The Great Game, Syria Edition, Part II


Dmitriy Yevstafyev has been continuing to analyze the situation in Syria. It’s the second article of his series dedicated to this topic. You can find first part “Is there a military solution to the Syria Crisis? Of course it does” here.

Dmitriy Yevstafyev, Ph.D., is a Russian international affairs specialist, with particular interest in political and military issues. He is an author or co-author of four books, and is currently employed by the National Research University–Higher School of Economics in Moscow.

The Great Game, Syria Edition, Part II

Originally appeared at Dmitriy Yevstafyev’s Facebook, translated by J.Hawk exclusively for SouthFront

Esteemed Colleagues,

Since my post about Syria evoked a great deal of interest, I decided to write a second piece which will attempt to answer some of the questions which the readers had. I’d like to emphasize that I’m writing as an individual who is not enthusiastic about our “creep” into the conflict. But, alas, with the understanding that other options were even worse.

As usual, let’s go point by point. Sorry there are so many of them.

1. Any country is, first and foremost, history and geography (including the so-called “external logistics). Syria is unique on both accounts.  Until we start traveling there like we travel to Turkish resorts (and I believe that will happen–the climate is wonderful and the sea clean), the “external logistics” are key. Syria is a “cork” that “closes” the region. How? Well, for example, if the relations between Syria and Turkey are poor (especially if there is “sniping”), no major insurance company will insure any major gas or oil pipeline on Turkey’s territory. One can cite dozens of examples. And it’s best if we control that cork. The Iranians, of course, are OK, but…And in general, our presence in Syria is key to long-term friendly relations with Iran. And that alone (we remember our fears concerning Iran’s actions once sanctions are lifted, right?) makes the current operations justified. And that’s the reason why NATO is feeling uncomfortable in the Middle East for the first time since 1984, when we, on Andropov’s initiative, started to close down our shop there.

2. Details are very important in Syria. Especially when we discuss who is fighting whom. It’s all too complicated to simply say it’s Sunni against Shia. The people who are saying that, and citing 85% vs. 15% in the process (which are not accurate to begin with) haven’t read even a book or two on the subject. Here one needs to look very closely.

Naturally, someone will mention the Druze. Rarely, but that very combat-worthy and strictly anti-islamist community nevertheless enters into geopolitical surveys. I think that the biggest mistake committed by Assad the younger was quarreling with the Lebanese Druze and directly with the Jumblatt family.

One can occasionally find references to the fact that a big part of Syria’s elite are Maronites, in other words, Christians close to Catholicism. No less than the Druze, they represent the most battleworthy pro-Assad community which, naturally, “has nothing to lose.” They also represent the majority of the officer corps (much larger share now that part of the Sunni officer corps deserted Assad).

There are many such details in Syria. Likewise when it comes to the Sunni, they are also “all different” there, and with different religious and historical ties and interests.

3. The Palestinians also tend to get forgotten. And yet before the conflict there were between 400 thousand and 700 thousand Palestinian refugees in Syria. The first large-scale armed clashes occurred in Palestinian camps in the Greater Damascus region. Granted, the situation there was quite awful. The lack of attention to these regions, the treatment of Palestinians as a “third-rate” people was also a huge mistake by Assad the younger, who hoped to rely on the refugees’ sense of gratitude toward his father who took them in, fed, and protected. But a whole generation has now grown up which has seen nothing but the refugee camps. And the Saudi foundations operated there continuously. It is the Palestinians who served as the core of the “secular opposition” in 2011-2013. Then, and especially after the heavy fighting around Damascus and Aleppo in August and September of 2012, simply “ran out of bodies”, to put it cynically. That’s when the opposition started to be dominated by the Salafi segment.

4. Any civil war is, first of all, about economics and logistics. “External factors” (for example, intervention) play a supporting role. From the point of view of logistics, Syria is now quite “transparent.” It’s enough to control not the territory but its transport corridors and a few dozens of crossings (one look at the map reveals the importance of Palmyra, which is not confined to its monuments). Interested persons are recommended to read about our own civil war, about the “train war” phase. When the main guarantee of success was entering a station and seizing its water tower. Trust me, it’s like that in all civil wars, and particularly in Syria. It’s a war over crossings, towns with wells, buildings, etc.

Except that there is one peculiarity in Syria. I pointed it out in my first article. In Libya, by contrast, one can drive around the desert. Even in a wheeled vehicle. It’s hard, but possible. The desert is relatively rocky. In Syria, in its Eastern and North-Eastern parts, that’s almost impossible to do on a large scale (1-2 jeeps might get through, slowly). The roads there are doubly importatnt.

