Israel Shamir

The Fighting Optimist

Secrets of the Syrian War

ID1974 /
FRENCH TRANSLATION: Les secrets de la guerre en Syrie

The greatest secrets: the West has no people on the ground in Syria to take over the liberated territories; the Russians still seek partnership, Erdogan has bitten more than he can chew, and ISIS is a phantom, after all.

Russians are enjoying their Syrian adventure. Twenty days after its start, their entry into the Syrian war has paid off and brought some dividends. They displayed their military toys and duly impressed other boys in the sandbox. After a long period of despondency the Russians have now been cheered up, thank you, they feel much better, as a man convalescing after a grave disease. They like the pictures of their pilots in American-style top-military-chic overalls, of their exquisite ultra-modern jets, of the sheer audacity of this campaign so far from home. They like the new publicity of their military operations, unprecedented for this country. Their MoD posts videos and allows them to follow the attacks and the hits in real time.

Putin has been very popular before the war, with 86% support in the ratings, and now his public support has gone through the roof. The best of it, from the Russian point of view, was the daring launch of their 26 brand new  Kalibr  cruise missiles from a frigate in the Caspian Sea all the way to Syria over the hills and deserts of Iraq and Iran. Though Iraq and Iran had been warned, they did not leak the news to their US partners. The missiles made perfect hits, and military experts say this new class of cruise missiles would allow Russia, if necessary, to take care of the US missile shield installations in neighbouring East European countries. The Russians were pleased as on the day they launched their first Sputnik.

The Syrian campaign has been so popular that an attempt to organise an anti-war demo failed spectacularly: only one hundred fifty persons gathered, in all of 15 million strong Moscow. By comparison, demos against Ukrainian involvement attracted a few thousand protesters at least.

As we predicted in our recent columns, the Russians did not bother overmuch about ISIS (excepting a few raids on Raqqa, its supposed “capital”) but attacked other opposition groups around Damascus and Aleppo, planning to liberate the whole North of Syria all the way up to Turkish border. The ground operations are carried out by the Syrian Army, perhaps strengthened by Iranian units and Hezbollah fighters, with Russian air cover. It is not going very smoothly, for the opposition keeps well entrenched positions, but it still goes, as the fragmented opposition is no match for a regular army with air support.

They plan to seal the Turkish border from the Syrian side, thus terminating the main supply route for the rebels (including ISIS) but probably leaving them some escape routes. The West says they are bombing  moderate opposition , but the Russians deny any such opposition exists. They are all jihadis (jihadists), they say. The Russians compare the outcry over bombing of rebels (supposed CIA assets) with relative quiet over the recent US bombing of Doctors Without Borders in Afghanistan: “So the hospital was accidentally hit, it does not matter, nothing to write home about”, Sergey Lavrov wryly summed up the Western attitude to the US-perpetrated atrocity.

In the confidential negotiations between high-ranking Russian and European officials, the Russians say the FSA (Free Syrian Army) has disintegrated for all practical purposes. Its bulk consisted of Syrian Army deserters, some religious and some non-religious, but “the shaven ones (non-religious) ran away as the bearded ones (jihadis) scared them”. Now, even newspapers more sympathetic to the rebels like the Guardian  have stopped claiming there is a sizeable non-jihadi opposition. They say the rebels are divided into jihadis and “non-ideological units”, i.e. gangs. The population is scared of them, clearly preferring government rule. Bashar Assad holds 20% of Syrian territory, but 80% of its population.

At a meeting with the Syrian opposition leader Burhan Ghalioun in Paris, the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister told the old man benignly: “You are a Sorbonne Professor, you know everything a hundred times better than I do. You say Bashar Assad is a war criminal. You surely understand that if today you were appointed the President of Syria, ISIS would fight against you as well as they do now against Bashar Assad. They want to establish their Caliphate from Andalusia in Spain to Pakistan, and they will not tolerate even the Muslim Brotherhood, much less such enlightened intellectuals as you are, standing on their way”.

