Op-Ed: U.S. vs Russia in Syria — Guess who's winning, again?

Posted Oct 11, 2015 by Paul Wallis
When the U.S. shows up in the region with a rule book and bright smiles and says “play nice,” it doesn’t reassure Middle Easterners. When Russia shows up, grim, uninformative and launching hails of bombs, they’re considered heroes.
Russia says its warships launched 26 cruise missile against 11 targets in Syria
Russia says its warships launched 26 cruise missile against 11 targets in Syria
, AFP/File
There’s a reason for that. After suffering from years of conflict and faced with an army of homicidal maniacs, it’s pretty obvious that Middle Easterners would like more reassurance, please.
“Play nice” just doesn’t make sense among the nation-to-nation tide of corpses and maimed people. For people who’ve lost their homes, family members, their hope, and their future, “We’re going to throw lawyers, rhetoric and press releases at them until they stop” really doesn’t cut it. Add to this the fact that the U.S./Coalition airstrikes are nowhere near as intense as previously seen in the two Gulf Wars, and it’s not a great look. It looks naïve, and worse, insincere.
There’s never been any such thing as a “nice” Middle Eastern war in history. The war with IS is arguably the worst locals-invited war in the region since the Crusades. This war also has every chance of going on as long as the Crusades, if nothing’s done about it. The Crusades, in fact, would have gone on a lot longer, if the Mongols hadn’t accidentally bumped in to the last Crusader army in much the same region and wiped it out. They also exterminated the Assassins, a serious criminal threat. You can see why local thinking might be more favorably disposed to those who end wars, rather than those who don’t.
Since Alexander the Great, might may not have been right in the Middle East, but it does get the job done and tells people where they stand. That’s one of the reasons the Russians are being welcomed.
The Russians are also playing multiple games, and winning them, in a relatively small stakes but controlled and coordinated way:
1. Make as much of a contrast with the US as possible, leading to the above scenarios.
2. Protect an ally in a sensitive region, good box office with local governments who could literally lose their heads.
3. Fight on someone else’s territory against IS, which could well be a serious threat to Russia.
The Russian view of their involvement, according to Russian media, is predictable, but somewhat less disingenuous than you’d expect. Seems the Russians are a bit more pleased about getting involved than would be the normal, cynical, response. One reason for this unusual fizziness could be that they’re actually achieving something.
The Russian Times cites a series of tactical effects of Russian airstrikes. They refer to intercepted IS communications and a “panic” among IS commanders. They also refer to strikes against mobile fire support units, difficult to find targets which have a significant role in IS operations, providing organic firepower where required. That suggests a reasonably strong intelligence and knowledge base for operations, consistent with their local connections.
In many ways, this is very much about showing a strong contrast with the U.S./Coalition efforts. It’s PR, but if reports are accurate, it’s getting backed up with measurable results.
(You have to be extremely wary of press combat reports in any war, particularly through state media. On balance, the sudden and unexpected airstrikes may well have caught the recipients off guard. Since nobody knows what the Russian strike policies are — like no go zones — predicting and adapting to them may take a while. I’d say the first strikes were probably reasonably effective.)
Meanwhile, the press campaign is being waged with no less intensity. A site called VICE says that "Iraq militias would welcome Russian airstrikes against IS in Iraq."
Vladimir Putin is doing his usual PR job, dismissing claims of hits on Syrian civilians with an acknowledgement that any reports of civilian casualties shouldn’t be ignored. It’s to be noted that Putin also isn’t being very specific about these issues or anything else.
American analysis – Where has my wandering Russian air force gone today?
The U.S. is skeptical about Russian claims on principle, but so far the net actual content of criticism is “It’ll end in tears.” Middle Easterners might say that tears are easier to clean than blood, but the U.S. analysis seems to be a bit off center.
A very interesting article in the New York Times uses maps from the Carter Center, painstakingly assembled from what seems to be a mass of sources to identify areas controlled by IS, Assad, and rebel groups. On these maps are superimposed the areas of Russian airstrikes. We can’t reproduce the maps here due to AP/NYT copyright requirements, but they’re truly fascinating.
The maps more or less support the US view that the Russians aren’t targeting IS, in direct contrast to the Russian claims. However — information in wartime can be very sketchy indeed. The maps also show a cluster of airstrikes around an area which seems to have nothing in it, north east of Damascus. There’s a feeder road to western Iraq in that area, if very little else. Why target that?
Extrapolate this “why” a little, and who’s where becomes a lot less clear. Modern airstrikes aren’t guessing games. You don’t waste ammo on non-targets. This is a mobile war, in a weird way. The ability to move combatants around is as important as the actual combat.
You can see why the Russians are making themselves popular. The Russians conducted 64 airstrikes last week. The US, according to the Department of Defense update for Operation Inherent Resolve of October 4, conducted six. The guys doing the work get the applause.
If the US intends to achieve anything in this war, it has to be seen to be achieving something. Currently, it isn’t, and there are no indications of any significant shift in policies. The US has a lousy record in the Middle East, despite combat successes, and if the Russians are seen as the alternative, it’s a sad obituary to all these years of fighting.