Space and the Military

One of the more distressing pieces of news recently is that President Trump wants to create a “Space Force” as a branch of the US armed forces. According to Vice President Pence: “Other nations increasingly possess the capability to operate in space, not all of them, however, share our commitment to freedom, to private property, and the rule of law. So as we continue to carry American leadership in space, so also will we carry America’s commitment to freedom in this new frontier.” And, “Our adversaries have transformed space into a warfighting domain already. . . history has proven that peace only comes through strength. And in the realm of outer space, the United States Space Force will be that strength in the years ahead.” There are two reasons I find this troublesome. The obvious one is we do not need war in space, although, of course, if someone else is taking their military to space, it is reasonable to respond. That leaves open the question, is anybody else taking their military to space? The second one is there is a UN convention that says space will be reserved for peaceful purposes, and in the absence of clear evidence of some other violation it appears that the current administration is going to ignore this convention, which has the deeper problem that if the US is not going to honour its agreements, what is the point of anyone else negotiating? So why? It appears what is becoming an only too familiar excuse: the Russians have done it.

Done what? The case made by Yleem Poblete (State Department, and fuller text at ) was that Russia has a satellite that has been behaving oddly, and very suspiciously. The first problem here is the “suspicious satellite” was not identified. The point of concern for Poblete was that Russia has deployed a satellite they claim to be an inspector satellite in October, 2017, and the US thinks it is doing something that is contrary to that claim. So what is it doing? Apparently its orbital behaviour was considered inconsistent with what the US considered an inspector satellite would have done. That raises the question, what did it do and what was it expected to do? Poblete goes on to say the only certainty is that it is in orbit. The rest of its behaviour is unexpected and unclear to purpose.

Russia did not launch anything that could be so described in October, 2017, but it did deploy a subsatellite (Cosmos 2523) which separated from a major satellite then. Apparently Russia launched Cosmos 2519 in June 2017, and in August a subsatellite Cosmos 2521 separated from it. In October, Cosmos 2523 separated from one of these two. These subsatellites then carried out various manoeuvres and as an example, 2521 may have returned and docked with 2519. They all changed their orbits to have different characteristics. None of these manoeuvres were illegal or threatening and while we don’t know what they were for and I suppose we don’t know everything about them, it seems strange to get overly concerned about this. In my opinion, the simplest explanation is that the Russians were practising controlled orbital manoeuvres, possibly under automated control, which, of course, would be highly desirable in any space exploration program.

It is true Poblete raised a very legitimate point: how do you verify what a satellite is actually doing? The same thing goes the other way, of course. One point of concern for me, though, is that this is certainly not a reason to launch a military response. The other question is, is this a straw man accusation, something to politically justify this space force concept?

There is the implied claim that Russia is developing and deploying anti-satellite weapons. Let us leave aside the obvious question as to what evidence is there, and ask instead, why would they do that? The most obvious reason is that the US uses military satellites to carry out surveillance on ground activities (and if some sources are to be believed, with extreme accuracy) and also many US guided weapons depend on satellite positioning to steer them. Therefore the accusation is probably true, but it is rather understandable, and I would be surprised if the US military is not doing the same thing to counter Russian satellites. The point I am making here is that the militaries of the world have already taken notice that space exists.

So, is there anything more that a satellite could do, other than carry out surveillance, aid navigation and carry messages? Could it be a weapon? At this stage, I feel it is unlikely, the reason being that any “ammunition” has to be taken up there. It is reasonably easy, although very expensive, to take up electronics, etc, but something that will do damage to something else on the ground is another matter. One might think that taking a hydrogen bomb would allow it a faster attack, but that is not true. Something in orbit has orbital velocity, and re-entering the atmosphere at that speed leads to intense heat generation, and if you use the atmosphere to reduce the speed, it actually takes longer to arrive than a slower missile launch. There is a case for shooting down other satellites, but it is still probably easier to do that from Earth. You will hear postulates of lasers, etc, but to get a laser powerful enough to do real damage, the power demands involve a huge beast. There are much easier ways to damage a satellite, and the probability that there are satellites up there that will seriously damage any given country is probably fairly remote.

