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Russia’s Misdemeanors In Syria: A US-Funded Think Tank Point Of View

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Russia's Misdemeanors In Syria: A US-Funded Think Tank Point Of View

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On May 12th, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) released its “Moscow’s War in Syria” report.

The report is free to download. [pdf]

The CSIS takes pride in being ranked the number one think tank in the United States as well as the defense and national security center of excellence for 2016-2018 by the University of Pennsylvania’s “Global Go To Think Tank Index.”

Its list of donors and who specifically chose it as the #1 think tank is showing for the opinions its authors represent. Since, each separate report includes the asterisk “CSIS does not take specific policy positions; accordingly, all views expressed herein should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).”

In line with recent claims by US Syria Envoy James Jeffrey, who said that it was the US’ job to turn Syria into a quagmire for Russia, Operation Inherent Resolve’s report saying that the US forces are focusing on Iran and Russia, as primary challenges, alongside ISIS, and so on.

“This report examines Russia’s military and diplomatic campaign in Syria, the largest and most significant Russian out-of-area operation since the end of the Cold War.

Russia’s experience in Syria will shape its military thinking, influence promotion and personnel decisions, impact research and development for its arms industry, and expand its influence in the Middle East and beyond for the foreseeable future.

Yet despite the importance of Russia’s involvement in Syria—especially as the United States competes with countries such as Russia and China—there has been little systematic analysis of Russia’s campaign in Syria.

This research aims to help fill the gap and provides some new analysis and data. It conducts a broad assessment of the Russian campaign—including political objectives, diplomatic initiatives, and civilian targeting—which places the military campaign in a wider context. In addition, it compiles a data set of Russia’s civilian targeting and analyzes satellite imagery of Russian activity.”

The report admits that Russia was “relatively successful” (can’t praise the enemy too much, after all) in achieving its “near-term political and military objectives” in Syria – namely preventing the collapse of President Bashar al-Assad’s government (“the Assad regime”) and (which is exactly the same thing) preventing an US overthrow of Assad.

And, in line with all baseless accusations, the report repeats them again: Russia achieved this by “systematic punishment” by “attacks against civilian and humanitarian infrastructure in an attempt to deny resources—including food, fuel, and medical aid—to the opposition while simultaneously eroding the will of civilians to support opposition groups.”

According to the report, Russia’s goals and strategy in Syria are the following:

  • Russian leaders wanted to stabilize Syria, a strategically-important hub for Moscow in the Middle East that was under threat;
  • Russian leaders assessed that the United States and its partners were attempting to overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s regime and were either attempting to replace it with a friendly government or would leave behind a collapsed state;
  • Moscow’s decision was also significantly influenced by its ability to establish a viable military strategy at an acceptable cost. It adopted a strategy that combined airpower and ground maneuver to overwhelm a divided enemy. And instead of relying on a big force being deployed, it relied on the Syrian Arab Army, Lebanese Hezbollah, and other militias and private military contractors as the main ground maneuver elements.

Russia’s military campaign in Syria was successful in achieving Moscow’s strategic objectives at a manageable cost in terms of Russian casualties and finances.

Russian efforts benefited from having limited objectives and facing rebel groups that failed to coordinate their activities and lacked key defensive assets, such as anti-air weaponry.

“Russian operations and tactics were also well aligned to its strategic goals, focusing on airpower and special operations forces to enable regime offensives on the ground. Over the course of the war, Russia gradually improved its air-ground integration with pro-regime forces.”

CSIS calls it a “Russian military intervention” and it can be separated into three phases:

  1. Stabilizing the Assad regime in core areas of western Syria (September 2015 to spring 2016);
  2. Conducting offensive operations in the west to recapture Aleppo (spring 2016 to spring 2017);
  3. Countering the Islamic State in central and eastern Syria (spring 2017 to spring 2018).

Completion of those phases cleared the way for the retaking of Idlib and putting it under government control.

Also increasing influence in northeastern Syria, and wrestling it away from the US and Turkey.

The report presents it as if these are sole Russian objectives, and the Syrian Arab Army is some sort of proxy that’s just pushing further towards achieving Moscow’s interests and not that it wishes to consolidate the country so that the Syrian citizens can return to some semblance of normality.

