Brief Meditations on the Selection of Surovikin as Russia’s Overall Commander in Ukraine, His Capabilities, and Possibilities for His Success

Russian Federation General of the Army Sergei Surovikin (above). In an announcement on October 8, 2022, stated: “By the decision of the Defense Minister of the Russian Federation, General of the Army Sergei Surovikin has been appointed commander of the joint group of troops in the area of the special military operation.” At 56, Surovikin had already reached what normally would have been the pinnacle of a Russian officer’s career when he took command of Voyska Vozdushno-Kosmicheskoy Oborony, Rossijskoj Federacii (the Russian Federation Aerospace Defense Forces) in 2017. However, he has been called upon to take on further assignments to include his current one in response to the Russian Federation ever changing national security needs. He has now taken on a great challenge in Ukraine. To better understand this important change in command for Russian Federation forces in Ukraine, one must find out more about Surovikin, and even more, try to understand what is going on in the mind of the individual responsible for the invasion: Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin.

The Russian Federation’s Spetsial’noy Voyennoy Operatsii (Special Military Operation) of 2022 was born of ill will and bad intentions. Whatever sense of certainty Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin may have held concerning the ultimate success, perhaps even expectant of lightning success by  Vooruzhonnije Síly Rossíyskoj Federátsii or the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation (hereinafter referred to as the Russian Federation Armed Forces) when he green-lit the invasion has doubtlessly fizzled down from flames to cinders. Clearly, he was dreadfully incognizant of what a discordant harmony of circumstances very likely could and would do his plans and hopes. Since the early days of success after February 24, 2022, nothing has been working well for the Russian Federation Armed Forces on the battlefield. At this point, res ad triarios venit, the matter has come to triarii. Triarii were the reserve soldiers of the Roman Army. When it reached the point in a war that they were called upon, most or all the front line troops had fallen. Putin in fact, mobilized all male Russian citizens eligible to serve on the front lines in Ukraine. Their performance has been something better than terrible. 

In other countries at war, facing such circumstances, leaders and their advisers come to recognize that intractable decisions, all very difficult ones, lie ahead. Among the choices, Putin could further escalate, resolve to hold any gains while minimizing further losses, negotiate inequitable peace terms, or simply withdraw. US President Richard Nixon found himself in a similar predicament, mutantis mutandis, regarding the US military operations in Southeast Asia. In the end, his Secretary of State “managed” to negotiate what was referred to as “peace with honor” with the North Vietnamese government. Selecting from the choices mentioned would be fine for other countries, however, Putin’s Russia is not like other countries. Still, finding a solution, given how things have panned out, is not simply a matter of satisfying one man’s thinking. The Kremlin is hearing ever increasing criticism for the abominable losses in Ukraine, particularly from elites with close ties to it. Nationalist and ultranationlist political parties and personalities began reacting to the situation in Ukraine with asperity. They, too, know the truth. The change in commander was ostensibly designed to send the message both inside Russia and worldwide that Russia still intends win and will emerge victorious in Ukraine. The Kremlin might hope to convince its perceived audience that with a few adjustments, albeit major changes, everything will be on track and the Kremlin has found the commander who will make things right. The impact of the change, at least around the world, has been akin to a misspelled placard at a protest. The time and energy in the Kremlin put into appointing Sergei Surovikin to direct the war and promote the change publicly as a new beginning, may have been a wasted effort.

Surely, foreign and national security policy bureaucracies worldwide have parsed out Surovikin’s appointment in the round and using logic, have reached their respective conclusions. Yet, what seems logical is not always right. To best understand this important change in command for Russian Federation forces in Ukraine one must learn more about Surovikin, and even more, try to understand what is going on in the rather unique mind of Putin. Whatever he does he does for  his ownly reason. Whatever he has done, invading Ukraine and suffering heavy losses for example, has never troubled him. Though nearly isolated, he does not appear to beweep Russia’s outcast state. Putin’s decisionmaking and probable moves must remain the subject of indispensable speculations and the development of prospective scenarios. 

