The return of the Syrian Army

syrianarmy-510x272Robert Fisk

Counterpunch

While the world still rages on at Russia’s presumption in the Middle East – to intervene in Syria instead of letting the Americans decide which dictators should survive or die – we’ve all been forgetting the one institution in that Arab land which continues to function and protect the state which Moscow has decided to preserve: the Syrian army. While Russia has been propagandising its missiles, the Syrian military, undermanned and undergunned a few months ago, has suddenly moved on to the offensive. Earlier this year, we may remember, this same army was being written off, the Bashar al-Assad government said to be reaching its final days.

We employed our own army of clichés to make the case for regime change. The Syrian army was losing ground – at Jisr al-Shugour and at Palmyra – and so we predicted that the whole Assad state had reached a “tipping point”.

Then along came Vladimir Putin with his air and missile fleets and suddenly the whole place is transformed. While we huffed and puffed that the Russians were bombing the “moderate” rebels – moderates who had earlier ceased to exist according to America’s top generals – we’ve been paying no attention to the military offensive which the Syrians themselves are now staging against the Nusra Front fighters around Aleppo and in the valley of the Orontes.

Syrian commanders are now setting the coordinates for almost every Russian air strike. They were originally giving between 200 and 400 coordinates a night. Now the figure sometimes reaches 800. Not that the Russians are going after every map reference, of course. The Syrians have found that the Russians do not want to fire at targets in built-up areas; they intend to leave burning hospitals and dead wedding parties to the Americans in Afghanistan. This policy could always change, of course. No air force bombs countries without killing civilians. Nor without crossing other people’s frontiers.

But the Russians are now telling the Turks – and by logical extension, this information must go to the Americans – their flight coordinates. Even more remarkable, they have set up a hotline communications system between their base on the Syrian Mediterranean coast and the Israeli ministry of defence in Tel Aviv. More incredible still is that the Israelis – who have a habit of targeting Syrian and Iranian personnel near the Golan Heights – have suddenly disappeared from the skies. In other words, the Russians are involved in a big operation, not a one-month wonder that is going on in Syria. And it is likely to continue for quite a time.

The Syrians were originally anxious to move back into Palmyra, captured by Isis last May, but the Russians have demonstrated more interest in the Aleppo region, partly because they believe their coastal bases around Lattakia are vulnerable. The Nusra Front has fired several missiles towards Lattakia and Tartous and Moscow has no desire to have its air force targeted on the ground. But the Syrian army is now deploying its four major units – the 1st and 4th Divisions, Republican Guards and Special Forces – on the battle fronts and are moving closer to the Turkish border.

Russian air strikes around the Isis “capital” of Raqqa may or may not be hurting Isis, although the Syrians like to boast that they have plenty of intelligence coming to them from the city. Interesting, if true, because Isis personnel are specialists in torturing to death “agents of the regime” and it would be a brave man to pass on information to Damascus. Yet travellers’ tales can be true. There’s a regular civilian bus route from Raqqa to Damascus – buses have an odd habit of crossing front lines in most civil wars – and if passengers prefer not to talk to journalists, they will talk of what they have seen when they get home.

All this is only the beginning of Mr Putin’s adventure. He is proving to be quite a traveller to the Middle East – and has already made firm friends of another pillar of the region, that President-Field Marshal who scored more than 96 per cent at the polls and who currently rules Egypt. But the Egyptian army, fighting its little war in Sinai, no longer has strategic experience of a major war. Nor, despite their dalliance in the air over Yemen, Libya, Syria and other targets of opportunity, do the present military authorities in Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Jordan have much understanding of how a real war is fought. Libya’s own army is in bits. Iraq’s military has scarcely earned any medals against its Islamist enemies.

But there is one factor which should not be overlooked.

If it wins – and if it holds together and if its manpower, which is admittedly at a low level, can be maintained – then the Syrian military is going to come out of this current war as the most ruthless, battle-trained and battle-hardened Arab army in the entire region. Woe betide any of its neighbours who forget this.

Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared.

 

24 comments on “The return of the Syrian Army

  1. brianthedog on said:

    Saw it in the Independent. An excellent article and glad you are reprinting it here.

  2. John Grimshaw on said:

    I find this article’s tone a little hard to determine. Is it meant to be “matter of a fact”? Or is it meant to be in praise of the Russian action, Assad and the military regime in Egypt?

