Spinning Russia’s Syria Intervention: The Institute for the Study of War

photo Russia Syria2

by Gordon M. Hahn

As I have noted from the beginning of Russia’s military intervention, Moscow has multiple motives for acting as it has and none of those motives alone would have prompted Russian President Vladimir Putin to intervene. The motives are: (1) preserve both the principle of state and UN sovereignty over Western interventionism and Russia’s role in the Middle East and globally by ensuring Russia’s say in the outcome of the Syrian war and crisis; (2) weaken the global jihadi revolutionary movement, which includes the Islamic State (IS), Al Qa`ida (AQ) and host of other jihadi groups, in order to reduce the likelihood of jihadi terrorism at home by the IS affiliate ‘Vilaiyat Kavkaz Islamskogo Gosudarstvo’ (the Caucasus Province of the Islamic State) or the AQ-allied Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate); and (3) create a balance of power between the pro-Western and pro-Islamist Sunni regimes, on the one hand, and the Shi’a, on the other, in the Middle East.

As I have also noted Russia’s military operations have targeted all non-state actors in the Syrian civil war. The Kremlin is focusing more on those jihadist groups closest to the Syrian regime’s capitol, key population centers, and infrastructure first, because they represent the main threat to the Bashar Assad regime, which is the only force capable of preserving or allowing the preservation of the Syrian state and is fighting all of the jihadist forces. IS is and has been a target of Russian sorties, but they are secondary compared to Jabhat al-Nusra at present. The Barack Obama administration and its supporting media outlets have been distorting events, claiming Russia is not targeting IS at all and that Putin promised Russian forces are in Syria to target IS and not support Assad’s forces. They initially ignored Russia’s overtures to the Syrian opposition, claiming Russia was only bombing so-called ‘moderate’ US-backed rebels. Now, the U.S. has been forced along with nearly two dozen other states in stepping up military operations against IS and participating in what are in effect Moscow-sponsored talks, which may very well go nowhere.

It also needs to be noted that much of the military assistance provided by the U.S. and its allies has not gone to fight IS but to fight the Assad regime, despite the nomenclature ‘the anti-ISIS coalition’ one meets frequently.

Thus, US think tanks are a little confused about how to report Russia’s Syria intervention. This creates the likelihood of a split inside the Beltway between those with an interest in boosting the new Cold War and those interested in fighting the global jihadi revolutionary movement. This cleavage is likely to filter down throughout the policy elite and the more politically active.

The split can be understood in two different reports on Russia’s recent air ops in Syria. One is from from The Long War Journal. LJW is a project of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies devoted to the ‘war on terrorism.’ [This is more correctly referred to by my preferred term: the war against jihadism. Terrorism is a tactic. World War Two was not a war against blitzkreigism. It was a war against Nazism.]]

Here is an excerpt from a LJW titled “Assad regime, allies break Islamic State’s siege of air base in Aleppo”:

The Syrian Army and allied forces have broken the Islamic State’s siege of the Kweiris air base in Aleppo province, according to Bashar al Assad’s regime and independent sources.

The “caliphate’s” jihadists held their ground surrounding the air base for nearly two years, cutting off the Assad loyalists who were defending the facility from reinforcements. But in what is likely Assad’s biggest success since Russia intervened in the war, the Islamic State has suffered significant losses in the villages and countryside surrounding the air base.

“Units of the army achieved new progress in the war against terrorism in [the] Aleppo eastern countryside reaching Kweiris airport and contacting…the heroic soldiers who have thwarted hundreds of attempts by ISIS [Islamic State] to attack the airport during the latest months,” the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), Assad’s propaganda arm, reported. “During the operations carried out to lift the siege on the airport,” SANA’s account continued, “the army killed hundreds of ISIS terrorists and destroyed their dens and cells with all weapons inside.”

Assad’s men also claim to have “established control” over “tens of villages and strategic hills in the eastern countryside of Aleppo, the latest of which was the village of Sheikh Ahmad near the airport.” SANA has published pictures from Sheikh Ahmad, saying the village was “recently secured by the Syrian Army.” The fall of Sheikh Ahmad cleared the path for the Syrian military and its paramilitary allies to advance on Kweiris.

Russia’s intervention apparently played a key role in the Syrian Army’s ability to loosen the Islamic State’s grip on the area. In late September, Assad’s forces launched a large-scale ground operation intended to retake the turf surrounding the air base. Assad’s military reportedly provided air cover using newly arrived Russian warplanes.

Russia conducted its own bombings outside of Kweiris as well. “Syrian troops tried in the past to reach the air base with no luck but Russian airstrikes appear to have helped in forcing [the Islamic State] from the area,” the Associated Press (AP) reported.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), Assad’s soldiers have fought alongside Hezbollah jihadists, Syria’s National Defense Forces (a collection of pro-Assad militias) and “Iranian fighters” as they made their way toward the air base. This combined ground force has also been supported by “airstrikes by the Russian and regime air forces.”