One thing that has become a problem is that more than one country has tested anti-satellite weapons by destroying one of their own defunct satellites. The problem then is, what does “destroy” actually mean? Usually it seems to mean, blow the thing up into many pieces, which then go onto erratic orbits, with velocities probably in the order of 7,500 m/s. Now if the orbit were circular, that would be fairly harmless to anything on a corresponding circular orbit because they would never meet, but the fragments of an explosion will have a variety of eccentric orbits on different planes, and while the collisions will not have that relative velocity, the relative velocity could still be in the few thousand meter per second range, and that is a distinctly dangerous velocity. A moderate-sized piece of metal would make a cannonball seem modest.

As it is right now, orbital space around Earth is starting to get cluttered. I have heard people argue that NASA should investigate asteroid mining. As of now, I am not sure why, because asteroids, apart from a possible iron/nickel core, will have the composition of space dust, and hence have some similarities to basalt on Earth. Nobody wants to mine that. On the other hand, this space junk is made of already refined metals. I rather fancy that collecting that space junk and recycling it would make more sense.

In the meantime, it would also be helpful if the nations could behave in a way that did not lead to weaponizing space.


Anzac Day

April 25 is a public holiday in New Zealand and Australia, in remembrance of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps landing at Anzac Cove, in Gallipoli during World War 1, hence our major remembrance day remembers a disaster. In my opinion, the campaign illustrated just about most of what was wrong with the way World War 1 was fought by the allies. The Ottomans had entered the war on the German side, and the objective of the campaign was to take Constantinople and remove them from the war. That was a noble goal, but it left open the question, was it achievable with the resources available and did the Allies go about it in a sensible fashion? There were several strategic mistakes straight away (in my opinion, anyway).

The first mistake was to underestimate the enemy. It was generally felt that the Ottomans would have no heart for fighting. The British started with a naval blockade in the Dardanelles, using a number of obsolete battleships that were not doing anything else. This was pointless and had no worthwhile objective. You cannot defeat an enemy without at least the option of occupying his ground. The Ottomans mined the Dardanelles, and the British and French lost some obsolete battleships. With that, they managed to raise the morale of the enemy, and that was a critical mistake. The Ottomans had had a recent history of failure, and if troops feel they will fail, they usually do. If, on the other hand, they feel they are up to the job, they probably are. Another critical mistake was that the move gave away the element of surprise and flagged that a military operation was imminent. The Ottomans prepared.

Undeterred, the allies made landings on various parts of the northern side of the Gallipoli peninsula, with the main force of British and French at Cape Helles at the Western end, and the Anzacs at Anzac Cove. Things started badly for the Anzacs when the Royal Navy made a navigational error and landed them at the wrong place, which had a narrow beach and steep hills rising from close to the beaches. Now you might think that the commander of the invasion, seeing they were in the wrong place and not only that, a most unsuitable place, might order the navy to take them to somewhere better, but no. Incompetence has to be matched with stupidity! The landing was faced by only two companies but they had good defensive positions on the hills. There were serious casualties since there was no cover, and lot of time was wasted, which gave the Ottomans time to bring up reinforcements. On finally advancing, the troops found the terrain to be badly broken, with ravines and spurs; ideal for defence, terrible for rapid progress. Worse, the Anzacs had almost useless maps.

So with the attack bogged down in two places, you might think things couldn’t get any worse? Then you would be wrong. A third invasion was launched with an extra 70,000 British troops. The key to note here is that the British High Command regarded the Gallipoli attack as a bit of a side show, possibly put on to keep Churchill happy because this was his pet project. That meant the commanders sent to this campaign were the ones who were lesser lights. Now, with two lesser lights already bogged down, the third had to be a really dim light. Sir John Monash was later to describe the commanders as, “the most abject collection of Generals ever collected in one spot.”

The overall commander for the landing at Suvla Bay was Sir Frederick Stopford, chosen largely because he was the only one left with adequate seniority.