  3. Karl Stewart on said:

    Over on the ‘Labour List’ website, the Blairite editors have presented a ‘debate’ on Syria asking ‘Should we intervene?’

    http://labourlist.org/2015/10/syria-should-we-intervene/

    Nothing remarkable in that, or the choice of two neo-con Atlanticists as the two ‘debaters’, but the editorial preamble is factually incorrect in its presentation of the Labour Party’s position.

    Here’s the intro:
    “Over the coming months, the Government is expected to put forward proposals for a military intervention in Syria to a vote in the House of Commons. While Jeremy Corbyn is likely to oppose any plans, it is not clear whether that will be the official Labour Party line. Here, journalist Sunny Hundal and former deputy general secretary of the Fabian Society Marcus Roberts debate the issue.”

    Actually, the official Labour Party line is absolutely crystal clear. It was debated and decided at the Labour Party conference just a few weeks ago. The , the official Labour Party line is that the party will only support UK military intervention in Syria under a set of specific conditions, one of which is a formal UNSC authorising resolution.

    So, unless there has been another LP conference in the meantime which has reversed this policy, then ‘Labour List’ are editorially misrepresenting their own party’s position.

    Interesting, however, that in the 40-plus comments section following the article, every single contributor is opposed to UK military intervention.

    A 100 per cent ‘No’.

  4. john Grimshaw on said:

    A Russian civilian airplane has just been reported as lost over the Sinai with over 200 people on board. At this moment it is not clear whether this was accidental or as a result military activities by Islamic militants/Egyptians.

  5. Karl Stewart on said:

    This morning’s Guardian is reporting that the Prime Minister has now shelved plans for a Commons vote on UK military action in Syria, following a strongly-worded recommendation from the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Select Committee not to become involved in Syria.

    This is excellent news and indicates that the numbers of pro-invasion Labour traitors in Parliament was small and falling.

  6. I heard the Tory chair of the Common’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee saying earlier that Russian intervention in Syria has been a ‘game changer’, i.e. that the insistence that Assad must go is now off the table. This analysis of Cockburn suggests that it has indeed been important (the Syrian Army was heading to defeat earlier in the year before substantial foreign intervention to bolster Assad’s military) but it will be insufficient to win the war outright: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v37/n21/patrick-cockburn/too-weak-too-strong

  7. Sam64: but it will be insufficient to win the war outright:

    I disagree with that. If Russia’s repeated call for the formation of an international coalition to combat ISIS is heeded then the war will be won – and in a matter of weeks – I think. The question is not so much defeating ISIS militarily, it’s defeating the ideology that underpins ISIS. That will take far, far longer to achieve.

  8. John,

    Not my judgement but Cockburn’s. As his article makes clear, as is obvious, ISIL is only one of the players and other suni jihadist groups (al nusra front etc) have the backing of Gulf states, most importantly KSA. Their ability and willingness to sponsor ongoing suni insurgency and of course its concomitant ideology (ISIL being only the most extreme manifestation), will be ongoing. He suggests it should be viewed within a wider, ME, suni – shia conflicts that are likely to drag on without a foreseeable end.

    As for ISIL, it has not been seriously weakened by Russian air strikes – it’s clear they haven’t been the principal targets in any case. The effect of Russian intervention has been to strengthen Assad – hence too strong to lose, too weak to win. The force to have successfully beaten and at least partially cleared ISIL from territory in Eastern Syria are the Kurds, obviously by close fighting on the ground. It’s still not clear who (if anybody) is responsible for the tragic downing of the Russian air craft over the Sinai desert on Saturday. If it does become clear that a ISIL affiliated group is responsible, I wouldn’t have thought that Russian public appetite for committing substantial numbers of ground troops will increase, low in any case I think .

  9. Sam64: As for ISIL, it has not been seriously weakened by Russian air strikes

    Well that’s certainly been the view of the US State Dept and British Government. But here’s what they are clearly missing. Russia’s strategy is underpinned by clarity rather than the fog that had descended over the brains of those who followed the strategy of trying to combat ISIS and Assad at the same, as if there could ever be any equivalence between both.