As has been the pattern with preceding posts, historical examples are used to demonstrate that no matter how recherché and bizarre events have been in this present-day episode, which hopefully will somehow end diplomatically to the satisfaction of all parties involved, humankind has been beset and strained by parallel issues. Some examples reach back to Antiquity to provide apposite examples of thinking and behavior that most resemble that of Putin and his top acolytes on the Ukraine matter. Additional supportive examples are drawn from the Napoleonic era. In his satirical monthly magazine Les Guêpes (The Wasps), the 19th century French writer Alphonse Karr expressed the apt phrase: “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” (The more things change, the more they remain the same.) How often is that the case.

Surovikin’s official Russian Federation Ministry of Defense photo (above). Surovikin has a reputation for being a hard-as-nails, no-nonsense commander who did not suffer subordinates lightly. Any feelings that he might have had, were never allowed to get in the way of his decisionmaking. In his military career, there were what could delicately be called “bumps in the road”, some small, some big, some very big. In each case, fate somehow stepped in and saw Surovikin through. In June 2021, Surovikin reached the rank of Generál Ármii (General of the Army), the second highest military rank in Russia, second only to a marshal. One year later, in June 2022, it was revealed that he was named the commander of the Army Group “South” of the Russian Armed Forces engaged in the special military operation. Four months later, it was announced that he would be commander of all Russian forces in Ukraine.

Some Background on Surovikin

In an announcement on October 8, 2022, stated: “By the decision of the defense minister of the Russian Federation, General of the Army Sergei Surovikin has been appointed commander of the joint group of troops in the area of the special military operation.” Note the announcement stated the Russian Federation Minister of Defense, Sergei Shoigu, not Putin, made the decision. With the announcement, Surovikin became the first overall commander of Russian forces committed to Ukraine. With the aim of providing readers with a decent sense of Surovikin’s experience and expertise, greatcharlie has provided a tour d’horizon of his rather event filled military career.

Surovikin, age 56, was born in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk on October 11,1966. He is married and has two daughters. Reportedly, Surovikin stands about 5 feet 10 inches. While many sources state Surovikin is Orthodox Catholic, presumably meaning Russian Orthodox Catholic, the degree to which he is observant is unknown to greatcharlie. He has been awarded the Order of the Red Star, the Order of Military Merit and the Order of Courage three times. He was awarded the Hero of the Russian Federation. Surovikin had already reached what normally would have been the pinnacle of a Russian officer’s career when in 2017 he took command of Voyska Vozdushno-Kosmicheskoy Oborony, Rossijskoj Federacii (the Russian Federation Aerospace Defense Forces, hereinafter referred to as the Russian Federation Aerospace Forces). It was still a relatively new organization, established in 2015 when the decision was made by the Ministerstvo oborony Rossijskoj Federacii or Minoborony Rossii (the Russian Federation Ministry of Defense) to combine Voenno-Vozdushnye Sily Rossii, (the Russian Air Force), Voyska Vozdushno-Kosmicheskoy Oborony, (the Air and Missile Defense Forces), and Kosmicheskie Voyska Rossii, (the Russian Space Forces), were placed under one command. However, he has been called upon to take on further assignments to include his current one in response to the Russian Federation ever changing national security needs.

After graduating from the Omsk Higher Military School in 1987, Surovikin began his career serving as a lieutenant in the Voyská Spetsiálnogo Naznachéniya (Special Purpose Military Units) or spetsnaz. Spetsnaz units, a carry over from the days of the Soviet Union,  have been trained, and tasked as special forces and fielded in wartime as part of the Glavnoye Razvedyvatel’noye Upravleniye Generalnovo Shtaba (Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff-Military Intelligence) or GRU. Not much has been offered at least in the mainstream or independent newsmedia on Surovikin’s work in spetsnaz. He reportedly served in spetsnaz during last stages of the War in Afghanistan, but the specific unit he was assigned to has not been identified. As is the case with special forces in most countries, the primary missions of spetsnaz are power projection (direct action), intelligence (reconnaissance), foreign internal defense (military assistance), and counterinsurgency.

