The year 2016 has only just begun, but to the Neo-Cons, Neo-Wilsonians and other R2Pers, future developments in Syria already seem pretty certain. The only noticeable exceptions to this unanimous media landscape are the rather refreshing account given in today’s Washington Post (“Russian Airstrikes are working in Syria”) and another piece by the LA Times, published a couple of days ago. Other than that, the silence among the media crowd and the political establishment is quite deafening. However, as evidenced by Col. Lang’s recent pieces, all these folks string together a story that can best be described as a mixture of self-hypnosis and self-delusion. With absolutely no background in military and strategic matters, the song that is being sung is simple: the Russians will inevitably get stuck in a quagmire and the only way out will be to cooperate with the White House and State Department, on the US administration’s terms of course.
This is the world we are living in: everybody is entitled to an opinion, however wrong and misguided it may be. The good thing on the other hand is that sooner or later reality will come back and bite you in the ass, when you are living in lalaland.
Things are quite simple really: the only basis – other than a partisan agenda – on which the Borgists build their opinion and outlook is the “metrics” of recent operations. Those “metrics” are about the one thing they are willing and maybe capable to understand: easily quotable figures and numbers that give the uninformed viewers a sense of certainty about the narrative they are being fed.
There is no need to go any further than the NYT for a soft version of the deeply flawed methodology that presides over the Borg’s analysis of military matters. You just have to “do the math”, as they say, to realize Putin is not doing very well: dozens of aircraft deployed, Russian advisers deployed with SAA frontline units, allied troops (Hezbollah, IRGC, Iraqis and Afghan militias) mobilized by the thousands and barely 0,6 % of Syrian territory having changed hands in the three months since the Russian intervention started. Worse even, ISIS bombed a civilian Russian airliner out of the skies, killing 224 people, Turkey shot down a Russian military aircraft and two Russian servicemen were killed in the incident.
No question asked about their goals, strategy and tactics, other than the same old “Putin wants to prop up Assad” and “the Russians are targeting moderate groups, supported by the US”. Nothing about the cost/benefit ratio, or the sustainability of their effort. And I’m not even talking about the strategic points the Russians have already scored. The killer-argument of course, the one that is hammered home every time a representative of the Borgist narrative is interviewed, is the territorial argument: Assad and the Russians have recovered little ground despite weeks of intensive airstrikes and the only way for Putin to alter the dynamics of the war is to get involved ever more into the conflict, thus risking “another Afghanistan”.
According to Borgist logic, the Russians will therefore come to the realization that their enterprise is futile and the US should then seize the opportunity and impose their own agenda – and that of their local allies. Watching MSM news and debates about the latest round of fighting in Syria is a bit of a strange experience, not unlike discussing a football game with some friends of yours and getting the feeling you’ve actually seen a totally different game. The linear logic that is at work here is quite surprising in the sense it is utterly non-sensical.
History as a lesson
The underlying rationale for a linear development in military matters is a farce: it is like assuming that the stocks exchange will gain or lose X % in the three months to come, just because it won or lost same X % during the previous three months. Any fund adviser giving you guidance based on such a logic should and would be fired within a minute, yet a number of talk show guests speaking about Syria have been spreading a narrative far more toxic than that of the 2008 “Sub-primes”. Basing an allegedly informed opinion about the course of a war on sole percentages of territory won or lost, casualties sustained or inflicted, is a fallacy that can have wide-ranging consequences. History is awash with examples of such falsehoods and there is usually a blood price to pay for believing and acting on such lies and misconceptions.
For a US audience, no need to look any further than Vietnam and the “body bag” logic to get an example of such dangers. US military analysts had done the math and found out the VC and NV would crumble once 300 000 of their men had been killed by US forces. Well, it turned out the 300 000 marker was not enough and the war kept going. America’s armed forces may not have lost one single major engagement, yet the North Vietnamese prevailed.
