Saturday, April 20, 2013

Why the civilized world has a moral obligation to help Syria to defeat the US/NATO/al-Qaeda coalition

Yesterday, in the comments section of my post Assad and the Syrian Army are fighting for all of us, Uprooted Palestinian reminded me that he had predicted that what I had called the "US subversion model: Bosnia v.4, Kosovo v.3, Libya v.2 and now Syria v.1" would not work in Syria (FYI: the preceding sentence contains five links, not one long one).  He was right.  Something really different happened, and is still happening in Syria.  I think that it is time to look at this "Syrian difference" and try to make sense of it.  

However, before I go any further, I have to make a big caveat here.

When I research a topic I try to use as many sources as possible and combine them all into a coherent picture.  In the case of the war in Syria, I cannot do that for the very simple reason that I don't speak Arabic at all.  In fact, the Middle-East has never been my primary area of expertise and I "bumped" into it quite by chance about 20 years ago.  Now, two decades later, I think I know a little something about the region, but I still do not speak Arabic, hence I am cut off of all the best primary sources.  Because of that, I am forced to rely almost exclusively on one type of source: Russian experts.

To be sure, I try to pick very knowledgeable experts: fluent in Arabic, with many years of personal experience in the region, with little or not ideological agenda, preferably associated with well informed circles inside the Russian government (foreign affairs, intelligence, military) and, crucially, with personal and direct experience of the current war in Syria.  Consequently, my own thinking is therefore very much dependent on their views, and that is something I have to openly admit.

This being said, I would argue that Russian experts are a very good source, way better than most, though not necessarily all, Western analysts.  For one thing, Russian experts and journalists have traveled extensively in Syria, and most of them did that on *both* sides of the "front" (there is no real front in this war, I mean that figuratively).  This is systematically overlooked by Western reporters who typically report from Beirut, Amman or even Jerusalem, but Russian reporters actually report from *inside* Syria.

Now, it is rather obvious that a overwhelming majority of Russians are if not pro-Assad then most definitely anti-insurgency.  So yes, Russian experts and reporters usually do get a very warm and even affectionate welcome by government forces while the insurgents treat them with hostility and overt dislike.  That, of course, will only contribute to strengthening the already existing Russian bias in support of the regime.

Having made all these caveats, I still think that an analysis based on Russian views has some interest, if only as an alternative to the mostly Anglo point of view.

So what is this Syrian difference?

First, there are what I would call if not minor, then at least secondary differences.

For one thing, the Baathist regime is Syria is a highly centralized and strong one.  Gaddafi's "Jamahiriya" (or "state of the masses") was far more decentralized and "loose".  Second, Assad proved a far tougher opponent than Gaddafi.  While initially Assad appeared to be confused, which is not surprising considering his lack of experience, with time he did develop a very coherent strategy (no doubt with the help of Iran and Russia).  Thirdly, there was of course the double Russian and Chinese veto at the UNSC which has prevented a US/NATO invasion of Libya, at least so far.  And, finally, the opposition to Gaddafi was a far more complex and diverse one than the one to Assad which has turned into a de-facto al-Nusra "one man show", at least in terms of military muscle on the ground.

And yet, this is still not the full picture.  There is one factor which all the Russian experts are stressing over and over again: the truly remarkable performance of the Syrian military.

It is a fact that when the insurgency first hit the country, the Syrian military did not do good job at all.  By all (Russian) accounts, the Syrians were confused, poorly commanded, and completely inadequately trained to deal with the type of enemy they were facing.  For years the Syrian military had prepared to defend itself against an Israeli invasion, and suddenly it was ordered to put down a major insurgency while, at the same time, pretty please not kill too many civilians.  And just as the Russians had done so in the First Chechen war, the Syrians barely prevailed, and when they eventually did, their "victories" usually came at a great cost to themselves and to the civilian population.  Now, two years later, all the Russian experts agree that the Syrian army has turned into an amazingly effective counter-insurgency machine.

