There has been plenty of media coverage of the US-Russia spat over whether or not Russian airstrikes in Syria have been targeting ISIS or the various other rebel groups in the area.
Probably the best article on the topic comes from Sylvain Attal on France 24 and is, unfortunately, in French. Because I am all about the public service, here is a quick and dirty translation:
Moscow’s demials should fool nobody. The Russians do not have the same opponents as the West in Syria. In the end, it’s Bashar al-Assad who is likely to emerge stronger.
It is difficult to say with certainty that the first Russian air strikes in Syria on Wednesday September 30 did not target the Islamic State (IS). In their first statements, those responsible for French and American defense and foreign policy, Laurent Fabius, Jean-Yves Le Drian, Ashton Carter and John Kerry, have been careful merely to suggest that IS was “probably” not hit. This immediately caused an annoyed Moscow to refute the claims.
It is impossible to create a precise map of forces in the Syrian chaos, but it is clear, however, that Russia is thumbing its nose at the rest of the world.
Indeed, if the real objective of the Russian planes had been the IS training camps, it would have been easy to choose a target in eastern Syria, which is almost completely under the control of jihadists. However, Russia has purposefully chosen to strike areas around the cities of Hama and Homs, already taken by the forces of President Bashar al-Assad – and resulting in high numbers of civilian deaths – in an area where the majority of clashes are between the regular Syrian army and various jihadi rebel groups not belonging to IS, including the Al-Nosra Front, which is affiliated to Al Qaeda.
These groups have one the main difference with IS, in that they still want to bring down the regime in Damascus. Moreover they have been giving the Syrian Army a hard time in recent weeks. Rightly or wrongly, they are considered by the West – unlike IS – as potential participants in future political negotiations on the future of the country. For all these reasons, they are the most formidable military and political opponents of Assad, who has – in consequence – called in the Russians to help him stay in power. And Moscow has never concealed the fact that behind its calls to “fight terrorism”, the real purpose was clearly to strengthen the Syrian regime, which it considers to be the only bulwark against so-called terrorists.
This is also the main weakness of the Western position. The fighters grouped under the Free Syrian Army who were not jihadis or even moderately pro-democracy have been virtually swept away. Faced with Assad, the West’s choice is now between a rock and a hard place. Can we say that Syria would be better if it was in the hands of the henchmen of Al Qaeda? Can we ensure that if they took power they would not exact revenge upon local Shiites or allies of the regime? Of course not.
But it is certain that in the short term, the main enemy of Damascus, and therefore of Moscow is not IS. The Syrian regime never considered IS as a target, and, on the contrary appeared pleased. IS, with its burnings and beheadings, has terrified the world and by implication makes all other Middle Eastern governments look better by comparison, moreover, it has now begun to threaten the West. For its part, IS’s tactics are to avoid – for now – a large-scale confrontation with the Syrian regime, being more concerned with establishing its control over Sunni areas in Syria and Iraq.
A strategic disaster
This approach, while demonstrating diabolical cynicism, turned out to be a winner for the Syrian regime, to the extent that today major foreign powers are openly considering a resumption of contact with Syria, merely attempting to save face by saying that their “red line” is acceptance of Assad himself. This results in groteque scenes such as the reception of parliamentarians from the French ruling party not by Assad himself but by the Speaker of the Syrian Parliament, who immediately deluged them with anti-French rhetoric, no doubt upon Assad’s direct orders.
It is a strategic disaster for the West, which has arrived four years late to the party. Assad’s trap has worked beautifully, closing over Paris and Washington, which are still mired in confusion on the Syrian issue. Russia sat by and watched the car crash, growing more confident than ever that its position will triumph in the end. Once the last pockets of resistance to Assad have been crushed, we will be left with a situation in which we are forced to pick between him and IS – a decision which can only have one outcome. The Russian military involvement in Syria could change the strategic game dramatically. The Americans and the French, who intervened first (uninvited, unlike the Russians) can not do anything to stop it. Each side will continue to attack its own prefered enemies (not to mention the Israelis who, are targeting as a priority Hezbollah and the Iranians). It will make for a lot of planes in the Syrian sky. Let us pray that the situation does not degenerate any further.