From that point of view, the Salafites (ISIL, al-Nusra, and others…) have been conducting a very proper civil war for the last 18 months. In general, good thinking. They acted soundly. Especially ISIL. They spread through communications networks, which is evident on the map. Therefore the success or failure of any operation will depend on whether the Assad forces (with our military support) can recapture the “crossings” and split up opposition forces, make it impossible to bring up supplies and to take out the wounded.

The economics of Syria’s war are even simpler. It’s oil and everything connected to its transportation, pumping, and illegal trade. There is also processing, but mainly for “personal needs.” We need to keep in mind one inconvenient factor: that system was formed over several years, and now involves VERY large forces and people. Because the modern world particularly values oil for which one can pay with cash, without banks as intermediaries (even US banks–the “paper trail”, alas, can be tracked by many people). Therefore many will be interested in preserving that economic base. Keep in mind that during the year of the US bombing ISIL, nobody did a thing to stop oil extraction. Nothing at all, even when pressure was put on them in Iraq. I willingly believe the reports that our guys struck, with their second bombing run, a bunker in which many local “bosses” who made their money off the local oil refinery, were assembled. And the third bombing run was on a tanker truck column. That’s when the West started to howl. Look at the chronology, don’t be lazy.

5. Naturally, the paper strength of the opposition is impressive. But, as in any civil war, these numbers–especially the opposition’s, have to be divided into “pros”, “foot soldiers”, and “the masses.” The masses, as a rule, won’t fight outside their local areas, and if the enemy captures it, they simply “vanish” into the crowd. In order to sustain the “foot soldiers” (it’s indicative of how many there are Pakistanis among them–they came to make money), one needs funding. That’s why destroying the economic base is crucially important. The “pros” are dangerous, to be sure, but they are not local and not politically motivated. They’ll prefer to do their “jihad show” where there is more PR and less risk. Syria has not worked out for them. It seems that they may soon gravitate toward Afghanistan. Therefore, if properly thought through, the land aid to the Assad forces may be very limited but still highly effective. Especially if they will not make the mistake of trying to “control territory.” And especially if they will focus on splintering the opposition. Assad can’t do that. But we (even if the Kazakhs are playing the first fiddle–and we need to thank them for help, not sneer) could. One of the opposition figures is a fellow by the name of Mukhammad Faris. A general, born in Aleppo, which determined his opposition status to a considerable degree. It’s a city in which every rock has anti-Assad sentiments.  He is the first and only Syrian cosmonaut and he flew, as you might guess, not on the Space Shuttle. There are many such details to attend to…

6. The Iranians…Yes, they were building a base near Hama. And almost finished it. And they are a significant asset as a logistical factor. Yes, Hezbollah (although I have to say, as someone who wrote a term paper in 1987 and has been observing its creative labors ever since, that it has a fair degree of autonomy and own ambitions) is trying to protect the border with Lebanon. And does it well. Yes, the Iranians will bring up their spec ops for the main event. But the Iranians are now mainly playing for Iraq. As is Bahrain, apparently. So we can’t count on “human waves” until they get the pieces of Iraq they want. And we don’t need them either… Moreover, we need to find a common language with Bibi Netanyahu and his successors. It’s easier if we do it ourselves.

7. Operational art. The Assad forces have a problem in that they not only allowed the most important communications routes to be seized, but also the creation of “cauldrons” (the Rastana one being the most important one) which tied down significant parts of Assad’s military potential (and not even the worst ones, qualitatively). Holding a cauldron in a comparably urbanized and infrastructure-rich area is a difficult and costly exercise. Eliminating even some of these cauldrons (we are partly involved in striking them, especially the Homs one, from the air), clearing the surroundings of Aleppo, freezing the Southern Front and, ideally, restoring control over the “Palmyra crossroads”, would create an entirely different situation at the front. That by itself won’t bring about a victory. I’m skeptical about that. But it will create preconditions for “partners for peace.”

8. Why haven’t I written about China? Because I haven’t seen it. As they say in the remarkable film Hot Snow, “I believe in that which I see”. And I’m not seeing the Chinese aircraft carrier, nor the Chinese submarine (which have major problems, by the way), nor the legions of “Chinese zoldiers” (copyright for that phrase belongs to Andrey Mochenov). So far it’s just geopolitical hot air. If they show up, we’ll talk.