By August 1991, Surovikin was a captain in the 1st Rifle Battalion in the 2nd Guards Tamanskaya Motor Rifle Division in August 1991 when the coup d’état attempt against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was launched in Moscow by the self-proclaimed Gosudárstvenny Komitét Po Chrezvycháynomu Polozhéniyu (State Committee on the State of Emergency) or GKChP. Orders were sent down from the GKChP that would require Surovikin to send his mechanized unit into the tunnel on the Garden Ring. He drove his vehicles into barricades of a group of anti-coup protesters. A short time afterward, Surovikin was promoted to the rank of major. In 1995, he graduated from the renowned Frunze Military Academy. Surovikin participated in the Tajikistani Civil War where he commanded a motor rifle battalion. He then became chief of staff of the 92nd Motor Rifle Regiment, chief of staff and commander of the 149th Guards Motor Rifle Regiment and chief of staff of the 201st Motor Rifle Division. Whether due to qualifications, politics, or whatever might possibly be a factor under the Russian Federation’s system of government, Surovikin’s superior saw enough potential in him to prepare him for flag rank. In 2002, he graduated from Voyennaya Akademiya General’nogo Shtaba Vooruzhennykh Sil Rossijskoj Federacii (the Military Academy of the General Staff of the RussianFederation). He became commander of the 34th Motor Rifle Division at Yekaterinburg.

By this point in Surovikin’s career, he had acquired a reputation for being a hard as nails, no nonsense commander who did suffer subordinates lightly. Any feelings that he might have had, were never allowed to get in the way of his decisionmaking. In March 2004, Lieutenant Colonel Viktor Chibizov accused Surovikin of physically assaulting him for taking leave from his post to serve as an elections observer. In April 2004, Colonel Andrei Shtakal, the 34th Motor Rifle Division deputy division commander for armaments, shot himself in the presence of Surovikin and the district deputy commander after being severely dressed-down by Surovikin. A military prosecutor found no evidence of guilt in both cases. 

In 2004, according to the Russian Federation Ministry of Defense’s website, Surovikin commanded the 42nd Guards Motor Rifle Division stationed in Chechnya. He was the chief of staff of the 20th Guards Army from 2005. In April 2008, he made the meteoric rise to army commander. In November 2008, Surovikin became Chief of Glavnoe operativnoe upravlenie General’nogo štaba Vooružёnnyh sil Rossijskoj Federacii (the Main Operational Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Federation), essentially the General Staff’s think tank. In January 2010, he became chief of staff of the Volga–Urals Military District, which soon became part of the Central Military District. Reportedly, from November 2011, he headed the working group charged with creation of the Military Police. The Russian newsmedia indicated that Surovikin had already been selected to head the new organization. Though delayed as a result of the intervention of Voyennoy Prokuratury Rossiyskoy Federatsii (the  Russian Federation Military Prosecutor’s Office), apparently, the discussion on the potential creation of the Military Police stirred a parochial struggle between the Russian Federation Defense Ministry and the Military Prosecutor’s Office, Glavnoye upravleniye voyennoy politsii Minoborony Rossiyskoy Federatsii (the Main Directorate of the Military Police Ministry of Defense Russian Federation) with a strength of 20,000 was stood up. In October 2012, he became the chief of staff of the Eastern Military District. In October 2013, he was appointed commander of the district. On December 13, 2013, Surovikin was promoted to the rank of colonel general. 

In March 2017, Surovikin began his first of two tours in Syria. The first was supposed to last about three months. It was reportedly part of an effort by Moscow to provide first-hand combat experience to as many high-ranking officers as possible. However, on June 9, 2017, Surovikin was introduced to the newsmedia as the Commander of the Russian Federation Armed Forces deployed to Syria. The Russian Federation Defense Ministry repeatedly credited Surovikin with achieving critical gains in Syria, saying that Russian Federation Group of Forces in Syria and Syrian Arab Army forces “liberated over 98 percent” of the country under him. In a June 2022 Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper article explained that Surovikin received this unofficial nickname of “General Armageddon” from colleagues for “his ability to think outside the box and act tough.” in the fight against the Islamic terrorist group, ISIS, Surovikin is credited for directing the Syrian Arab Army when it lifted the siege of Deir al-Zour and directing the attack that recaptured Palmyra for the second and last time. On December 28, 2017 he was made a Hero of the Russian Federation for his leadership of the Group of Forces in Syria.