    Part of the Russian strategy for combating terrorism in Syria is bolstering the Assad govt, given that if that government and Syria’s state institutions were to fall the entire country would enter an abyss of chaos and violence likely to make the status quo seem like child’s play by comparison.

    The so called rebels in the vicinity of Damascus, Aleppo, and around Homs have to be dealt with first in this regard, before taking the military campaign directly to ISIS strongholds further east. The alternative, which would qualify as the most wrongheaded and blundering military strategy in the history of war, would entail attacking ISIS in the east while leaving terrorist groups active in the west, close both to the government’s power base and population centres, and to where Russia’s military and air bases are located.

    Nobody could seriously believe this makes sense.

    Sam64: He suggests it should be viewed within a wider, ME, suni – shia conflicts that are likely to drag on without a foreseeable end.

    I agree here. The problem in its wider context is the rise of Sunni extremism to a position of dominance. Here we look to Riyadh and other Gulf states for fanning the flames of this extremism over a number of years. The West’s relationship with the Saudis can no longer be justified on this basis alone, never mind the medieval butchery it doles out to its own people and minorities on a weekly basis.

    Sam64: It’s still not clear who (if anybody) is responsible for the tragic downing of the Russian air craft over the Sinai desert on Saturday. If it does become clear that a ISIL affiliated group is responsible, I wouldn’t have thought that Russian public appetite for committing substantial numbers of ground troops will increase, low in any case I think .

    You’re wrong here. Support for Russia’s intervention, and Putin, within Russia at present is rock solid. This is the major difference between Russia and the West, where public appetite for war has never been lower for reasons well known.

    Putin has been diligent in explaining Russia’s stance to the Russian people every step of the way. I believe that if the aircraft was downed by ISIS or any other such group, the appetite in Russia for an extension and intensification of its military involvement will grow to the point of clamour.

  10. John,

    Ye, the trouble is with the first part of your comment is that it just appears uncritical Russian defence dept propaganda, with no critical distance whatsoever. No, it is uncritical Russian defence dept propaganda, with no critical distance whatsoever! Don’t you think it’s unhealthy to just to echo the given line of a given state, any state?

    So, even though it’s the case that Russian air strikes have 1) not primarily targeted ISIL ; 2) and, given this, they may have inadvertently strengthened ISIL by weakening other jihadist opponents, this is all part of Vlad’s ‘cunning plan’ for the coming campaign against ISIL. Oh, and anyway, they’re all terrorists, i.e. against Assad.

    I won’t disagree where we agree (on KSA)! However, I would have thought it unlikely that the West will seriously weaken its ties with Gulf States, KSA. A little prison contract and press criticism over a flogging pail in importance beside the major geopolitical and economic common interests.

    On the Russian public and war, I believe there is definite opinion poll evidence to suggest that there is no desire for a military offensive in Syria consisting of 1000s of Russian troops. If Putin didn’t commit in such a way next door in the Ukraine (beyond Crimea) it’s unlikely that he’ll do so in Syria. On contemporary Russia, I caught this Al-Jazeera documentary last week, quite interesting. I’m sure that somebody will ‘have something’ on the journalist who made it, but the testimony from a variety of voices is interesting if predominately middle class: http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/putin-russia/

  11. Sam64: the trouble is with the first part of your comment is that it just appears uncritical Russian defence dept propaganda, with no critical distance whatsoever.

    Criticism for the sake of it is as bad as being uncriticial for the sake of it. I am neither. Governments can and do do things we can agree with. In the case of Russia I both agree and support their position with regard to Syria and the wider ME.

    Sam64: Vlad’s ‘cunning plan’

    You just can’t help yourself, can you? At least it makes buying your Xmas present a little easier.

    No Putin action man/doll for you.

  12. John,

    Oh I don’t know, I was never the biggest fan, but I can see Vlad popping up in a cameo appearance in Black Adder can’t you?

    But look, on Putin’s leadership of Russia, can you point to any action or policy, domestic of foreign, that you have publicly and, key word, unreservedly criticised?

  13. Sam64: on Putin’s leadership of Russia, can you point to any action or policy, domestic of foreign, that you have publicly and, key word, unreservedly criticised?

    Why would I take it upon myself to criticise Putin’s running of Russia when I don’t live in Russia, have never lived in Russia, and haven’t even visited the country? Isn’t this a colonial mentality at work, our assertion of the right to criticise other countries when we have enough probelms in our own to contend with?