Stopford had been brought out of retirement, and although only 61, he was in very poor health, and before leaving for Gallipoli, had to get someone else to lift his dispatch case onto a train. He had never commanded troops in battle. The Divisional commanders were not much better. One, Major General Hammersley, had just got over a nervous breakdown, and collapsed on the first day of the landing. The first formal objective of Suvla Bay was to advance and take two important hills, as this would relieve the pressure on the Anzacs, but Stopford and his Divisional commanders seemed to believe they could not do this. No surprise here; if you think you can’t, generally you won’t. Stopford felt that success depended on surprise and it was important to keep all information from the Ottomans. Accordingly, his Brigadiers were not told of the plan until the last minute, they were only given a brief glimpse of the landing site, and many landed without maps. To make matters worse, they were given “targets” to occupy, but the Navy landed them in the opposite order. Had there been a slightly more dynamic commander, and had the Brigadiers been supplied with proper maps, the objectives could have been swapped, but no, the landing boats had to criss-cross, then unload on reefs. Thanks to the lack of maps, the men given the task of taking Suvla point simply got lost. Those tasked with taking Hill 10 had no idea which hill it was.

Even stranger, Brigadier General Hill, commanding 6,000 men on transport vessels, awoke unexpectedly to find himself under fire at Suvla Bay. He had no idea he was to take part in a landing, and had no orders as to where to land. Stopford felt he was up to this task: they would land and support the 11th Division attack on Hill 10. These orders assumed the 11th was attacking Hill 10. As it happened, they were still on the beach, which meant chaos on the beach.

Rather interestingly, there was no attempt at reconnaissance, which meant one of his commanders decided to create a five-mile diversionary attack on his target hill. This diversion went straight at the only real system of opposition trenches, while the primary target, as it happened, was essentially undefended. Later, three other Brigade commanders were happily resting on Hill 10, and while some troops had captured two other objectives, they needed reinforcements, but all communications seemed to have broken down. So had logistic support. Stopford had even overlooked in a Turkish summer the necessity of supplying the troops with water, and presumably everything else.

You may think this would sum up all the incompetence and stupidity of Suvla Bay. Unfortunately, it merely scratches the surface. The overall result was that it achieved nothing, there was no reprieve for the Anzacs, and the whole Gallipoli campaign was soon to collapse. Only the withdrawal was done competently. The ordinary soldiers at Gallipoli fought with great courage and determination. Their commanders fought with unparalleled stupidity and incompetence. So the Anzacs and others were lucky to get out of Gallipoli? Not really. Their next destination was the Somme where the losses were even greater than at Gallipoli, and the stupidity was still there in good order. The Anzac ceremonies end with, “Lest we forget.” Yes, we must remember the brave fallen, but also we should ensure a level of competence in commanders if we ever have to fight again.

Voting for Aleppo

With the US elections coming up, and enduring chaos in the Middle East, we have to ask, which is the best candidate to sort that out? I am not exactly enthralled by either of them. First, the scenario. As is well known, the US has supported some “moderate” rebels who have the aim of ousting Assad in Syria, and is supporting the retaking of Mosul, apparently with air power. Russia is supporting Assad in Syria. Turkey wants to deal to ISIS in Mosul. This should have a straight-forward ending?

First, look at religion. Assad has support from Shia, including Hezbollah and Iran. The rebels include some moderates, but the important ones are associated with al Qaeda. So here, Russia is supporting Shia; the US is trying to protect Sunni and terrorists. Assad himself operated a secular government, as did Saddam, so an alien observer would presumably conclude that the US is against secular governments, which makes little sense. In Iraq, the US is supporting the Shia government to take out the fanatical ISIS, and will use air power to bomb the terrorists in Mosul. Or at least, that is a somewhat oversimplified account of what might happen. So, what do the candidates say?

Trump seemingly has not clearly defined policy here. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Leaving the place to sort itself out is a legitimate policy, and may be as good as any. The problem, though, is ISIS and al Qaeda. Left to their own devices, they are hardly likely to be beneficial. A second problem is that it appears Trump has not thought about this at all.