While all of that was transpiring, at the end of November 2017, It was the Russian Federation Ministry of Defense’s journal Krasnaya Zvezda that reported Surovikin’s appointment to Commander of the Aerospace Forces by a presidential decree of November 22, 2017. Interestingly, TASS made special note of the fact that Surovikin became the first combined-arms commander in the history of Russia and the Soviet Union to be put in charge of the Russian or Soviet Air Forces. According to a report published by RBK Group on November 2, 2017, Surovikin had been appointed Commander of the Aerospace Forces in spite of his initial objections.

From January to April 2019, Surovikin again took command of Russian military forces in Syria. It was during that period Surovikin directed the operation against Idlib which included countless air and ground attacks on civilian objects and infrastructure. A 2020 Human Rights Watch report states that Russian forces under his command struck Syrian “homes, schools, healthcare facilities, and markets – the places where people live, work, and study”.

In June 2021, Surovikin reached the rank of Generál Ármii (General of the Army), the second highest military rank in Russia, second only to a marshal. One year later, in June 2022, it was revealed that he was named the commander of the Army Group “South” of the Russian Armed Forces engaged in the special military operation. On October 8, 2022, it was announced that he would be commander of all Russian forces in Ukraine.

In Surovikin’s military career there were what could delicately be called “bumps in the road”, some small, some big, some very big. In each case, fate somehow stepped in and saw Surovikin through. As aforementioned, during the 1991 Soviet coup d’état attempt in Moscow, Surovikin was ordered to send his battalion into the tunnel on the Garden Ring. As a result of his action, three anti-coup demonstrators were killed. After the defeat of the coup, Surovikin was arrested and held under investigation for seven months. The charges were dropped without trial on December 10, 1991 because Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin concluded that Surovikin was only following orders. He was promoted to the rank of major afterwards. In September 1995, while Surovikin attended the Frunze Military Academy, he was sentenced to a year of probation by the Moscow garrison’s military court for illegally selling weapons. However, allegations were made that he had been framed. After an investigation, the conviction was overturned. It was concluded that Surovikin had provided a fellow student a pistol for use in a competition, unaware of its intended purpose. One might speculate that Surovikin either had such connections in very high places who were also benefiting from his sideshow that he was allowed to avoid any severe repercussions beyond a very public arrest or he managed to convince authorities that he was cured of his covetous mind.

On dit, there are supposedly whispers in Russia that that Surovikin reportedly had some business concerning the transporting of Syrian ore to Russia on the side. To date, no such rumor, however, has been substantiated or reported on by any mainstream newsmedia source.

Surovikin is an emblem to the Russian military for its “prowess.” The same was said to be true of Russian Federation General of the Army Aleksandr Dvornikov, who Putin appointed commander of the “special military operation” in Ukraine on April 9, 2022. Russian commanders at different levels have often been made to sound too good to be true, only to have their “gold complexions” dimmed in Ukraine. The latest announcement did not mention Russian Federation General of the Army Aleksandr Dvornikov, who Putin appointed commander of the “special military operation” in Ukraine on April 9, 2022. While some Western newsmedia sources insist Russian Army Colonel General Gennady Zhidko.was Surovikin’s predecessor, Moscow had not publicly specified that anyone had been placed in overall control of the operation until the announcement concerning his new command.

Surovikin, much as Dvornikov, had the opportunity to become familiar in Syria with the ways in which the US provides assistance to foreign forces on the battlefield. Moscow’s likely hope in that regard would be better understand how US and other NATO military minds might have special operations forces working in Ukraine, what to expect as a result of their “suggestions to the Ukrainian Armed Forces as to planning and operations,” and how to counter their assistance operations. If that were the case at all, perhaps Dvornikov never really discerned enough in Syria to exploit. He certainly failed grasp the role deception plays in US military operations and that failure played a role in opening captured territory up to rapid liberation by Ukrainian forces via a counteroffensive. Surovikin has the opportunity to demonstrate that he learned quite a bit more.

In March 2017, Surovikin (above) began the first of his two tours in Syria. The first was supposed to last only three months and was part of an effort by Moscow to provide first-hand combat experience to as many high-ranking officers as possible. However, on June 9, 2017, Surovikin was introduced to the newsmedia as the Commander of the Russian Federation Armed Forces deployed to Syria. The Russian Defense Ministry repeatedly credited Surovikin with achieving critical gains in Syria, saying that Russian and Syrian forces “liberated over 98 percent” of the country under him. In a June 2022 Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper article explained that Surovikin received this unofficial nickname of “General Armageddon” from colleagues for “his ability to think outside the box and act tough.” On December 28, 2017, he was made a Hero of the Russian Federation for his leadership of the Group of Forces in Syria.