Not only have the Syrians radically changed their tactics, they have succeeded in doing so while equipped with mostly old, Soviet era, equipment.  Russian experts have often marveled at how skillfully the Syrian army has used old Soviet hardware which nowadays is not even kept in old military weapons dumps in Russia.  While some modern pieces of equipment were delivered to Syria (for example some Pantsir-S1 air-defense systems), the bulk of the Syrian armed forces are in dire need of modern gear, in particular at a time when the insurgency is receiving top of the line equipment from the US/NATO. 

It is true that the insurgency does not have an air force or many tanks, but it is getting more and more top of the line communications equipment, infantry weapons (such as night vision goggles), advanced anti-tank systems, etc.  If on a global scale the Syrian government forces have more firepower, on the infantry platoon level the Syrian government forces are often out-gunned, and by a good margin.

If it was just a matter of hardware, the Syrians would probably lose this war rather rapidly.  The difference is, however, in the training and fighting spirit.

Russian experts report that the Syrian military has turned into a highly disciplined fighting force and that their morale is strong because they view that as a war of national liberation against a foreign invader (which is, of course, exactly what this war is: a US/NATO/al-Qaeda war on the Syrian people).  According to Russian military experts, the typical resulting casualty ratio is at least 6:1 or better in favor of the government forces.  This is partly due to the superb Syrian officer corps and to the fact that there are very few well trained Syrian insurgents out there.  This is why foreign mecenaries and NATO special forces are so important - to compensate for a lack of well-trained Syrian officers in the insurgency. 

As I have written many times here, I don't like Baathism or Baathists one bit, and I have always disliked the Assad dynasty, I have come to conclude that this war is not one of some "opposition" against the "regime", but one of Syria against a foreign invasion.  It is my understanding that, at least according to the Russian reports, a good part of the Syrian population feels the same way: not exactly an immense love for Assad or his regime, but a total rejection of the foreign-controlled Jihadi insurgency.  Furthermore, ever since al-Nusra & Co. succeeded in temporarily controlling certain Syrian cities and suburbs, the public opinion has turned even more against them and, therefore, more pro-government.

After two years of never-ending propaganda the truth is finally coming out: the so-called "Syrian" insurgency is, at its core, a international coalition of Wahabi crazies backed by the USA and NATO.

I would add that just because this is also the official position of the Kremlin does not entail that the Russian journalists or experts have to make up facts to support that thesis.  If, by now, even some Western experts are becoming worried about the nature of the Syrian opposition, how much more so that should be the case for the people having to live through this war on the ground?

Then, look at the "defections indicator": sure, at the beginning there was some defections, from individual soldiers to generals.  This appears to have stopped by now.

Or this: the bulk of the Syrian military is not involved in the civil war at all.  In fact, Assad has not even declared a full mobilization.  Two years ago, the Russians explained this absence of mobilization by the fact that the country was in too much chaos and too split regionally to make such a mobilization possible.  Nowadays they say that Assad simply has no need for such a mobilization.

Of course, it is possible to dismiss all this as rosy Russian propaganda.  But I honestly don't think that this is the case.  Many of the Russian experts who are following the conflict in Syria have seen many wars, including Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnia, civil wars in Africa and Latin America, and they know that wars are complex phenomena.   Most of them have served in the Soviet or Russian armed forces, and many have seen combat.  These guys know what they are talking about and they not easy to deceive, in particular about combat matters.  The remarkable thing is that all of these experts agree that the Syrian military has turned into a most effective military force which would easily prevail against the opposition if three key factors were not stacked against them:

1) Unlike the government which is facing a serious economic crisis because of the civil war, the insurgency has access to basically bottomless sources of money.  At an average cost of 500 bucks per mercenary per month, it costs the US, NATO or the Gulf States pennies to keep this war going

2) The insurgency also can count on an almost inexhaustible amount of "volunteers": Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria are all in the midst of a huge social and economic crisis and its is really easy to recruit over there.  Add the Wahabi Saudis, fighters from Western Europe, assorted Chechens, Pakistanis, etc. and you get the image: mercenaries are being brought in almost as the government forces kill them in combat.