Clinton, however, is in my mind just outright dangerous. She has announced she will have a no-fly zone over Aleppo. That raises many questions. First, why? Does she want to nourish al Qaeda, who, as an aside, have killed far more innocent Western citizens than ISIS by a long shot? The nominal reason is to protect innocent civilians, but there are more in Mosul, and the US intends to bomb that, and, of course, there was “shock and awe”, which led to a very large number of dead Iraqis.

However, there is a much worse possible outcome than killing some innocent civilians, which is most certainly bad, but my worry is much worse. What does she do if the Russian air force continues bombing? Does she order the shooting down of Russian warplanes, which happen to be over the territory of, and at the invitation of, a sovereign government. If so, what is the justification? Because we can? That is a rather slippery slope. The US is actually one of the most warlike countries on the planet, and has been at war most of the time since 1890. It has been able to do this because the war is always “elsewhere”, and they cannot do any damage to the US. The result of this is that much of the population is unaffected by such wars. That does not give the US the right to shoot anyone they feel like, though. Russia has two choices: bow down before America, or ignore the threat.

If Russia bows down, then that establishes a precedent. Everybody expects that to happen again, and that encourages (from the Russian eyes) America to do more or less what it likes. It can order Russia out of the Crimea. Now what? Bow down again? Where does it stop?

If the Russians keep bombing, and the US shoots down at least one Russian warplane, now what? Russia can either bow down, or fight back. We don’t know the Russian capability, but we do know they have some ability, so unlike other recent opposition, Russia might shoot down an American plane, or attack an American base nearby. If the American aircraft came off a carrier, what happens if the Russians sink the carrier? The Russians have a carrier somewhere nearby, so the US sinks it. Now what?

Suppose the aircraft came from Turkey. Can Russia accept a border wherein America can come and shoot them down at will with no downside? It would be strange if they did. But if Russia attacks the base, that is an attack on a NATO country, which America could use to activate the NATO alliance. At this point we note that Russia could have done something more constructive earlier. When Clinton announces the no-fly zone, Russia should announce that any attack on Russia as a consequence of Clinton’s announcement from a NATO country will be taken as a declaration of war from that country on Russia. If the country is an aggressor, that should not trigger the NATO commitment. At the very least, some more nervous countries might decide that getting out of NATO is more desirable. Maybe not, but Russia should offer the option.

Now, suppose some missiles are launched from the Baltic states, and assume they are conventionally tipped. Now what? The least we can expect is that Russia sends all its motor rifle divisions westwards. Now what? Contrary to what some people think, my guess is that NATO would offer only moderate resistance, and indeed some of the countries would pull out of NATO on the grounds that it was not their fault that Clinton started all this. It is one thing to defend against an attack on one of their allies, but something else to get their ally out of a mess of its own making. Further, unless Russia makes good progress and has the ability to walk away from this with its head held high, there is little room for later negotiation.

It is hard to see such a war remaining conventional. The US simply does not have a big enough army to conquer Russia, which is a very big place, and it is far from clear that American soldiers want to fight multi-year wars in some of the world’s worst climate. One of the two will sooner or later resort to the nuclear option and a lot of us will be turned to ash.

Maybe there are other futures following such an edict. The Russians may surrender and comply with Clinton. After a brief skirmish, both parties might see sense, but do we want to bank on that? World War I was started almost accidentally. Do we want to start WW III?

Are there solutions to the Syrian conflict?

In my last post, I commented that there was a problem for ceasefires without a solution potentially acceptable to both sides: ” they solve nothing, as both sides try to strengthen their positions, and when one side cannot do much more, it is in their interest to restart as quickly as possible.” Since writing that, the ceasefire has disintegrated and the Russians and Assad-loyal troops are resuming operations against the rebels in Aleppo with more vigour than before. The West accuses the Russians of barbarism, but then again, what war is not barbaric? A number of politicians have attacked the UN for doing nothing to stop this, but in my opinion, that is just simply grandstanding unless the politician also comes up with a possible solution. That raises the question, what are the options to end this violence? Since I write novels with political/economic backgrounds, what can I come up with?