In the intensive diplomatic negotiations aimed to convince of the Russian intervention’s legitimacy, the Russians reminded their European partners that at G8 summit in North Ireland the parties agreed to use air force against the jihadi rebels as they threatened world security. This was proposed by Hollande of France and Cameron of the UK, and supported by Obama and Putin.

The French made a few bombing sorties, saying there were 1600 French citizens fighting in the ISIS units, and for them it was a matter of self-defence. Fine, said the Russians, if this is a valid argument, there are over 2000 Russian citizens there, who also had to be taken care of in a similar manner. So it is our self-defence.

The Russians proposed to the French to do their work for them (I presume, with a grain of salt). “Just tell us where and whom you’d want us to bomb”, asked the Russian official. The French counterpart kept mum. “Well, tell us where and whom you want us not to bomb”, insisted the Russian. But the French official did not reply, either.

The Russians suspect that the West does not know the answer and has no people on the ground to take over the liberated territories. The indignity of millions of dollars spent by the US to train four or five fighters is a proof for it, they say. This also explains the long and futile American bombing campaign: over 7500 sorties with no tangible result, unless you count the recently destroyed power plant that supplied people of Aleppo with their electricity.

Sergey Lavrov tells some interesting stories from the time before the Russian Air Force presence was established in the area. Russian observers actually saw the ISIS column on white Toyota Jeeps with black banners moving across the desert towards Palmyra, but they and their Syrian allies received the US request to let them pass unhindered. Moreover, the US warned Bashar Assad: they will hit him if he just tries to use the US sorties against the ISIS to gain ground.

There is no alternative to Bashar Assad now, said Lavrov. It is him or anarchy. There is no united opposition in counterweight to ISIS: just scattered groups. “Let the opposition groups get together and form a coalition. Let them unite and take part in the battle against ISIS”. It is rather unlikely his offer will be taken up.

The very tone of Russian-European talks changed recently. Previously, the European ministers carried like arrogant sahibs with unruly natives, now they are respectful, even obsequious. Though the flight of the  Kalibr  made a difference in perception, so did the waves of Syrian refugees. The Europeans came to understanding that the Russians are most likely to pacify Syria and return the refugees home.

However, there is another very important party to the conflict, namely Erdogan’s Turkey.

Erdogan in trouble

I have had a lot of sympathy for the Turkish leader: he cut his generals down to size, made Turkey rather prosperous, supported the poor, spoke for the Palestinians. He was a very good friend and neighbour of Russia to the mutual benefit of the two countries. However, his Syrian policy has been disastrous for Syria, Turkey and Europe.

A high-ranking official told me that at the first sign of trouble in Syria, Erdogan demanded that President Bashar Assad give half of his government posts to the MB (Muslim Brotherhood). Assad refused, and Erdogan unleashed the dogs of war. The jihadis, that is the Islamist fighters of every hue, flocked to Syria through Turkey. Their weapons were delivered via Turkey. Turkey is their preferred transit for looted antiquities and for illegally produced oil.

Erdogan had grandiose plans of creating a vast empire built upon the MB. These plans cracked as Egyptian army removed the MB President Mursi and seized power. They failed in Syria, too, and the fallout was heavy.

Erdogan invited Syrians to come to Turkey for a short sojourn while Bashar Assad was dethroned; their numbers swelled to over two million with no end in sight. The Turks became unhappy as their security was undermined, their quality of life deteriorated, their fragile prosperity suffered a setback. They made it clear at the recent elections: he hoped for a clear majority for constitutional reform, but failed to form a government and was forced to call a new election.

Now Erdogan is attempting to mobilise his voters by a threat of war. Turks are patriotic chaps, they were brought up on worshiping their WWI hero General Kemal Ataturk. For them (like for many nations), a threat of war is a clarion call for unity and support of government. For this reason he plans to pull Turkey to the brink of war with Russia. So claims the Turkish “Deep Throat”, an anonymous and knowledgeable insider who sends his twits under nickname fuat avni  He has a strong record of disclosing noxious plans of the government. Now he claims Erdogan has given orders to shoot down Russian planes operating in Syria while claiming they have intruded into Turkish air space.

