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The War Nerd: Bombed Stupid

By Gary Brecher , written on October 19, 2015

From The The War Nerd Desk

I stole that headline from an Ernest movie, Scared Stupid. Always loved that title. “Scared Straight”? I’ve never seen fear make anybody smarter. When people get scared, they get stupid.

And at the moment, the Anglo media is all scared about the Russian air strikes in Syria. So they’ve started a counter-bombardment of their own, dumping tons of stupid on us helpless civilians.

It’s not even a consistent brand of stupid. It’s all over the map: the Russian air strikes are bad because they’re helping Islamic State, or because they’re brutal, or because they’ve failed.

That last claim, that the Russian campaign has already failed, is the most ridiculous of all. Take this headline from the Daily Telegraph: “Russia Reducing Air Strikes against Syrian Rebels as Intervention Fails.”

“Fails,” huh? Already? After—well, lemme take my shoes off so I can count up the days since Russia started bombing Syria. Comes to 17 days, by my finger-and-toe reckoning. Who knew that an air bombardment campaign could be called a failure after slightly more than two weeks? Somebody should tell the USAF about this rule, because if memory serves, they’ve run a few bombing campaigns that went on a little longer than 17 days before getting their reckoning.

Buried deep in that story is the Russian command’s actual statement:

"The intensity of our military aviation operations decreased slightly in the last 24 hours….a result of active offensive operations by the Syrian armed forces, the front line/front-line [sic] with the terrorists is changing."

That’s a plausible account. The first rule of close air support is, “Don’t bomb your own people.” And that’s a tricky job when Russian-speaking pilots and air controllers are working with what’s left of the Syrian Arab Army, a disorganized lot at the best of times. So the Russian claim may be the simple truth. Or not; who knows? All you can say for sure is that claiming a dip in sorties on Day 17 means the air campaign has failed is laughable BS.

US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter joined the chorus, predicting “the Russian campaign in Syria is doomed to fail.” Doomed, yet!

And why, Mr. Carter, are those Russkies so doomed? Carter explained,

"Fighting ISIL without pursuing a parallel political transition only risks escalating civil war in Syria… There is a logical contradiction in the Russian position and now its actions in Syria.”

It just goes to show there’s only one man named Ash you should listen to, and he’s too busy chainsawing evil dead to talk nonsense like this. Actually, Russia’s campaign is much more simple and logical than the USAF’s messed-up mission in Syria. Russia is using its air force to try to blast out a viable territory for an Alawite/Shia state along the Syrian coastal hills. Assad’s people are longtime Russian clients and allies, and the Russian air force is helping them maintain their key turf against a much more numerous enemy. It may fail, but at least that’s a reasonable plan.

At the moment, Russia’s planes are focusing on a triangle of Sunni-held territory north of Homs, trying to blast a path for Assad’s weak infantry. If you look at these very good graphics put together (it pains me to admit) by the New York Times, you can see what a sensible, traditional military move that is. Scroll down to the two maps captioned “Many of the Initial Airstrikes Were Near the Boundaries Between Government and Rebel Zones” and go to the second map. You’ll see a T-shaped yellow zone marking Sunni-held territory due north of Homs, along the key road to Hama and Aleppo.

That’s where the Russian strikes have been hitting hardest lately, in Sunni-held crossroads towns like Ter Maela, right on the M5 highway that runs north to Hama and Aleppo, south to Damascus. That highway is the key to Syria, a kind of spinal cord like the big vein down a shrimp’s back. If the Russians can obliterate Ter Maela’s defenders thoroughly enough to let Assad’s weak infantry (or maybe his much better Hezbollah or Iranian ringers) take and hold these villages, then the Alawites have the makings of a viable state.

Maybe our Secretary of Defense knows something I don’t know—I mean beyond the best place for prime rib in Georgetown—but it seems to me that the Russian air campaign makes very straightforward military sense.

If there’s an air force whose mission in Syria really does have “a logical contradiction at its core,” it’s a little group called the USAF. Not that it’s the USAF’s fault; they do their jobs very well. But what job, exactly, what mission, were they given?

If you were to sum it up, it’d go something like this: “Hit Sunni targets east of the coastal hills, but ignore everything to the west; help the Kurds in the north, but grudgingly, as little as possible, for fear you’ll offend Turkey; and while you’re attacking Assad’s enemies, keep reassuring the Israelis that you’re just as anti-Assad as you are anti-Islamic State.”

Sound stupid? It is. It’s a ridiculous compromise adopted to please the Israelis and Saudis, based on the dumb-ass notion that Sunni fighters in eastern Syria are evil sectarian bastards, but the Sunni fighters facing off against the SAA in the west are “moderates.”