Surovikin’s Appointment Shows the World Moscow Has a Handle on Ukraine

Fallaces sunt rerum species. (The appearances of things are deceptive.) As alluded to initially here, one could reach the conclusion at first blush that this change in command amounts to a bromide, an unoriginal idea intended to soothe or placate and have the illusion of problem solving. On the other hand, one might imagine the wisdom in putting a former Russian Federation Aerospace Force commander in charge are that air power will be better applied in Ukraine. Many in the Western newsmedia have assessed Surovikin’s appointment may have been an effort by the Kremlin to mitigate criticism from nationalists who have accused the army of mismanaging the war in Ukraine and of failing to use Russian military power overwhelmingly to force the government in Kyiv to submit. To that extent, close Putin ally and leader of Russia’s North Caucasus region of Chechnya, Raman Kadyrov, has publicly demanded that many top generals of the Russian Federation Armed Forces be sacked. Reportedly, many pro-Russia military bloggers have harshly criticized the prosecution of the war. 

Perhaps it would be reasonable to suspect that Surovikin came highly recommended for the Ukraine job by the same sort behind the scenes that likely lended him a helping hand whenever he landed himself in trouble in the past. Among Russians who welcomed the appointment of Surovikin was Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of Gruppa Vagnera (Wagner Group), a private military company and a vocal critic of the military leadership. According to a statement put out by Concord, Prigozhin said publicly: “Surovikin is the most able commander in the Russian army.” He called Surovikin a “legendary figure, he was born to serve his motherland faithfully.” He noted: “Having received an order [in 1991], Surovikin was that officer who without hesitation got in his tank and went forward to save his country.” His appointment was also very vocally welcomed by Kadyrov,

However, Putin’s control and his choices and the relative influence of his inner circle was put succinctly in a January 12, 2020 interview in The New Yorker magazine of Masha Lipman, a Moscow-based political analyst who has written extensively on Putin’s regime. (The interview came on the heels of Putin’s proposals of Constitutional reforms that ultimately extended his years in power in Russia.) Asked about the degree of Putin’s control in Russia, Lipman responded: “The issue of control is tricky. If one talks about whether government management is efficient in Russia, then no, it is not. And Putin has repeatedly, over his very long time in office, spoken about the need to increase the productivity of labor and quite a few other very important goals. I wouldn’t say he has delivered so well on those. But, if we define control as control over the élite, over making the decisions, of course Putin’s fully in control. And the developments of the past few days are very clear and persuasive evidence of him being in control of making decisions.” Responding to a question about his moves at that time [Constitutional reforms], Lipman said; “This is a demonstration of how Putin is ultimately in charge and how he can make very important decisions by himself in an atmosphere of complete secrecy. We still do not know who was aware of what was in store for the country three or four days ago, and to what extent there is anyone who can actually challenge his decisions, even verbally.” Lipman continued: “Putin rarely consults with anyone, and, even if he does, it is done in a totally opaque way. He’s rarely explicit. Even if he consults with some people in his circle, people leave without having a clear idea of what his goal is and have to guess. Sometimes they guess right. Sometimes they guess wrong. Sometimes they try to curry favor and succeed, sometimes not. At the end of the day he is the ultimate decision-maker. And the strategy and the grand plans that he has for Russia, in their entirety, exist only in his mind.”