In addition to what it does in the military field, Russia carried out two separate campaigns, according to CSIS – a “punishment” campaign and a “diplomatic” campaign.

“According to data compiled by CSIS for this report, Russia used a systematic punishment campaign to escalate costs on the civilian population and undermine support for the opposition.

The most visible element of this punishment campaign was marked by large-scale attacks against civilian and humanitarian infrastructure in an attempt to deny resources—including food, fuel, and medical aid—to the opposition while simultaneously eroding the will of civilians to support opposition groups.

Russia also conducted a propaganda campaign using both diplomacy and disinformation to target Syria’s civilian population. The propaganda campaign attempted to deflect blame for Russian and Syrian attacks against civilian infrastructure, undermine international efforts to hold the Assad regime accountable for abuses, and legitimize an ever-widening civilian target set.

Over time, these campaigns became synergistic, and their effects complemented each other to achieve regime goals such as retaking opposition-held territory.”

Regarding the diplomatic campaign, CSIS summarized the following:

“Moscow orchestrated an effective diplomatic campaign that complemented Russia’s military efforts. Russia coordinated its political and military efforts reasonably well to facilitate gains on the ground and maximize leverage at the international negotiating table. While the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs negotiated ceasefires and de-escalation agreements in Geneva and Astana, the Ministry of Defense exploited those agreements to rest and refit pro-regime forces and then violate the agreements when feasible. While Russian diplomatic and military efforts were not always perfectly synchronized, they were better orchestrated than the United States and other Western countries, enabling Moscow to link battlefield gains to diplomatic leverage.”

The lessons that can be derived from the Russian activity in Syria would take years to summarize and entirely realize, but at the same time, CSIS attempted to provide some intermediate lessons:

  • Russia adopted a light footprint approach in Syria that constituted an evolution in Russian military thinking. Rather than applying a heavy hand, Moscow leveraged air assets, unmanned aerial vehicles, civil-military units (such as military police and “reconciliation” centers), special operations forces, and information assets. For ground operations, Moscow relied on surrogate forces, such as the Syrian Tiger Forces, Lebanese Hezbollah, private military contractors, and militias from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other countries. This approach was a major advance for the Russian military;
  • Russia will likely build on its Syrian experience when weighing external military operations in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America. Where ground forces are an option, Russia is more likely to rely on its own special operation forces, state and non-state proxy forces, and private military contractors;
  • The punishment of civilians continues to be an important component of Russian military operations. Russia attempted to deny food, fuel, and medical aid to rebels while simultaneously eroding civilians’ will to fight or provide support to opposition groups. Russian leaders concluded that punishment was effective in breaking the will and support of local populations for rebel groups;
  • The Russian intervention in Syria was an opportunity to modernize Russia’s war-fighting capabilities and use Syria as a live-fire training range to constantly refine its application of force. Perhaps the most important lesson in the technological sphere was Russia’s development of advanced command, control, communications, and intelligence (C3I) field systems on the battlefield, providing data to enable a higher throughput of airstrikes. These systems were integrated into Russia’s overarching systems of “reconnaissance strike complexes” (RSCs);
  • Russia continually rotated mid- to senior-level leadership to the Syrian theater of operations. Officers received valuable experience on the ground in advisory or leadership roles, which will likely impact Russian personnel decisions and thinking for years to come.

The above is focused on Russia’s alleged conduct and what can be deemed in regard to Moscow’s military thinking.

At the same time, the US and the collective West can also learn some lessons from Russia’s activity. For example, Moscow generally respected the US forces and didn’t engage them, respecting deconfliction markers and so on. But this was only the case when the US could demonstrate force, and allegedly Russia disregarded any scenario in which US directives were simply hollow.

The U.S. and allies “failed to prevent” Russia and its allies from “conducting human rights abuses.” Mostly because there was no evidence, but ample accusations, can’t really prevent something that’s unclear even happened.

The Russian political, diplomatic and military conduct were quite uniform, in comparison with the US which seemed rather sporadic and chaotic.

“Russia’s campaign in Syria provides an important opportunity to understand Russian strategy, operations, and tactics. Yet it was one campaign at one point in time. The long-term challenge will be to evaluate the evolution in Russian thinking and actions over time and across multiple geographic areas.”

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