In my opinion they won’t show up. China is too dependent on the US to take risks in a low-priority region, especially after the US tinkering–can you imagine, just tinkering–crashed China’s stock market. China did not risk becoming involved in the Yemen mess, even though it had the opportunity and the Socotra Island’s geopolitical importance made it very attractive. China will most likely use our actions as a distraction in order to penetrate more deeply into Africa, since the US will have far fewer resources to counter that penetration.

But in general… Think about it: everyone knows 1-2-3 citations from Chinese military philosophy. The experts know dozens of citations from Sun Tzu and others. So let’s pose the important question: which is the most recent war won by China, armed with that knowledge and thousands of years of military tradition?

9. Temporal parameters are also understandable here. They are determined not only by politics but also by climate. It’s necessary to shatter the logistical, economic, and command networks of the Islamist and anti-Assad forces (there is a difference, though not in military sense; at the same time, their economic base is very similar, which means we’ll have to lay waste to everyone who doesn’t declare “neutrality” quickly enough) by mid-November. Then it will be time to withstand the “general offensive” of the opposition in December through February. It needs to be pushed as far back toward the New Year as possible, which can be done with available forces. Both ours and Assad’s. Then khamsin–a strong wind bringing dust-storms–begins in April, which makes fighting difficult even using modern aviation. It’s impossible to use large bodies of troops. Only highly professional raiding forces with appropriate equipment and weapons. I believe that some sort of a “dialogue with the opposition”, a “peace process”, etc., will begin during the khamsin. The question is, in what condition will Assad approach that task. Both sides need to reach that point.

10. I am not ruling out the possibility of some “constructive Sunni islamic opposition” appearing and becoming a decisive factor. Not secular but Islamic, but not involved in the chopping of heads. Or at least not overly involved. There are no angels there. Which could at least participate in the imitation of “national reconciliation” and reintegration.

That’s how it is. Of course, I could be wrong. I can see myself there are two-three pieces missing from my puzzle. Therefore I am continuing to study the information stream and the “hardware.” I advise you do the same. But I won’t write more about Syria.

At least not before December.

Dmitriy Yevstafyev, Ph.D., is a Russian international affairs specialist, with particular interest in political and military issues. He is an author or co-author of four books, and is currently employed by the National Research University–Higher School of Economics in Moscow.



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  • Dr. Ronald Cutburth

    The primary difference in the mid east conflicts is the conflict between the Shii and Sunni. In the 60s my late uncle started the Saudi Arab air force. That was the beginning of the US thrust to focus on support of Sunni versus Shii because Meca is in Saudi Arabia and they are Sunni. The US -CIA chose to flood the Sunni king with multi billions in oil development because they could control the Sunni muslims. In addition, Its been said the Saudi king family have jewish decent. Those two reasons are why Saudi Arabia and Israel don’t conflict yet Sunni and Shii conflict. All should know there are varying degrees the population follow their religion, which accounts for the mix this author speaks of. However it is an error to play down the difference. My late uncle around those decades worked contracts for the CIA. Thus the plan was all the US government CIA plan to back the Sunni stronghold. However the ISIS is predominantly Sunni and backed by all the Sunni royal arab families.Historically my late uncle helped the US CIA by contract nurture and build better relation with royals as they are all Sunni and that they are royals they would not be communist leaning. That is the fundamental basis of the rules of this current war. For example, my late uncle was so well known by all the mid east Arab royals Boeing started a mid east sales div and named him president of it. Thus, the article is informative about some details but fails on the historical background because few know it. Also look further, its been said the Shii of Saudi Arabia were the early opposition of the choice of family of who would be king of Saudi Arabia but the US CIA helped chose this king family. I read books. Russia/Putin have made all the correct moves. Dr. Ronald Cutburth, engineering scientist, intelligence expert.

    • Isn’t Shiis vs Sunnis but Sunnis+Christians+ shiis vs Wahhabism . Saudi puppet family and the fake oulama in the Saudi kingdom are Wahhabis. Al Qaeda is Wahhabis, al nosra is Wahhabis, daesh is Wahhabis nothing to do with Islam,
      Islam say : don’t kill child, women, civilians. Dont make fitna.
      Wahhabis kill child’s, women, civilians.
      Wahhabis : Saudi , Qatar CGGpigs, make Fitna
      Wahhabism is again Islam and Muslims
      Wahhabism is a fake Islam but a real Zio-troll.

      • Dr. Ronald Cutburth

        Interesting silvershark I have noted how the king of saudi arbia family are jews. That makes the wahhabism a fake zio-troll as you mentions. That’s why they get along well with the atheist government of Israel. Evil is the word. Saudi kingdom will eventually be on the war list of Russia since they use terrorism.