have to sell it to the Russian public which, at least so far, has been totally supportive, but which is generally weary of “mission creep” and open ended military commitments (for example, most Russians oppose an overt Russian intervention in the Donbass). So far, the Kremlin has done a superb PR job explaining that Daesh is a direct threat to Russia and that it was better for Russia to “fight them over there than over here”. This logic, however, is predicated on the idea that a very limited Russian intervention can tip the balance. There is a very fine conceptual line between tipping the balance and fighting someone else’s war and that is something the Kremlin is acutely aware of. Hopefully, this line will never be crossed.
UPDATE: the latest news is that the Americans have even refused the Russian offer to coordinate the rescue of any American or Russian pilot shot downed/crashed over Syria! Apparently, it is more important for Obama to continue sulking at Putin than to maximize the survival chances of US pilots. This is as pathetic as it is disgusting.