Harakat al Nujaba, an Iranian-backed militant organization that fights in Iraq and Syria, claims to have played a key role in operation. A post on Harakat al Nujaba’s official website says that its fighters helped clear the Islamic State from Sheikh Ahmad and other villages surrounding the air base. Harakat al Nujaba has long maintained a presence in Aleppo, so its role in the most recent battle is not surprising.

The Islamic State actually gained ground in Aleppo during the first weeks of Russia’s intervention. The group seized towns and villages from other rebel groups, which were Russia’s primary targets. But while Russia has hit other rebels hard, it has also been targeting the Islamic State throughout the country.

As is the case elsewhere in Syria, the war in Aleppo province is a complex, multi-sided affair. In addition to the Islamic State, Sunni jihadist groups such as Al Nusrah Front and Ahrar al Sham, both of which are opposed to the Islamic State, are heavily involved in the fighting. In fact, Al Nusrah and Ahrar al Sham claim to have captured a small number of villages in the past week. Al Nusrah is al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, while Ahrar al Sham is closely allied with Al Nusrah and has its own al Qaeda links. In early July, the two groups formed the Ansar al Sharia alliance in Aleppo, but the coalition’s current status is not clear. (www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2015/11/assad-regime-allies-break-islamic-states-siege-of-air-base-in-aleppo.php)

The other excerpt is from the Institute for the Study of War. The ISW is more focused on more traditional military tasks and therefore seeks to promote the New Cold War and the ‘Russian threat.’ Here is how Genevieve Casagrand of the ISW describes the same events described above by LWJ:

Russian airstrikes continued to support regime ground operations in Aleppo, Hama, Homs, Idlib, and Dera’a from November 9 – 10. Pro-regime forces relieved several hundred regime soldiers besieged by ISIS in the Kuweires Airbase east of Aleppo City on November 10 with air support provided by Russian warplanes. Russian airstrikes began to target ISIS’s positions surrounding Kuweires Airbase on October 12, preceding the start of the regime’s ground campaign against Kuweires on October 15. The regime largely relied upon Russian air power as well as reinforcement from hundreds of Iranian-backed proxy forces. The breaking of the siege represents a significant psychological victory for the regime and its allies. Russia will likely use this victory to validate its intervention in Syria and portray itself and the regime as decisive forces against ISIS in Syria. Russian airstrikes also continued to target rebel-held terrain south of Aleppo City as pro-regime forces continue to push southwest towards the town of Hader.

Russian airstrikes targeted Syrian opposition forces in Hama and Idlib Provinces from November 9 – 10 as rebels continued to make gains against regime forces following rebels’ seizure of the town of Morek in northern Hama Province on November 4. Regime forces have in fact lost terrain in Hama Province since the start of Russian airstrikes in Syria on September 30. U.S. support to Syrian rebels has also largely assisted rebel advances in Hama Province. The U.S. provided increased shipments of TOW anti-tank missiles to “moderate” Syrian opposition groups following Russia’s intervention. U.S.-backed rebels launched a total of 115 TOW missiles in the month of October alone. (http://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-airstrikes-syria-october-31-november-10-2015#sthash.779VTRtM.dpuf)

Notice that the breaking of the siege at Kweirs/Kuweires in Casagrande’s ISW report is separated from any mention of IS and is characterized as something “Russia will likely use this victory to validate its intervention in Syria and portray itself and the regime as decisive forces against ISIS.” Presumably they will, because that is exactly what it demonstrates. What appears to be galling the U.S. security community is that the Obama administration has been feckless in Syria and restrained U.S. forces from doing what precisely Moscow’s forces are doing now. As US Navy Commander Garrett I. Campbell noted, Russian warplanes carried out as many strikes against anti-Assad rebels on some single days as the US-led anti-IS coalition carried out against the jihadist group in a typical month (www.brookings.edu/blogs/order-from-chaos/posts/2015/10/23-russian-military-capabilities-syria-campbell?rssid=LatestFromBrookings).

It is high time our think tanks refrained from emotion-driven analysis, whether driven by jealously of or disdain for Putin or frustration with President Obama. The nation needs facts, not spin, and these think tanks’ donors should hold them to a higher standard. Unfortunately, this is highly unlikely any time soon and is a detriment to your and my security.

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Gordon M. Hahn is an Analyst and Advisory Board Member of the Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation, Chicago, Illinois; a Senior Researcher, Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California; and an Analyst/Consultant, Russia Other Points of View – Russia Media Watch, http://www.russiaotherpointsofview.com. Dr Hahn is author of three well-received books, Russia’s Revolution From Above (Transaction, 2002), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), which was named an outstanding title of 2007 by Choice magazine, and The ‘Caucasus Emirate’ Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014). He also has authored hundreds of articles in scholarly journals and other publications on Russian, Eurasian and international politics and wrote, edited and published the Islam, Islamism, and Politics in Eurasia Report at CSIS from 2010-2013. He has taught Russian politics and other courses at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, St. Petersburg State (Russia), and San Francisco State Universities as well as the Middlebury Institute for International Studies at Monterey, California. Dr. Hahn has been a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (2011-2013) and a Visiting Scholar at both the Hoover Institution and the Kennan Institute.

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About Gordon M. Hahn