3) Government forces are beginning to get critically low on all most most common forms of weapons and military gear.  Most of the equipment of the government forces is 20-30+ years old anyway, most of it has also exceeded its official shelf life, and two years of war have also required a lot of repairs and maintenance.  And even though the sale of weapons to Syria is fully legal (no UNSC ever imposed an arms embargo on Syria), very little military gear is actually brought.

The solution to the Syrian is rather obvious: Russia and China should supply China with enough money and military hardware to force NATO/USA/al-Qaeda to agree to a negotiated settlement.   This is the argument an increasing number of Russian experts are making, adding that "Assad is fighting for us, because every Jihadi he kills in Syria is one less Jihadi we will have to kill in Russia".  They mean that quite literally.

According to these experts any type of "victory" for the insurgency in Syria would mean that several thousands of combatants will find themselves unemployed overnight and that these insurgents will simply leave Syria to seek the next "holy war" to participate in in the name of their vision of Islam.  Add to this real Russian fears about the US leaving Afghanistan next year, and you have the ingredients of a "perfect Jihadi storm" hitting both Central Asia and the Caucasus at the same time.  It is this scenario which the Russians are now openly preparing for and which explains the high priority currently given to the military readiness of the Southern Strategic Command and the Black Sea Fleet. 

As I wrote yesterday, Assad and the Syrian Army are fighting for all of us, not just for Russians. Why?  Because even if some/many/most Jihadis will to go Afghanistan, Central Asia or the Caucasus, enough will find their way elsewhere, including countries such as Spain (which, according to the Wahabis, belongs to the Islamic Umma), France (where, according to the same Wahabis, Muslims are mistreated) or even the USA (which, as we have just seen this week, is also hated by the Wahabi forces it supports).  Bottom line: if the Wahabi crazies win in Syria, there will be enough of them to crate chaos and mayhem everywhere, from China to Indonesia, to Russia, to India, to Europe to the USA.  And if they rulers of the White House are dumb/deluded enough not to understand that, it is incumbent upon Russia and China to take the lead and do everything possible short of an overt military intervention to help Assad and the Syrian military prevail in this crucial conflict whose outcome will have global consequences.

The other positive side effect of arming and bankrolling the Syrian regime is to make an overt US/NATO intervention less likely.  As long as Western politicians remain convinced that the Syrian military is united and determined to resist at any cost they will be unlikely to launch a major attack.

The current three major risks for the Syrian regime are:

a) a comprehensive economic collapse
b) an overt US/NATO intervention in the war
c) a never ending war funded from abroad

All three of these threats can be addressed by a determined Russian/Chinese policy to keep Assad in power by arming and financing the Syrian state.  Such a policy would be costly in political and financial terms for both countries, but it would be far cheaper than facing a Wahabi insurgency in, say, Dagestan or Xinjiang.

I think that Assad and the Syrian military have shown that they have what it takes to defend their country against a triple US/NATO/al-Qaeda invasion and that regardless of the past mistakes and sins of the Assad dynasty, the civilized world has a moral obligation to stand up and help Syria in its fight for survival.  What the Syrian military has achieved is remarkable, but it would be unreasonable to expect it to finish this war on its own, not with the insurgency having access to an infinite supply of weapons, mercenaries and money.

If/when this war stops, then a political long term solution will have to be achieved by means of compromise and negotiations.  The possible departure of Assad could be one of the points discussed, if that is what a majority of the Syrian people will demand.  But until then both moral and pragmatic considerations clearly mandate that the Assad regime be given as much help as possible.  This is the policy an increasing number of Russian experts are advocating and I personally fully agree with them.

The Saker