Any option must comply with the major rules of strategy. These include that any strategy chosen must be feasible, and have a realistic chance of success. For the latter, there must be an operational route that can be managed with the resources at hand, and could in principle lead to success. It seems to me there are limited possibilities: one side wins; all sides agree to stop fighting and agree on a common peaceful way the country can continue; one side gives way. Maybe I am too unimaginative to think of other ones, but that list is not very promising.

Suppose one side wins, either though the other side having had enough, or having run out of supply, or through being eliminated. While that would stop the fighting, is it plausible? There is no sign that either side will lay down their arms, and there is no sign that either side will run out of supply, other than through supply not being able to get through. The rebels seem to have unlimited supply through pro-Sunni governments around the Gulf, and from US supplies, much of which probably comes through Turkey. Accordingly, it is in the interests of Russian and Assad-loyal air forces to destroy such convoys. For this option to work, one side has to prevail militarily. If the West does nothing different from what it is doing now, Assad has the best chances of winning, and his chances are better the quicker and more vigorously he can get on with it. The West may not like that, but that is the logic of it.

One option is that the various factions agree to stop fighting, and . . . The problem is, what follows “and”? Someone has to form a government. The rebels could accept Assad, but my betting is, they won’t. The rebels themselves have only one thing in common, and that is a hatred of Assad and his men. They range from soldiers who thought they could dislodge Assad through to al Qaeda, and the West would find the latter even worse. If the rebels were to try to form a government, it probably would not take long before it became an ISIS dominated government. The Alawites would have no option other than to resume fighting, or die because ISIS has shown very little tolerance for any other than those who follow its extreme form of radical Islam. So, if the factions did agree to stop, it would not be long before the Alawites had to resume, except that now they would be far worse off strategically. The UN could claim to guarantee the peace, but the fact of the matter is, the UN are only useful if both sides genuinely want peace, and the UN can sort out minor differences. I would have no faith in them if things got really bad.

Suppose someone “gives way”. Civil wars tend to generate very intense hatred, and the various parties want “justice”. “Justice” means those on the losing side, or the other side, are appropriately punished. The rebels will not trust Assad, and if Assad were to stand down, the rebels, and probably the West, would want Assad either in jail or more likely, his head. So this is not practical for Assad, because if he stepped back, he is a dead man. Further, all his senior aides, and the senior members of the Syrian military would also be dead men, so even if Assad stepped back, the rest would not and the fighting would continue.

The rebels could give way. They would know they could never trust the Assad government either, so they could not remain in Syria. Therefore one option for peace that could work would be for the West to guarantee them asylum, and assist in rebuilding Syria if Assad allows the UN to guarantee the process of extricating the rebels who wish to be extricated. You could argue that the same could be applied in reverse to Assad, but we know that the West would try to get Assad for war crimes the minute Assad is not President of Syria. Accordingly, on questions of trust, only the rebels could be guaranteed believable asylum. That now begs the question, is any country prepared to offer such asylum to a few million Sunni Muslims, many of whom are fairly radical? My guess is, no.

Unless someone can see a flaw in this analysis, the only workable solution appears to be to leave the various parties to slug it out. Yes, that is a terrible option, but it seems to be all that we have left ourselves with. I suppose in principle, an external force could send in an overwhelming military force that removes one of the sides, but I cannot see that as happening either, because that force has to take sides. If the West sent in such a force, either Russia goes away and leaves its ally to its own devices, or it stays, with the risk of WW III. For the West to do that, it would need to commit about three quarters of a million men for at least ten years, and it would have to govern. Practically, the US would have to provide about two thirds of those, or maybe the lot. I cannot see that as either possible or desirable.

So my conclusion is there are no obvious solutions that could reasonably work.