 It’s true that Islamic State is uncommonly vile, but let’s not lie; the only faction in Syria that even tries to rise above sectarian hatred are the young Kurdish commies of YPG/J. Every other group is sectarian, and militias that start out sectarian only get meaner as they go, by the iron logic of primitive war, where massacre is the norm. And this sectarian taint isn’t new. Syria’s Sunni were chanting “Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the graveyard” long before the fighting started. For once, Robert Fisk got it right, in an article called “Syria’s Moderates Have Disappeared, and There Are No Good Guys”:

“The Russian air force in Syria has flown straight into the West’s fantasy air space. The Russians, we are now informed, are bombing the “moderates” in Syria – “moderates” whom even the Americans admitted two months ago, no longer existed.”

The crazy US policy of ignoring Sunni militias in the west made for some fat, soft targets. No wonder the Russian air force jumped at the chance to intervene. They must’ve spent months drooling over drone and satellite photos from the west, between Homs and Aleppo—targets totally untouched by the USAF.

Until the Russians jumped in, Sunni militias in the west only had to deal with the incompetents in Assad’s rump of an air force. Those guys aren’t good for anything but dropping barrel bombs on crowded tenement neighborhoods; any decently dug-in troops could laugh at their attacks.

Then the Russians decided it was time to show, Gulf War style, that they had some fancy shock-and-awe munitions of their own. These belated colonial wars are, among other things, great sales videos for arms exporters like the US and Russia.

To see a typical Russian sales video, check out this clip of a Russian attack on a defensive line, mixing bombers, CAS, and rocket launchers scattering cluster bombs. Watch it and see if it looks like a “failure.” Because me, I personally would not want to be anywhere within five km of the target zone.

 That MLRS barrage in the second half of the video is terrifying. Worst of all, not all of the missiles’ cluster munitions will detonate. If you survive the barrage and try to run off, you’re likely to set off one of the duds.

Notice how the guy filming it keeps saying, “Allahu Akbar”? That seemed odd to me. It’s a Salafist battle cry as a rule. You never hear Alawites from the SAA shouting it in their battle videos. So I asked around, and apparently it marks the narrator as Sunni, a pretty slick, cinematic way of implying that the Russian/Iranian/Hezbollah/Alawite side has some Sunni allies.

So…failure? No. Any advance will probably be slow; the lines don’t change much in Syria, because the level of combat power across the board is very low. These are forces who’d rather bombard each other than engage. Only Hezbollah has real combat power, and they’re spending it thriftily.

But there are already signs the Russian air strikes are allowing some advances.

That doesn’t mean the Russian campaign will succeed; like Gandalf used to say, “All courses may run ill.”  But at least they have a sane, comprehensible, achievable goal, unlike the US in Syria.

Now for the next accusation, that the Russian strikes are brutal.

Well, yeah, they are. That’s the general idea. I don’t mean to be flippant here, but air strikes only look neat when you stay up there and watch from the pilot’s angle. On the ground, even the supposedly “surgical” strikes are nightmarish. Which, again, is the whole idea. And if we’re going to be honest about it, we can stop pretending there are any neat, clean surgical strikes. A new report just came out showing that nine out of ten people hit by those targeted drone assassinations are civilians who happen to be in the vicinity.

As a rule, you can tell when the media approve of air strikes by the angle. If it’s all nice clean pilot’s-view of distant explosions, it’s a good strike. If they show you funerals, weeping relatives, blasted apartments, it’s a bad strike. So you can tell, just from the headline—“This Is What the Russian Air Strikes in Syria Look Like from the Ground”—that it’s a bad strike. For example, ground-angle stories on Israeli airstrikes only started hitting the US media in the past few years. Now they’re fairly common but for most of my lifetime you just didn’t see those weeping Palestinians. When the strike is done by our own airforce, you still don’t see them unless you go to foreign or marginal leftist sites. But boy do they start popping up when it’s the Russians playing their air-to-ground video games. 

There are a total of 29 photographs here, and three-quarters of them are of the pity-inspiring variety. First photo, a ruined neighborhood; second, column of smoke; third, weeping old woman; fourth, civilian car covered with rubble; fifth, horrible scythe-shaped cluster munitions; sixth, a wounded civilian being carried to hospital… 

It’s not that there’s anything false about these images. They’re a pretty good montage of the horror of an air strike. These raids are bad, for Reuters and most Western media, because they’re Russian raids, not because they’re any more brutal than any others.

The Russians are bombing more or less the way all the other foreign air forces in Syria are bombing. They’re having a more powerful effect because they’re hitting targets that haven’t been hit by first-world CAS til now. That’s the only difference.

Now for the wildest accusation of all: Russia’s air strikes are helping Islamic State, or as Michael Weiss of the Daily Beast said, “giving IS an air force.”

