One of the more interesting pieces of news this week was that Assad’s troops have retaken Palmyra, and sent ISIS packing. This makes the whole future peace process for Syria somewhat more interesting, because while most in the West have been wanting Assad out, getting him to step down now has become a lot more difficult. Why should he go, particularly the instant he does he will be subject to victor’s justice: either death or an extended period of so-called trials and extensive imprisonment? The reason I say victor’s justice is that the winners never face such trial, irrespective of how much damage they have done.
Of more interest are the strategic issues illustrated by this sequence of events. What we see is a clear strategic victory for Russia over the West, at least for the time being, and it is of interest to see why. There are several rules of strategy, but we can look at the simplest to get the picture:
(1) Have a clear objective,
(2) Have an operational mechanism by which it might be achieved,
(3) Recognize that the situation is what it is, and not what you wish it were
The US failed in the first rule. The US had more than one objective, and the two main ones were mutually contradictory: get rid of ISIS, get rid of Assad. The second objective let to the US and Saudi funding and supplying with hardware that happened to be superior to what Assad had a number of “moderate” Sunni insurgents. These “moderates” included serious al Qaeda groups, and most supported a type of government based on Wahhabi religious principles. The US, of course, was also bombing ISIS wherever they happened to be. How effective that was remains to be seen, but they certainly destroyed a lot of infrastructure. The problem was the “moderates” were not fighting ISIS, and had the moderates won and deposed Assad, Syria would be effectively a Wahhabi state run under conditions similar to what ISIS imposes, so effectively ISIS would have won too. Sure, ISIS might have been moderated slightly, with no public executions of foreigners, but for the average Syrian, it would most likely have been either accept Wahhabi doctrine of suffer. The Russians, on the other hand, had two clear objectives: stamp down on Islamic terrorism, which means stamp down on ISIS and the al Qaeda run “moderates”, and retain the Syrian naval base.
The second rule is most important, and should be accompanied by the advice from General Wesley Clark: “There are two sorts of plans; those that won’t work and those that might work. Take one that might work and make it work.” Ultimately, only infantry can take and hold territory, so any plan to get rid of ISIS that might work had to involve infantry deployment.
Now, strategy involves the best deployment of the assets you have, and it is here that Russia showed its first appreciation of reality. Neither the West nor Russia wanted to send in ground troops, so let us consider the third rule. Immediately we see there were three and only three sources of infantry: ISIS, the “moderates” and Assad. Russia wishes to supress two of those, so that left the third as the only source of infantry. The US seemed to think that by some unspecified mechanism Assad could be persuaded to go and some benevolent form of democracy would suddenly flourish. With such shining examples as Iraq and Libya to base their thinking, this was simply a dream.
The Russians thought of a plan that might work: degrade the enemy strength with air power then take the ground with infantry. Therefore Assad’s troops were needed for defeating ISIS, but they were bogged down by the Wahhabi “moderates”. Solution: bomb the “moderates” and give Assad’s troops some more modern coherent tactical support. That seems to have worked and Assad’s troops recovered much of the “moderates'” territory. Meanwhile, the Turks had been busy helping the “moderates” with supply, as for some reason they also wanted Assad out of the frame. The solution to that problem was somewhat cunning: the Russians seem to have managed to free up a zone along the northern border, which the Kurds have rushed in to occupy. That prevents Turkey giving more help to Assad’s opposition, because while Turkey was doing what it could to depose Assad, the Kurds are running opposition in Turkey, so anti-Turk Kurdish insurgents have a safe home just over the border, and Turkey has a problem. All of this frees up Assad’s troops to deal to ISIS. And, of course, Assad should be sufficiently grateful to leave Russia its naval base, which would certainly be lost had ISIS or any Sunni or Turkish opposition prevailed.
If we look at the US strategy in the region, there is no clear strategy at all. There is no clear objective. Bombing ISIS is not an objective. They want Assad gone, but there was no reasonable mechanism by which this might be achieved without strengthening ISIS, which they also want gone. In other words, they had two partial objectives that were mutually contradictory, and no real operational mechanism to achieve either.
The Russian achievement may not be huge, but it is significant. The West will rail against leaving Assad in power, because Assad is “bad”. True, he does not live up to Western ideals, but he has the clear advantage of having a secular government, and frankly I think that is better than any government run on Wahhabi principles.