What’s particularly interesting here is the way in which military objectives vary over time and between groups.
In theory, all wars have the same aim: to achieve one’s goals as economically as possible. In practice this isn’t a particularly inspiring battle-cry to rally behind, and populations need something a bit juicier to get their teeth into. This can be anything from Allah, to God-Harry-and-Saint-George, to civilising the natives, to making the world safe for democracy. If it’s just a matter of selling the war to the masses, then for all practical purposes the specific cause chosen doesn’t matter very much.
On the other hand, when leaders themselves start to believe the propaganda, that’s when it gets interesting.
Many of the recent wars indulged in by the US and Europe have had as their understood aim not to gain a strategic advantage, but the idea that something must be done. Aka, the good intentions school of strategic thought.
I suspect that this is a product of two phenomena:
- The doctrine of justification by faith. The idea that no matter how badly you fuck up, it’s all ok as long as you had good intentions underlies a large part of modern, Western ethics and morality, even in secular Europe. It has its uses: it’s wonderful for providing hope to individuals in the depths of despair, for example. On a battlefield, however, it’s less useful: “I’m terribly sorry. I massacred my own platoon out of a mixture of carelessness and incompetence, but my heart was in the right place. No hard feelings?”
- World War Two. It is impossible to overstate the extent to which modern US and European military thought remains based on the incredibly powerful narrative that WW2 provided. It’s the perfect movie storyline: doughty volunteer conscripts sacrifice everything to preserve their homes, families and way of life, finally defeating the Evil Empire. In reality, this was not so much the case, with Churchill, Stalin and FDR playing a multi-year game of chicken with each other, each aiming to commit as few resources as possible to the fight. Nevertheless, it is the heroic version of the narrative that has stuck – one that, unfortunately for those of us living in a messy 21st century universe – sings a siren song on the theme of “If you’re on the side of virtue and give it everything you’ve got, you will triumph in the end.”
And this is why the question of whether or not Russia is attacking IS camps is a big, honking PR deal.
Of course, attacking Assad’s own enemies as a priority to help shore up the regime and enable it to push back IS from Syrian territory is a better strategic choice than chucking bombs in the vague general direction of the IS camps themselves. But only if your aim is to actually push IS back.
If, however, your aim is to demonstrate your virtue to the world – regardless of the concrete results on the ground – then bombing IS camps with no real hope of success while Assad struggles interminably with the other non-IS islamists is absolutely the correct stragegy.
Interestingly, there’s a famous parallel to this in Japanese culture, with the tale of the 47 ronin. If you don’t know or have forgotten it:
The story tells of a group of samurai who were left leaderless (becoming ronin) after their daimyo (feudal lord) Asano Naganori was compelled to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) for assaulting a court official named Kira Yoshinaka, whose title was Kōzuke no suke. The ronin avenged their master’s honor by killing Kira, after waiting and planning for a year. In turn, the ronin were themselves obliged to commit seppuku for committing the crime of murder.
It is famous as an example of people willing to die more or less futilely for the sake of honor – they knew they would end up dead one way or another, but nevertheless chose to follow the rules of propriety and at least attempt to kill Kira. Nevertheless, the 47 ronin have – surprisingly perhaps – come in for criticism for being too strategic in their thinking. Tsunetomo Yamamoto, author of the Hagakure, criticises them for being overly concerned about the success or failure of their plot against Kira. Rather than coming up with a good strategy, they should have attacked immediately with no thought for results, if necessary dying in the attempt:
You cannot achieve your purpose if you stop to think how to do it. Do not hesitate, but dash at it. To be killed in revenge is not shameful at all. You will miss the chance if you think you must find some means to kill him. If you are horrified that your opponents are many, you will think of giving up. No matter how many opponents there are, rush at them with determination to cut them all down. That is how to achieve it.
The dismissed samurai of Asano Clan made a night attack on their enemy in Edo after one year, but they should have killed themselves at Sengaku-ji Temple right after that. They should have taken revenge on Kira Kozuke-no-suke much earlier. What if he had died of illness or something before they made their move?
(A little earlier, Yamamoto follows up on a passage about assisting in his nephew’s seppuku with some handy tips on how to avoid appearing impolite by yawning in public. He was quite the chap.)