Turkish forces already shot down a drone, claiming it was a Russian one. At the same time, they carry out operations against Syrian Kurds, the preferred allies of the Americans. The Turkish opposition insists that the big terrorist attack on the Kurd peace demo in Ankara (95 dead, 215 wounded) perpetrated by ISIS had been used, or even instigated by Erdogan. Bearing in mind that Erdogan was the architect of a new peaceful policy towards the Turkish Kurds, this is a particularly unpleasant development.

Erdogan has lost his allies. The US prefers the Kurds and is annoyed that Turkey bombs them while declaring they fight against ISIS, the main enemy of the Kurds. It is not clear whether they will rush to his support in case of trouble with the Russians.

His only happy moment occurred recently, when Frau Merkel, the German Chancellor, gave him three billion euros for the upkeep of the refugees on condition he will stop their exodus. She also promised visa-free travel and other small favours to cheer him up.

But the worst is still to come. Reeling under the Russian-led offensive in Syria, the jihadis have begun their great trek back to Turkey. They are shaving off their beards and going while the going is good. Though it is a great relief for Syria, Turkey will have its hands full with these gangs. Some observers already claim that Turkey will be the next Syria.

In a confidential meeting, Erdogan threatened Putin that he would send tens and hundreds of thousands of fighters to Syria, enough to overcome any hardware advantage the Russian-led coalition may have. He can rely upon heavy coffers of the Saudis, and perhaps an American wink. If he will, an all-out war might become a distinct possibility.

The Kurds remain a loose cannon on the deck of Turkey. They have a long-term connection with Israel and the US, and with Russia as well. The Russian ambassador in Ankara has been recently reprimanded because Russian officials had met with Kurdish representatives in Paris. The Russians are cautiously trying to smuggle the Kurds into the political process, but the Russians are aware that the Kurds may present a danger to the Turkish state.

It is better to play ball. The Russians do not scorn Erdogan and his worries. They have other fish to fry together, from gas pipelines to building projects, with multibillion investments on both sides, and the Russians hope Turkey will remain a good friend, though a serious adjustment of Erdogan’s policies in Syria may be necessary in any case.

Sunni-Shia angle

Instigated by the British in 1920s and by the Americans after 2003 in occupied Iraq, Sunni-Shia enmity adds a complication to the problem. Iran is an ally of Bashar Assad and ready to help, but the Iranians (who are Shias) hesitated. They were worried their presence on the ground might be used to present the conflict as a Sunni-Shia war.

The arrival of the Russians (who are not Shia) solved the insoluble equation. With their leadership, the coalition has apparently no religious connotation. But the Gulf states (led by the Troika of Kuwait, Qatar, and the Saudi princes) who were the biggest sponsors of the Syrian rebellion, intend to play this card. “Your support of Assad will be understood by people as your war against 1.5 billion Sunnis”, they rudely threatened Lavrov.

“It’s not we who destroyed the strong Sunni state of Saddam Hussein”, said the Russian minister. Indeed, the Russians supported the Iraq of Saddam Hussein, while the US attacked it and disbanded its government and the army thus creating its afterlife ghost, ISIS. The Russians are non-sectarian: they support Iraq with Shias at the top as they supported Iraq with Sunnis at the top. They support Syria with or without Bashar Assad. This is a part of their imperial, non-sectarian, tradition.

Extremist Sunni groups may try terror. A group of ISIS fighters travelled from Syria to Moscow planning a mega-terror act in the Moscow subway. They were arrested in the nick of time with a ten-pound bomb in their hands. There are many security personnel in Moscow and other Russian cities watching out for the terrorists, but there is no feeling of siege.

The Russians try not to antagonise the Saudis and other Gulf princes. They well received their Defence Minister Mohammad bin Salman, the young son of the present KSA king Salman. He met Putin twice, and there are plans for a royal visit in November.

At every meeting between the Gulf princes and Russian officials, the princes try two requests: Assad must go and Iran should leave. The Russians clearly reject both demands, saying they can’t and won’t tell the Syrians who their president should be.

