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article imageOp-Ed: Russia in Syria — Good or bad news for the West?

By Paul Wallis     Oct 7, 2015 in World
Sydney - The Russian buildup in Syria has led to the first new tactical development in the Assad regime’s military posture. The move from a defensive continuous fire approach to an actual attack has taken years. The question is whether it’ll work.
The new attack is being made near Aleppo, scene of a serious territory loss for the Assad regime in recent months. Aleppo is a major city. Its fall was a prize for IS. Missiles from Russian ships in the Caspian Sea were fired at targets in the area as Syrian and Russian planes made strikes against a range of targets.
The ground attack, however, is reported to have stalled, and significant doubts about the battered Syrian army’s combat capabilities have been aired by experts in the West. The various non-IS rebel groups have united in the face of the new attack, another factor with many possible ramifications for the situation on the ground.
The problem for the alliance of Russian, Assad, Hezbollah, and Iranian interests is that the very confused combination of opponents includes Al Qaeda, Islamic State, various rebel groups, and their supporters. The Russians have asked the U.S. for information regarding which groups are fighting Islamic State.
The U.S., meanwhile, has been raising the spectre of possible involvement of what it calls “Russian volunteers,” meaning Russian military forces on the ground, adding some grunt to the Assad regime’s limited capacity. Involvement of special forces is quite a logical scenario, and the addition of at least some specialists to assist with new tech and deployment is a pretty obvious move.
Analysis
This has not been, will not be, and cannot be, a “PC war.” The death toll already stands at an estimated 250,000 people in years of fighting. To beat entrenched interests in a street war, it’s very unlikely the Russians will use Western methods of combat. This is street fighting, a more or less continuous firefight.
If the Russians use their more advanced combat capabilities, the rebels will be at a serious disadvantage. These forces are very good at basic fighting and very stubborn, but they have tactical vulnerabilities. They also don’t have unlimited resources and supports. A constant drain of casualties wears down any guerrilla-style force. Use of economy of force by the Russians, with a bit of patience, could make some of the non-IS-aligned rebel groups back off.
IS, however, is a different matter. Unlike the other rebel groups, they’re quite agile in combat, and have far more forces and resources. They have weaknesses, though. They’re extremely pig-headed in some combat zones, and place a high priority on combat successes, at the expense of tactical rationales.
Tactical rigidity is a problem for all sides, and one of the main reasons for combat failures. IS tends to be predictable, these days. They’re not using new ideas, just the same methods in different scenarios. If the Russians decide to fight a smart war, the bad ingrained habits of IS could be a formula for failure.
The combination of pressures from Russia and the West also raises another issue for IS — there’s a tipping point at which IS may run out of local resources to the point where holding ground isn’t an option. Combat forces are IS’ working machinery. They control territory, and act as the muscle for IS local authorities. Without guns on the ground, their power base diminishes. They could hold on for a few years, perhaps, but loss of combat capacity is a game changer.
The West should note — this isn’t going to be Afghanistan Part Two for the Russians unless they screw up badly. Russia doesn’t have to over-commit operationally, just enough to do the job. It’s unlikely Putin, or the Russian military, would tolerate a “no-win” scenario. They know better. They’ve also learned from the almost unspeakably hideous Chechen wars, and this isn’t Afghanistan.
Chechnya was the big change. It took a long time, but they eventually overcame a very hard opponent. The first war was like Syria is now, quite indecisive on just about every level. Russian tactics in the second war were a combination of relentless, ruthless combats and very fast tactical moves.
The Chechens used standard jihadi tactics and lost. Effective resistance ceased, and federal rule was established. Chechnya was a wreck afterwards, but the Russians got the result they wanted. The Chechens were every bit as tough as IS, maybe more so, because they were fighting for and in their homeland. The conflict lingers, but the war is over.
This new phase of the war isn’t going to be a gimme for IS. The combination of firepower, local knowledge, and experience arrayed against them is no joke. They’ve made a lot of local enemies as well, and that’s never good for business.
The West — Strange bedfellows, or ongoing mass murder?
The West, in its endearing way, has reservations about the Russian involvement, both with and without adequate reason:
Russia’s involvement in Syria is well-known. It shouldn’t be that much of a surprise that they’re simply being more open about their inputs and methods.
A success for the Russians, where the West has failed, also shouldn’t be a surprise. It’d be a nice slap in the face, and further reassert Russia’s status as a credible super power, which it still is, in case anyone had forgotten.
In terms of Middle East diplomacy and real politick, it could be a Russian triumph. Why court the West, when the Russians may be able to prove they can get the job done? If the Russians can do for a fraction of the cost in money and commitments what the US hasn’t done, it’s a good move.
The West, while focusing on the Russians, is overlooking the main game — IS. Expediency, with or without political rhetoric, has a lot going for it, both at the operational level and strategic level. It doesn’t particularly matter which straw breaks the back of this camel.
The alternatives are more commitments with no apparent results, more IS propaganda, more refugees, and more overall carnage. Strange bedfellows, maybe, but better than the available options. Let the future bitch about the niceties, but let the present get on with the job.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com
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