Given Lipman’s expert view and  the views that have been expressed by greatcharlie on Putin for quite some time–they may hold water for generous readers, it would only be reasonable to believe Putin naturally has morbid fear of anyone desiring to remove him from power. Equally naturally, he acts aggressively and often eccentricity to potential threats to his power, both real or imagined. No one should hope to get too close. Sometimes holding power too long breeds a familiarity that breeds contempt in many. Envy like fire always makes for the highest points. The Roman historian Titus Livius (59 B.C.-A.D. 17), known as Livy, provided in Greek, a history of Rome that begins with the earliest legends of Rome before the traditional founding in 753 B.C. through the reign of Emperor Caesar Augustus during his own lifetime. In Book XXXV, section 10 of that history Ad Urbe Condita (From the Founding of the City) (c. 28 B.C.), Livy discusses the campaign for consul that pitted Publius Cornelius Scipio, the son of Gnaeus, who had recently returned from Spain after performing great deeds, and his brother Lucius Quinctius Flamininus, who had commanded the fleet in Greece. Herodotus writes of the challenges facing Scipio: But the eyes of all men were turned upon Quinctius and Cornelius; for both were patricians, contending for one place, and recently-won military glory lent favor to each. But before all else, the brothers of the candidates11 increased their rivalry, since they were the two most celebrated commanders of their age. The greater fame was Scipio’s, and the greater it was, the more it was exposed to jealousy; that of Quinctius was fresher, inasmuch as he had triumphed that very year. There was also the fact that the other had been for about ten years constantly in the public eye, a fact which renders prominent men less venerated from sheer surfeit of seeing them: he had been consul for the second time after the defeat of Hannibal and censor . . . .”

Admittedly, greatcharlie went the long way about presenting this passage from Ad Urbe Condita. However, Livy admirably presents the depth of thinking that led to the challenge to the well-known, long-serving, heroic leader, Scipio, for a newcomer, who could only offer a list of promises and seem so willing, despite his record of service, to challenge the incumbent leader with no apparent reservations. Surely, if this could be used as any measure. Putin always has much to keep his eye on politically.

Putin launched the Ukraine War lacking a worthwhile strategy and recognition of what Russian Federation forces would come up against. What was seemingly completely missed or misunderstood was the degree of support from the US and NATO Member States that Kyiv would receive. No effort, that was apparent, was made to obviate the ability of the US and its NATO allies to supply Ukraine at will as part of the military strategy. From the start, conquering Kyiv was the focus as if Putin and the General Staff of the Russian Federation Armed Forces were blinded by rage. The door was left wide open between Poland and Ukraine. Such impetuous schemes and boldness are at first sight alluring, but are difficult to handle, and in the result disastrous.

Perhaps the real problem for Putin was not just that he relied on fortune, but was driven by blind ambition. What has likely been a reliable intuition that had served him well along the way and allowed him a leg-up in giving subjects light were darkened with regarding parsing out the many aspects of this massive enterprise in Ukraine. Polybius (c. 204-122 B.C.), the Greek “pragmatic historian,” and intriguingly an eyewitness to the siege and destruction of Carthage accompanying none other than Cornelius Scipio Aficanus as one of his commanders. In his noted work, The Histories, Polybius covers the period from 264 BC to 146 BC, focusing primarily on the years 220 BC to 167 BC, and detailing Ancient Rome’s conquest of Carthage, which allowed it to become the dominant force in the Mediterranean. In his discussion of the causes for the start of the Carthaginian War, the Second Punic War in Book I, section 8, Polybius cites the work of the Roman analyst Quintus Fabius Pictor (born c. 270 BC, fl. c. 215–200 BC) . Reportedly, this choice may have been based more in homage than irrefutability given concerns even in his time that his work on the Second Punic War (218–201 BC) on Carthage was highly partisan towards the Roman Republic, idealizing it as a well-ordered state loyal to its allies. Fabius was the earliest known Roman historian. His writings, presented in Greek and now mostly lost besides some surviving fragments, were highly influential on ancient writers. He participated in introducing Greek historiographical methods to the Roman world.

