A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Russia Strikes in Syria: First Thoughts

Blogging has been light lately due to deadlines but I'm starting to emerge from that.

Russia's airstrikes in Syria are already a bone of contention, with Russia saying it flew about 20 sorties against at least eight Islamic State targets, but the West and the Free Syrian Army claiming that they struck civilians and areas controlled by the Free Syrian Army or other non-Islamic State groups.

Assuming Russia's primary goal is to defend the Asad regime, reports that its targets were in the Homs and Hama regions could confirm this because the regime forces are mainly facing the FSA, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other forces there rather than IS. While the US can hardly object to  attacks on Nusra, an al-Qa‘ida affiliate attacks on the FSA could be another matter. And several FSA geoups and allies have claimed they were hit. The map below, from the Institute for the Study of War, shows all the attacks as being well to the west of area controlled by the Islamic State, as do the analysis at ISW's website and an early assessment by Fabrice Balanche at The Washington Institute. If these readings are correct (and with so many competing factions in Syria, the Fog of War is even foggier than usual), then it would seem regime defense is the real motivator in target selections.

I will save editorializing until the facts are a bit clearer, but it seems at first glance that Russia's initial strikes are aimed at preventing the further collapse of the regime-controlled zone, which suggests Russia knows exactly what it seeks to accomplish. What is clear is that the situation is transformed and the Russian Bear is in the game.

But FSA and other anti-Asad sources are reporting numerous civilian casualties, and one aviation site is suggesting that videos (see below) released by the Russians suggest that the initial strikes may have been with non-guided munitions and may have missed their targets. It would be interesting to know the Russians' own bomb damage assessment (BDA) of the results of day one.

The third video below purportedly shows Russian aircraft over a Tajammu‘ al-‘Izza (Gathering of Honor) (FSA-aligned) position. I think the aircraft are Su-24s?


Anonymous said...

The last I heard there were at most 40 "moderates" backed by the US active within Syria and it wasn't clear if that number included trainees who handed over US supplied weapons to one of the jihadi groups and/or were captured or surrendered to one of the many jihadi armed factions. But let's go with 50 "moderates".

Two questions:

(1) Would the reports of Russian strikes on/massacres of "moderates" indicate a level of precision bombing unlike any we've seen since Gulf War 1 and 2?

(2) Any reports of baby incubators being emptied and stolen off to Russia, yet?

David Mack said...

The hyper ventilating by various U.S. government officials, exceeded only by the huffing and puffing of the WP editorial board and Republican critics of Obama is really short sighted. If Czar Vladimir wants to play at being the leader of a world power by rescuing Bashar al-Assad as the latter's military is in acute decline,he has picked mission impossible. Nation building and reinventing the Iraqi military did not work for the U.S. in Iraq, and we poured lots more resources into that venture than Russia can afford to put at risk. Putin will find that the Russian blessing to Bashar will make Russia unpopular with most Syrians and with the rest of the Sunni Arabs, including those in his own country. On the other hand, if he aims at bolstering Russia's relation with Syrian Alawites in order to protect Russia's interests in Tartous and Latakia and have a greater say than Iran or the U.S. in picking the successor to Bashar's leadership, why should we complain? A responsible U.S. Syrian policy should worry about the fate or Alawites and other minorities. We need Russian influence for the political transition, hopefully sooner rather than later, since our policy so far has not developed any kind or responsible and effective alternative Syrian leadership. We were headed for total collapse of Syrian state institutions and growing power for Da'esh, Jabhat an-Nusra, etc. With 4000 to 5000 Russian and former Soviet Muslims in the ranks of that crowd both Russia and the United States share some major interests.

Justin K. said...

The whole affair is a rather sad commentary on the foreign policy of the US.

At inception is schoolboy petulance at an imagined rival. If the Russians are doing A, then the US must do not-A. Considerations of the bigger picture the greater good are submerged because of face.

More frightening are the delusions of self importance and righteousness. Russians certainly shouldn't be taking any action without permission that God's regent on Earth the USA might or might not deign to give them.

Then garden variety hypocrisy. The Russians arming the regime "pours gasoline on a dangerous situation". The USA's arming of "freedom fighters" pours calming oil on troubled waters.

Finally back to schoolyard with schoolboy insults, Czar Vladimir indeed. But those who oppose USA policy must clearly be stupid or incorrigibly evil. The only other explanation perhaps a profound lack of courage - but only for erstwhile allies.

If Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, then the Middle East was lost with the mentality of PS 109.