One thing you need to keep in mind here: Michael Weiss is an idiot. No, I mean even by the standards of American punditry. Weiss has been writing Russia-baiting crap for years, stories with comic headlines like “Ireland Bows to Russia’s Intimidation.” When he’s not bashing Russia, Weiss’ job is gulping up some stinking, fishy gobs of CIA/Pentagon/Likud disinformation, then vomiting it back onto the pages of the Beast like a dutiful penguin dad. Weiss never sees anything, or even tries to; he hears things, always whispered in his ear by some quasi-spook shill whose motives he never questions. And what he hears about Syria is that the Russians are paving the way for Islamic State:

Last June, the U.S. embassy in Damascus accused Bashar al-Assad’s air force of clearing a path for an ISIS advance on Syrian rebels in the Aleppo town of Azaz. “Reports indicate that the regime is making air strikes in support of [ISIS’s] advance on Aleppo, aiding extremists against Syrian population,” the embassy account tweeted, following up with a broader accusation: “We have long seen that the regime avoids [ISIS] lines, in complete contradiction to the regime’s claims to be fighting [ISIS].”

Now Russia seems to have inherited Assad’s role as the unacknowledged air force of ISIS.

 It’s for prose like this that the acronym “FFS” was invented. FFS, you’re taking the US Embassy as your source of Syrian news? FFS, you quote their tweets—their tweets—like gospel? FFS, you talk about Russia “taking over” Assad’s role as “the unacknowledged air force of ISIS” when your only source for that claim is the US defense establishment that’s been trying to overthrow Assad for decades?

The only truth to this claim is that Islamic State is a ruthless, treacherous militia that has no qualms at all about jumping other Sunni militias that are weakened in combat. So if a rival militia gets hit hard by Assad’s forces, or Russian planes, IS will move in and grab its turf, weapons, and fighters. This has happened over and over. It’s one of IS’s best moves, and there usually isn’t much trouble doing it, because IS is generous with money, equipment, and sex slaves, and the men they coopt aren’t friggin’ moderates but plain old Sunni sectarian fighters who have no trouble signing on to IS’s no-prisoners policies.

So when the Russian strikes blasted Ahrar-as-Sham positions near Aleppo from the West in the first week of October 2015, IS waited for the smoke to clear, then attacked from the East, mopping up before the other militia could regroup. Very simple, very ruthless, very IS.

But how exactly is that the Russians’ fault (if “fault” is a word you can even use in a weasel-fight like this)? Ahrar-as-Sham is fighting Russia’s client, Assad; Russian planes blast Ahrar-as-Sham; Islamic State betrays its fellow Sunni while they’re dazed and hurt.

Truth is, Russia and Islamic State have different projects going in Syria, projects that don’t even overlap much. Syria is more full of bad projects than the ninth-grade Metal Shop class where they set my jacket on fire with a soldering iron (while I was wearing it). That place was full of projects thought up by adolescent psychopaths, all designed to kill or maim, and mostly ineffective.

Which, come to think of it, is not a bad description of Syria at the moment. For a smallish country, Syria has more theaters of war going than a multiplex doing a Private Ryan marathon. The Kurds of YPG/PKK have their own project going in the north, along the Turkish border. The Alawites are trying to survive and carve a rump state for themselves in the coastal hills. The Christians have executed a simple plan: “get the Hell out of here while we can.” Hezbollah’s project could be summed up as, “Ugh, I guess we gotta help these weak-ass Alawites after all, damn it.” Israel’s project is “Attack Hezbollah nonstop, but never touch the Sunni militias because they’re not a real threat.” Jabhat-an-Nusra, Ahrar-as-Sham, and the other Sunni militias are competing for ownership of the inland Sunni state they hope will come out of this chaos.

But Islamic State? Their project isn’t really about Syria at all. IS is an Iraqi outfit. Yeah, they have all these noisy foreign volunteers, the whole C-minus demographic of Birmingham, Dusseldorf, and Marseille, but that’s not their real power. IS inherited Saddam’s officer class, and their goal is to regain Baghdad. Syria is a side bet, one of the vacuums they’re so good at occupying. Eastern Syria—a flat dry place with few people except along the Euphrates—was mostly abandoned by both the Alawites and the other Sunni militias, who focused on trying to win the more valuable real estate to the West. That’s when Islamic State moved in from its Iraqi base and started a Syrian franchise.

So the war Russia has joined isn’t even really the same war that Islamic State is fighting. IS wants to embiggen its Iraq-based “caliphate”; Russia wants to drive the other Sunni militias off that key highway, M5, so the Alawites can start a mini-state along the coast.

Meanwhile, the “moderate” Sunni militias are getting hit hard for the first time. As that happens, IS will push from the east, and the SAA/Hezbollah/Revolutionary Guards from the west. At some point, Russia’s air power may meet IS head-on. But a lot of other dumb, bloodthirsty rival projects will have to get ground away in this multi-faction, multi-loon war before that happens.

 Gary Brecher writes The War Nerd column for PandoDaily, and co-hosts the Radio War Nerd podcast show.