WWI provides for other similarities with the current situation in Syria. For years, the front-lines barely moved, with both sides seemingly stuck in a stalemate, until the German spring offensive of 1918. To the German high command, victory was within reach now that they could rely on the extra divisions they had brought back from the Eastern front, where Russia had capitulated in 1917, signing the humiliating Brest-Litovsk peace treaty. The Germans had done the math too. Their numerical advantage, rather than any decisive manoeuvre or strategic stroke of genius, would bring the Allies to their knees. We all know the rest …
The art of dissecting the “metrics” of war based on a mathematical basis, such as it was theorized recently by IAF Major General Ben-Israel for example, or the CIA’s Richard Heuer, may have an added value, there is no doubt about that. This quantity over quality approach however does not tell the whole story and it is only valid if seen in relation to other indicators. Comparative studies, prospective analysis, risk assessments as well as solid foundations in strategic thinking and knowledge should always be taken into consideration as well.
A comparative analysis
Despite all the claims made by the proponents of the Borg, they have told us very little about the actual operations currently undertaken by the R+6 in Syria. What these armchair analysts (I dare not use the word “strategists”) are missing, is that the Russian involvement in the Syrian conflict already has changed the course of the war, at relatively low costs, contrary to the anti-ISIS strategy of the White House. Indeed, applying the same “metric” analysis to the “degrade and destroy ISIS” would make for a sobering account.
Fifteen months of airstrikes by the US led Coalition and Baghdadi’s “Caliphate” has barely lost any ground. True, Ramadi was reclaimed by the Iraqi army recently, in a very publicized effort, but the town was basically reduced to a pile of rubble. Ramadi is a sort of Iraqi equivalent to Kobane, the Kurdish town that US airstrikes saved from Baghdadi’s Jihadis. Going to Kobane and having a look at the result of that “great” victory against the throat-cutters brings backs memories of Ben Tre: “we had to destroy it to save it”. The same goes basically for Ramadi.
Besides, the ongoing campaign against the “Islamic State” has already cost the US taxpayers some 5.5 billion dollars and the return on investment doesn’t look great so far. Talk about a winning strategy ! Lecturing the Russians about their failing campaign sounds actually quite ironic in that context. You might as well have a look at genuinely interesting “metrics” and realize Putin is all but failing in Syria. How many Russian casualties ? Well, if you exclude the Russian airliner from the equation, almost none. To the contrary, public opinion stands united behind its strongman President. And there are roughly 5000 Russian troops in Syria, which can hardly be considered a major deployment.
And yet, the shock wave this deployment has sent through the Beltway still has some hysterics shaking in their boots. In the three months since they launched their air campaign, at a cost of under one billion dollars per year, the Russians have not just stabilised Assad and made sure no military victory is possible anymore for the rebels. They have also boosted Russia’s image as a major power, at the cost of antagonizing the Saudis and to a lesser degree Turkey (even if it seems the opposite in the short run), but they have also designed a global strategy that encompasses military, diplomatic/political and economic aspects. They have local allies on the ground, something the US can only dream about in that magnitude. And they are implementing a battle-plan that is not relying on yet another revisited version of COIN, but on the hard edge of conventional military combat and manoeuver in the Soviet style.
This is the counterfactual the Borg is ignoring. They’re blabbering about the (non)-achievements of the Russian intervention, but they are forgetting what might have happened without it. For one thing, the long awaited offensive of the “Southern Front” never took place and, as a matter of fact, the moderates in the South are basically dead in the water. Those still coordinating with Jordan have been called back, the rest are on their own. And things don’t look particularly good for them, even less so now that their most charismatic leader, Zahran Alloush (from the “Jaysh al-Islam” coalition) was killed in a Russian airstrike.
We’ll get more into the operational details of the current fighting in the next SITREP, but anybody following SST in recent days must have realized that the rebels are not exactly gaining ground on any of the battles currently taking place. They may be able to stage small “offensives”, more like company sized counter-attacks in areas that have not been cleared yet, but their ability to conduct joint operations, exercising effective command and control over large troops has deteriorated beyond anything the Beltway experts are willing to hear.
Formerly staunch allies of the US have entered deals with the Russians (Jordan for example), anti-Assad groups trained and supported by US forces are negotiating with the regime and Russian emissaries (the Kurdish YPG) and some rebel groups, only a handful so far I’ll give you that, have actually sided with the Russians. Putting this in context with a diplomatic timetable that is very favourable to the Russian and Syrian agenda, and you get a counterfactual that is all but the one described day in day out in the main news outlets.