Air strikes over Syria

This was the week of air strikes that demonstrated at best, general incompetence, and at worst, something more sinister. Deir al-Zour is, or was, the seventh largest city in Syria and has an unfortunate history due to its being on the Euphrates river and being on an important trade route. Consequently it has been a target for various invaders until the Mongols simply wiped it out and thus removed the misery. However, its location led it to rise again. Now it is one of the very few centres in Eastern Syria still held by the government, although ISIS has been attacking it and by surrounding it, has meant that resupply is only possible by air. This makes the local airfield important. Overlooking, from a distance, is the al-Thardeh mountains, although I might more likely call them hills.

Now, obviously these hills are strategically important, and ISIS has been trying to capture them from the Syrian army for some time. So what does the US do? It sends in warplanes from Iraq and bombs the Syrian positions, thus allowing ISIS to capture some key strategic positions. Shortly later, a Syrian warplane tried to bomb ISIS troops, and was seemingly shot down by a US made surface to air missile operated by ISIS soldiers. What do you make of that?

The Russians argue that the US is helping ISIS. While strictly speaking this is true, I really don’t believe it is intentional. The problem, of course, is if you are bombed, it makes little difference to those on the ground whether the bombing was intentional. If you are dead, you are dead. The Russians also argue that the US refuses to coordinate air attacks with the Russians, and that seems to be not in dispute. The US spokesperson countered by accusing the Russians of point scoring, which it undoubtedly was, but that is irrelevant because the point was valid. I see a real problem here. Both claim they are trying to bomb ISIS, but the US seems to have a pathological hatred against Assad. The Russians do not have this problem so the Russians are far more likely to be aware of the Syrian army deployments, and of current conditions. To make matters worse, this is the second time this year that the US warplanes have attacked the Syrian army in this district. Either these are not mistakes, or the USAF is not learning from its mistakes.

The US says it did not knowingly strike the Syrian military, and it confused them with ISIS fighters. For me, there are several difficulties with this statement. The first is the obvious one that it should be prepared to talk to the Russians and accept intelligence. If you really do not want to kill members of the Syrian military, should you not take the trouble to find out where they are? What also bothers me is a parallel with the old hunting advice: do not shoot until you have positively identified your target. That simply did not happen. Given the strategic nature of these hills, and given that the US knows that ISIS has a number of the surface to air missiles it has given so-called moderate rebels, then it knows that either the hills must be kept in Syrian hands, or the city will have trouble with resupply and it will probably fall to ISIS.

So, what is the problem? In my view, a mixture of arrogance and incompetence. The question then is, do we accept that as an excuse? The US Air Force appears to be so technically superior to anything else around that might fight it that it can effectively do what it likes. Does that not give greater responsibility to use that power responsibly?

The second air strike was against a UN relief convoy heading to Aleppo. The US has accused the Russians of being responsible. I do not believe a Russian plane did that, but the US then counters by saying Russia is responsible for the Syrians because it is supporting them. Assad denies doing it, but he would. He may well be right. It is possible that some Syrian pilot decided to do this on his own volition, and it is unlikely Assad could find out. It is also unlikely he would try very hard.

Why would a Syrian do it? Because the UN is sending food and medical supplies to the rebels who are busy shooting at the Syrian Army. I suspect the average Syrian soldier considers such supplies will largely go to the rebels, which relieves that major problem for them, other than ammunition. This is the problem for cease-fires; they solve nothing, as both sides try to strengthen their positions, and when one side cannot do much more, it is in their interest to restart as quickly as possible. The only time a cease-fire can achieve anything is if there are grounds by which the two sides can agree to end the fighting. That requires a resolution to the issue that caused it to start. The Western politicians all want this resolved, but they also want Assad to go, and they have no idea what to replace him with, having seemingly learned nothing from Iraq. Assad would have to be mad to step down now because all and sundry would want to try him for war crimes, and such trials have only one outcome: what the victor wants. So, with no means of resolving this conflict, the ceasefire is actually counterproductive to the innocent civilians, because it merely extends the misery as the rebels get stronger. (The fact that Assad is guilty is irrelevant; he has to have some reason to step down.)