    I know it’s in vogue for liberals and ultra leftists to paint Russia as a vast gulag and Putin as a Bond villain, enconsced in the Kremlin planning world domination. But I’m not sure this characterisation passes the first test of reality.

    Russia is a country of laws. like ours. Some of those laws are just and some are not, as with ours. Why then should Russia be singled out for the kind of scrutiny and disdain we don’t apply to our own?

  14. John: Why would I take it upon myself to criticise Putin’s running of Russia when I don’t live in Russia, have never lived in Russia, and haven’t even visited the country?

    Would you take it upon yourself to criticise Poroshenko’s running of Ukraine when you don’t live in Ukraine, have never lived in Ukraine, and (perhaps) haven’t even visited the country?

  15. Karl Stewart on said:

    Sam64: on Putin’s leadership of Russia, can you point to any action or policy, domestic of foreign, that you have publicly and, key word, unreservedly criticised?

    Personally, with regard to Russia’s domestic policy, a big criticism for me would be the Thatcherite ‘Section 28’ law that applies in Russia in terms of teaching about non-hetrosexual relationships in schools.

    This was a law that existed in the UK from 1988 until 2003. It was wrong here and it’s wrong in Russia.

    The main difference between the two is that in Russia, ‘Section 28’ was introduced within the cultural and historical context of homosexuality having recently been completely illegal, whereas in the UK it was introduced within the context of homosexuality having been fully legal already for over 20 years.

    But having said that, the context doesn’t in any way make Russia’s ‘Section 28’ any less bad.

    In terms of Russia’s foreign policy, exemplary though the liberation of Russia’s Crimean region was, it was tragic that this was not followed up by equally resolute action in the traditionally Russian parts of the former Ukraine SSR.

    Prompt, direct military intervention by Russia in places such as Odessa, Kharkov, and Mariupol in support of local anti-nazi resistance movements last year could have tipped the balance against the nazis in those locations – and inspired further anti-Nazi risings elsewhere – while the two regions where the heroic local resistance was successful, Donetsk and Lugansk, have yet to receive formal diplomatic recognition from Russia for their fledgling People’s Republics.

    No doubt the Russian leadership had its reasons for this cautious approach, and any criticism of Russia here has to be tempered with the fact that no other nation has done anything at all to assist the anti-nazi resistance in the former Ukraine, but people in those nazi-occupied areas are still suffering from the ‘pravy sector’ reign of terror.

  16. John,

    Several aspects of this are questionable John. In particular, I don’t imagine that SU readers, contributors would place, how can I put it, perhaps ‘a consistent reluctance to opine on the other affairs and governments of other countries’ as high on your list of attributes, as in characteristics.

    As for ‘I know it’s in vogue for liberals and ultra leftists to paint Russia as a vast gulag and Putin as a Bond villain, enconsced in the Kremlin planning world domination. But I’m not sure this characterisation passes the first test of reality’. Well, can you name any liberals or ultra lefts, as opposed nostalgic cold war warriors, who’ve done this? The most damning book I’ve read is Mafia State by the Guardian journalist Luke Harding, i.e. a liberal – btw, I’d imagine you’d do a good impression of Sean Connery in The Russia House: ‘No, my father hated liberals, he generally took the communist line!’ – and whilst it’s hardly a pleasant picture of contemporary or tale of personal experience, it hardly paints Russia as ‘vast gulag’. Nor does the Russian liberal Andrei Nekrasov who did the documentary above I pasted the link for before. Though, again, ultimately the picture painted is unpleasant – at least to me.

  17. Francis King: Would you take it upon yourself to criticise Poroshenko’s running of Ukraine when you don’t live in Ukraine, have never lived in Ukraine, and (perhaps) haven’t even visited the country?

    The toppling of a democratically elected government by ultra nationalists and neo fascists, backed by the West, is clearly an international issue.

  18. John Grimshaw on said:

    I don’t live in Australia, have never lived in Australia and have never visited Australia. Therefore I refuse to criticise their racist treatment of Aborigines. It’s just a cultural thing and nothing to do with me!

  19. John Grimshaw on said:

    John: The toppling of a democratically elected government by ultra nationalists and neo fascists, backed by the West, is clearly an international issue.

    John your faith in Western style democracy is touching.