Syria Quagmire: Has Russia Accomplished anything in a year of Bombing?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Alarabiya says that Russia has killed over 3,000 civilians in its bombing raids of the past year.

BBC Monitoring translated an article by Mikhail Khodarenok at the site from 23 September that tries to explain why any decisive victory in Syria has eluded Russia during the past year.

The author points out that the Syrian Arab Army of Bashar al-Assad has not made any significant gains in territory in the past twelve months. He says that the rebels still control 60-70 percent of the country’s territory, but this is completely misleading. Most of that “territory” is the eastern desert and it is irrelevant who holds it. The regime likely controls some 70 percent of the population mostly in the west or what the French colonialists used to call “useful Syria.”

He says that people living in regime-held areas, even military personnel, “are forced to pay tribute to the corrupt special services.” Khodarenok does not think the war is winnable under these circumstances without substantial rethinking.

He says that the lion’s share of Russian armed forces have been withdrawn from Syria, save for a single aviation group at the Hmeimin base. The Russian government is strapped for cash and trying to do Syria on a shoe-string, using gasoline and jet fuel sparingly.

He says that the Russians are running low on ammunition, and are thinking of trying to buy some missiles that can be launched from the air from Belarus, which has large old Soviet stores of them.

Khodarenok will admit that the first six months of Russian air intervention in Syria went fairly well. Russian Aerospace Forces helped the Syrian army take some territory from the rebels.

But, he says, the second six months saw those efforts stall out, with rebels retaking some of the territory they had lost.

He describes rebel holdings as:

“a significant proportion of Aleppo, the whole of Idlib Province, a significant part of Homs Province, the area around the city of Deir al-Zour, the oasis of East Al-Ghutah to the south of Damascus, the district of Az Zabadani on the border with Lebanon, and a number of other areas.”

The problem with this list is that he pays no attention to how many people live there. Syria had 22 million people in 2011 before the civil war. Deir al-Zor has only about a million. Likewise, al-Raqqa Province was 800,000 before the war, of which half have run away to Turkey or now live under Kurdish rule in the north of the province. East Aleppo is probably only 250,000, with three or four times that many under regime control in West Aleppo. You go down the list, and I doubt the rebels have more than 6 million or so under their control, and that is counting the Syrian Kurds. And I think the regime has the other 12 million. (Four million have fled abroad, so I think the country’s population has fallen to 18 million).

The author maintains that the old USSR and Russian-trained officers have largely been fired, and most of the officer corps studied in the Middle East. Many of those with Turkish or Saudi ties defected. The remaining officers are plagued by corruption and fraud.

Russian military advisers have been withdrawn, and the Syrian Army HQ has no Russian advisory staff. There is little coordination on the battlefield.

Khodarenok advocates a single Russian command in Syria, with a kind of viceroy in charge of all the moving parts.

He suggests sending a brigade of some 10,000 men into Syria from Russian Chechnya.

He critiques the logistics of the Syrian army, which he says has no centralized supply system. As a result many young people have defected.

He complains that Syrian army morale is extremely low. At key moments in the struggle for Aleppo, troops ran away.

So that’s a pretty pessimistic take on the Russian intervention.

I think he’s missing some successes of a defensive sort– shoring up Latakia and forcing the fundamentalists out, e.g., or a similar strategy in other areas such as the city of Homs.

But he could be right that the struggle is going nowhere fast.


Related video:

Masdar News: “Syrian army advance in Bustan Basha district in Aleppo city”

16 Responses

  1. Khodarenok fails to mention that the Syrian government with Russian air support are not just fighting a few head chopping terrorists. They are in fact fighting the ‘West’ which is arming, supporting and financing the terrorists either directly or through middle East proxies. It should be pointed out to Khodarenok that America and her allies have been been bombing and fighting in Iraq for years and have poured millions of dollars into this country in arms, logistics and finance, but they still haven’t yet overcome the terrorists there. I don’t know if the American government is openly acknowledging arming terrorists, but over here in the UK its openly admitted. I watched a parliamentary committee over here in the UK recently, where the defense secretary and his side kicks made no secret of the fact that we British are providing heavy vehicle mounted machine guns for terrorists in Syria. These are of course the so called nice or moderate terrorists. A point made in this defense committee briefing was not that we had supplied the weapons, but that we were not following up with a more and plentiful supply of ammunition for them!