If a politician rambles on about how the various parties should end this fighting, then they should specifically state how it could be resolved, and what will happen next. Otherwise, all they are doing is point scoring, and who cares?

Palmyra retaken

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.

The mess that is Syria

In my futuristic SF ebooks, I have one extremely advanced alien race, and they have a very specific policy regarding communication with less advanced races: they do not intervene in that society’s development unless they are prepared to take full responsibility for what follows, and that what follows must be demonstrably better for all concerned than what the situation was at the intervention. The net result of this is they basically refuse to intervene, no matter what they see because there is too much danger that all they can do is make things worse. In short, “Do no harm!”

It is with this in mind that I cannot resist thinking about the Western interventions in what is referred to as the Middle East. As far as I am aware, Tunisia probably just happened, but since then there has been an “Arab Spring” contagion spread across the region, and many Western nations have acted to accelerate and fan the flames of whatever develops, seemingly with the view that they know best how the others should live. Then, before that, there was Iraq. In my view, just about everything the West has done in that region has turned to custard, but what has been learned from the experience? Bearing in mind what we see now, in my opinion, not much, because the same old mistakes keep turning up.

Just to be clear, people like Gadhafi, Hussein, Assad, and others were definitely not saints. However, they did manage some basic functions of governance, such as maintaining order within their boundaries, and as long as their people were not politically active, their lives were basically safe and as prosperous as they were likely to be in that region. And above all else, they enforced religious tolerance. What they knew, and what the West seems to have forgotten, is that when one religious group refuses to tolerate another, there is widespread bloodshed and persecution. These “strongmen” may not have been very bright with their public relations with the West, but they knew they had to keep the lid on a box of some very dangerous problems. All the West has done has been to ignore Pandora, and tear off that lid.

The Western policy in Syria, if there is one, seems to be to replace Assad with someone more moderate in which case (more in hope than based on any trace of evidence) everyone will live happily ever after. Obviously, no lesson learned from Iraq. As for logic, how can any moderate person contain the current religious hatred?

In my opinion, the only reason to intervene against the government in another country having a revolt is that there is a clearly superior replacement in line, should you succeed. There was no such person in Iraq, and instead in flew a number of Iraqis who had been living in the West, who had cultivated support, and who could not wait to get their hands on the treasury and oil money of Iraq. Then there arose a Shi’ite dominated government that was determined to put the boot into the Sunnis. Then there were all the unemployed soldiers and officials from Hussein’s time. By firing the civil service, there was no chance of reasonable governance, and those soldiers were a natural source of fighters for the newly emerged ISIS. What a great strategy that turned out to be.

So, what we have now is the US bombing ISIS and, along with the Saudis, funding “moderate” opposition to Assad. Then, into the mix we have the Russians bombing opposition to Assad, which may include but is not exclusive to ISIS. The “moderate” opposition includes a number of Sunni soldiers from what was the Syrian army, Ahrar al-Sham, which has strong al Qaeda connections, and the Nusra Front, which is the more official Syrian branch of al Qaeda. Thus we have the somewhat ironical outcome that the US is so keen to get rid of Assad that it is busy helping and funding al Qaeda. And just suppose Assad goes; who would you bet on to replace him?

From a military point of view, who, if anyone, is likely to beat ISIS? My guess is the best bet is the Iranians, including their Quds special force. The reason is you cannot win a war without imposing your will through ground troops. If the US really wants to get rid of ISIS, it should support the Iranians, but then again, the US is fixated on opposing Iran on its nuclear ambitions, and has indicated a willingness to bomb Iran. How about that for prioritizing? To add to the complexity, it is unclear whether Iran is really interested. Meanwhile, the Russians have a chance to flex some muscle and demonstrate to Europe that getting involved in the Ukraine might come at a price. And, of course, Iran has an incentive to learn from the Russians how to work advanced anti-aircraft defences in case the US or Israel decides to bomb it. I wonder if any Western politicians are wondering whether it might have been better to leave that area alone? A clear strategy does not guarantee winning, but in this case a virtual absence of clear strategy is a fairly good indication that, in the long term, loss is inevitable.