“Anyway Assad would not listen to us even if we asked him. If you want Assad to leave, talk to him, Lavrov suggested, tongue in cheek. Propose some guarantees, residence, money. But what are the guarantees worth after the Ukraine debacle, as President Yanukovych accepted all conditions of the EU ministers, signed his surrender, received their guarantees, and on the next day he was forced to escape by skin of his teeth?” Thus the recent experience of Ukraine, Iraq, and Libya make the solution in Syria more complicated.

Partners and rivals

The Russians are still very keen on friendship with Americans. There is none of the gut anti-Americanism typical for the Third World. Being very conservative by nature, the Russians prefer conservative Republicans to the enlightened Democrats, though they appreciated Roosevelt and Kennedy. They admired Reagan, and probably they will like Donald Trump even more. Mrs. Clinton is not likely to capture their hearts and minds. They would prefer to have the US as a friend and partner, though they can’t stand being bossed by the US or being told how to behave, as the Cruise Missile Democrats (in  Justin Raimondo’s  terms) are prone to do.

Even now they try to present their Syrian adventure as being done in partnership with the US. The officials told me they proposed to form a joint contingency plan for rescuing a pilot of a downed plane (Russian or American), as both countries fly missions against the ISIS. They were astonished to get a cold shoulder from the Americans. They say they do the job the Americans failed to do, namely eradicate the terrorist entity. If they suspect that the US had a totally different plan, they do not say so.

The Russians invited an American military delegation to Moscow to deal with technicalities of Syrian operation; the Americans refused. The Russians proposed to send a delegation to Pentagon, led by Prime Minister Medvedev; their offer was spurned. After long hesitation, the Americans made an arrangement to avoid the risk of their planes clashing in Syrian skies. They are clearly unhappy about Russian intervention, but are not doing much against it. The US has made a few air-drops of weapons (mainly personnel anti-tank missiles TOWs) to the rebels, and they are likely to send more, presumably intending to repeat the Afghanistan logic of arming rebels in order to bleed the Russians.

Afghan Shadow

It is received wisdom that the Americans lured the Soviets into Afghan quagmire, armed the mujahedeen with Stinger missiles and bled the Soviets to their breakdown and surrender in the Cold War. Though the tooth fairy is received wisdom, too.

In real life, the Soviet takeover of Afghanistan had been legal, as it was done at the request of the legitimate government. The US has had its troops seize a hundred states with the same legitimacy, and in some (notably Afghanistan as it was belligerently occupied) with much less.

The Soviet losses in Afghanistan were quite moderate (less than 15,000 men for ten years – compared with 50,000 American GI lost in Vietnam), the government had been stabilised, women received equal rights, life began to improve rapidly.

Gorbachev’s decision forced the Russians to leave Afghanistan, but they had to leave Germany and Ukraine, Baltic states and Poland, as well. There is no reason to believe that the Afghan campaign contributed heavily to the Soviet collapse.

The Soviet Union collapsed as its leaders preferred to dissolve the Union, to embrace capitalism and to enter its system as an equal, perhaps somewhat junior member. A strange decision, but that is what it was. That’s why the Russians do not consider themselves defeated in the Cold War. If the West would observe some elementary rules of the game, Russia would remain as docile a member of the First World as Italy or France, for good and for ill.

Afghanistan played preciously little role in the events, so it is not likely the Syrian adventure will put much stress upon modern Russia, either.

The bottom-line

As for ISIS, its presence in Syria probably will be ephemeral. Created by the US inability to find its own people to keep the ground they extracted from Damascus regime, it will be gone as Bashar Assad regains the ground while forming a coalition and power-sharing with the opposition groups.

ISIS in Iraq will not go down with the same ease. It holds such big cities as Mosul with its two million inhabitants. There the solution can be political only, by compromise between the Shias of the South, the Sunnis of the Centre and the Kurds of the North, if Iraq’s integrity is to be preserved, as the Russians prefer.

As for the bottom-line, the Russians are likely to end with a fully developed naval, air and ground base in Latakia on the Mediterranean shore, its answer to the vast US base in Kosovo and a solution to the limitations of the Bosporus. It will be a new Sevastopol, the greatest Russian enterprise for a century. Putingrad, anyone?

Israel Shamir can be reached at

This article has been first published on  The Unz Review .

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