Polybius writes: “Fabius, the Roman annalist, says that besides the outrage on the Saguntines, a cause of the war was Hasdrubal’s ambition and love of power. He tells us how, having acquired a great dominion in Spain, he arrived in Africa and attempted to abolish the constitution of Carthage and change the form of government to a monarchy. The leading statesmen, however, got wind of his project and united to oppose him, upon which Hasdrubal, suspicious of their intentions, left Africa and in future governed Iberia as he chose, without paying any attention to the Carthaginian Senate. Hannibal from boyhood had shared and admired Hasdrubal’s principles; and on succeeding to the governor-generalship of Iberia, he had employed the same method as Hasdrubal. Consequently, he now began this war against Rome on his own initiative and in defiance of Carthaginian opinion, not a single one of the notables in Carthage approving his conduct towards Saguntum. After telling us this, Fabius says that on the capture of this city the Romans came forward demanding that the Carthaginians should either deliver Hannibal into their hands or accept war. Now if anyone were to pose the following question to this writer–how opportunity could have better favored the Carthaginians’ wishes or what could have been a juster act and more in their interest (since, as he says, they had disapproved Hannibal’s action from the outset) than to yield to the Roman demand, and by giving up the man who had caused the offense, with some show of reason to destroy by the hands of others the common enemy of their state and secure the safety of their territory, ridding themselves of the war that menaced them and accomplishing their vengeance by a simple resolution–if anyone, I say, were to ask him this, what would he have to say? Evidently nothing; for so far were they from doing any of the above things that after carrying on the war, in obedience to Hannibal’s decision, for seventeen years, they did not abandon the struggle, until finally, every resource on which they relied being now exhausted, their native city and her inhabitants stood in deadly peril.”

As an experienced judoka, Putin knows that there are occasions when one competitor is simply outmatched by another. It is hard to accept when one is the outmatched competitor or the competitor’s loyal supporter. Still, no matter how unpleasant, it is a reality that must be faced with level-headedness. It would seem Putin has not reached that conclusion yet.

(From left to right) Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Chief of the Russian Federation General Staff, Russian Federation General of the Army Valery Gerasimov, Putin, and Surovikin at a presentation on aerospace weapon systems. On first impression, one might imagine the wisdom in putting the former Russian Federation Aerospace Force commander in charge is that air power will be better applied in Ukraine. Many in the Western newsmedia have assessed Surovikin’s appointment may have been an effort by the Kremlin to mitigate criticism from nationalists who have accused the army of mismanaging the war in Ukraine and of failing to use Russian military power overwhelmingly. In a January 2020 interview in The New Yorker magazine of Masha Lipman, a Moscow-based political analyst who has written extensively on Putin’s regime, explained: “At the end of the day he is the ultimate decision-maker. And the strategy and the grand plans that he has for Russia, in their entirety, exist only in his mind.”

Surovikin’s Appointment Provides Putin with Some Relief Personally

Choice of Surovikin may have been made simply to provide some measure of relief for Putin. By appointing an overall commander, something that most senior military and political advisers in Moscow might have urged Putin to do earlier or had begun to do once things went poorly, the move would feel something far different than a bromide. Putin would be acting proactively, putting fresh eyes on the matter and hopefully a more successful line of thinking.

Imaginably, there are many things Surovikin can now do under his new title that he could not do as Commander of the Aerospace Forces or commander of the Army Group “South” of the Russian Armed Forces engaged in the special military operation. Perhaps it might be more directly the case that they see something in the way in which Surovikin thinks. Much as with the commanders of air, ground, naval, and space components of  armed forces worldwide, one might presume in the abstract that intelligence preparation of the battlefield, providing predictive intelligence at the right time for use in planning and executing operations, has been a critical aspect of the Russian Federation Aerospace Forces efforts to deliver information superiority to its chiefs, and wing and squadron commander’s operating forces over Ukraine. Perhaps in strategy sessions of the armed forces general staff on the Ukraine operation, he proved more familiar with the battlespace as it stands than his counterparts and was thereby tapped for the top Ukraine job. So, he was given the job.

Perhaps in a conversation, an opportunity as his interview with Surovikin for the Ukraine job, Putin expressed concerns about the outcome of the war and Surovikin offered words that provided some measure of relief for him. That would be the conversation leaders who were in desperate situations or facing uncertainty have had with commanders for centuries. In The Histories, Herotudus of Halicarnassus (c. 484 BC-c. 425 BC), the renowned Greek historian of the Hellenic period known for that aforementioned masterwork which mainly discusses the struggles between Greece and Persia. In Book VII, Chapter 234, section 1-3, Herotudus reconstructs a hypothetical conversation between the Persian King Xerxes, and his general and uncle,  Demaratus following the king’s conversation with counselors. He writes: “Xerxes then sent for Demaratus and questioned him, saying first, “Demaratus you are a good man. I hold that proven by the plain truth, for things have turned out no differently than you foretold. Now, tell me this: how many Lacedaemonians are left, and how many of them are warriors like these? or is it so with them all?” “My king,” said Demaratus, “the number of the Lacedaemonians is great, and so too the number of their cities. But what you would like to know, I will tell you: there is in Lacedaemon a city called Sparta, a city of about eight thousand men, all of them equal to those who have fought here; the rest of the Lacedaemonians are not equal to these, yet they are valiant men.” “And how, Demaratus,” answered Xerxes, “can we overcome those men with the least trouble to ourselves?” Come, disclose that to me, for you have been their king and know the plan and order of their counsels.”