    • Remember the 7,500 US air sorties that were alleged to have been launched at the outset — what, if anything, did they accomplish?

  2. No one has accomplished anything in Syria if accomplish implies something beneficial to the Syrian people. They were ripe for a period of ideological and political upheaval which should be familiar to anyone looking objectively at the history of any country that has passed through it. Rarely has it ever proceeded without extreme civil disturbance and citizens butchering each other, but that has always, like the French Revolution, been contained and resolved within the nation’s own borders. For a wide variety of reasons the nisus for such political upheaval swept across ME nations at more or less the same time. Left to themselves these internal political processes would likely have largely resolved themselves by now. It is the efforts of outside interests, competing ones in the case of Syria, to influence the outcome by supporting one or other elements in what is, however bloody, a not unfamiliar stage in the process of political evolution, that has thrown each in turn into the chaos we see. Of course the Syrian army is inadequate to resist this chaos*, no small nation maintains an army capable to standing up to such foreign funded invaders, why should it? On the other hand what has been accomplished by all the non-Syrians involved is insensibly to turn Syria into a battlefield for a proxy stand-off between conflicting ideological perceptions of how the globe should be run, and it is perhaps at that level that any Russian accomplishment should be judged.

    * link to

  3. For the less well informed among us, who is Mikhail Khodarenok? Does he have any particular expertise that might lead us to give his opinions any more-than-average weight?

    • Yes, he does. He has a serious military background and is not infrequently critical of Russian policy. He also has a command of facts not unlike the good Dr here. He has, of course, his own perspective, but who does not? See my link above.

  4. Russia is probably fine with a stalemate.
    How many civilians have died as a result of the many other outside powers? Far more than 3000. In so-called “modern” warfare civilians are over 80% of the casualties. It can’t be avoided. The days of groups of soldiers out in the middle of an empty field are long gone.

  5. Doesn’t the strategy of the government side seem to be depopulation of those areas it can’t control? That seems to be succeeding, as civilians if they have the means to do so are leaving the contested or rebel held cities because of the constant bombing.

    • That’s a Western MSM kind of spin. Others might be:

      1. Areas controlled by the “rebels” are places where war is being prosecuted by both sides and so not pleasant areas to live in.
      2. The population of those areas does not want to be ruled by the “rebels”.

  6. The fundamental difference between the US and Russia is about who shall determine who will rule Syria if that civil war ever ends. The Russian position is that it is up to the people of Syria. Our position is that it is up to the occupant of the White House.

  7. I guess pocketing Al Qaeda’s allies, Jabhat al Fatah al Sham in the eastern portion of Aleppo counts for nothing?

  8. Russia should probably bring 10k soldiers in & win the war.

    US public realizes Obama admin has been stretching truth & aiding some folks now on Isis-al-Qaeda side.

  9. A better question might be has the US accomplished anything after 25 years of bombing? Other than creating chaos and blowback for decades to come?

  10. “Russia should probably bring 10k soldiers in & win the war.”

    Sure, just like they did in Afghanistan. Good thing you are not advising the Russians, as you really would have them mired in a quagmire.

  11. They accomplished shoring up the Syrian Army which was on the edge of total defeat. They accomplished reduced support from Turkey for the jihadists. They will soon accomplish freeing Aleppo of head choppers. Yes the Russian intervention has been limited in size but to say it has accomplished nothing is a gross understatement.

  12. RT, Russia’s version of CNN, pretty much says that Assad is the champion of the people and the rightful, internationally recognized leader of Syria. The Gulf states, Turkey and US surrogates are propping up the opposition. Sounds like the US and its cronies are backing the losers. When they lose eastern Aleppo, the opposition will have the eastern desert, while Assad’s forces control the population centers. Can someone explain to me what the US is after other than supporting Israel’s opposition to Iran and its allies? The UN as the forum for the nations of the world should not act as the US’ puppet, but support the Assad government. What legal claim does Al-Nusra or ISIS or the so-called moderates have?! Yes, there needs to be reform, but not this tectonic nightmare. The US stirring up the pot is just plain stupid and it pretty easily could get us close to WWIII!

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