Surely, Putin is aware that not even the threat or dismissal or assassination cannot coax brilliance on the battlefield from Russian Federation commanders who simply iack the faculty to do anything that could dramatically change the situation in Ukraine in Russia’s favor. Hoping Ukrainian commanders might drop some almighty clanger that will provide an advantage–friction in battle and that sort of thing–would be futile given they are doubtlessly being “advised” by the some of the best military minds that NATO’s 27 Member States can supply respectively. The assistance in terms of weapons systems, training, and gear alone from NATO Member States has been breathtaking. Putin must have accepted by now that the Russian Federation armed forces are just not good enough to successfully execute the special military operation he chose to launch on February 24, 2022. Perhaps he has muttered to himself in private that all the talent is I n the other side. The Russian Army rejoiced in reputation of the post-war and Cold War Soviet Army. it was an illusion. Putin fell for it. It is all very tragic, especially for the soldiers and civilians on both sides caught up in the fighting and dying.

An army can not change overnight. What Russian top commanders can do is ensure that the many parts of the Russian Federation’s Ground Forces, Aerospace Forces, and Naval Forces work to their utmost in harmony to achieve success, but that still might not be enough to change the course of things. One should hardly expect to observe any maneuvers by Russian commanders to represent “an ingenious jesting with [the operational] art.” The Russians unit commanders in Ukraine continue to feign good intentions by ordering the use of overwhelming brute force, incredulously pretending they can muster any approximating power of that kind the field, with the respective objectives of overcoming Ukrainian strength now in what Putin has just recently declared Russian Federation territory. All those commanders are actually doing is sending their troops, the bulk of which are frightfully ill-trained and inexperienced, to near certain defeat. Numerous newsmedia reports in the West, impossible for any following the Ukraine War story to have missed, tell of field grade level commanders, gung-ho on the war and Putin, and eager to make their mark and possibly catch the attention of leaders Moscow, have sent their troops into better than questionable assault on well-armed and well-positioned Ukrainian units. Such assaults are being repulsed at the cost of extraordinarily high tallies of killed and wounded. Some Russian Army companies and battalions have been obliterated in this way. Many of those zealous commanders have ended.up on casualty.lists themselves. Surely such actions may later be found to be a main ingredient of a recipe for what may turn out to be a great military disaster. There may likely be a decisive clash ahead that will mark the end of the Russian presence in Ukraine, and end the myth that Russia is a conventional military power impossible to reckon with, a challenge to the combined forces of NATO.

The situation for Surovikin might in the end parallel that of the singular circumstances surrounding the renowned author of The History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides, (c. 460 BC–400 BC). Thucydides once was an Athenian general who was subsequently sacked and exiled following his failure to defend the Greek city of Amphipolis in Thrace. (During his exile, he began compiling histories and accounts of the war from various participants on all sides.) As fate would have it, Thucydides was ordered to go to Amphipolis in 424 because, by his own account in Book 4, chapter 105, section 1, of The History of the Peloponnesian War (hereinafter referred to as the Peloponnesian War):  “He possessed the right of working the gold mines in that part of Thrace, and thus had great influence with the inhabitants of the mainland” He wrote in Book I, chapter 104, section 4: “The general who had come from Athens to defend the place, sent to the other commander in Thrace, Thucydides son of Olorus, the author of this history, who was at the isle of Thasos, a Parian colony, half a day’s sail from Amphipolis” The renowned Spartan general Brasidas, aware that Thucydides was on Thasos and had established considerable influence with the people of Amphipolis, and concerned over possible reinforcements arriving by sea, acted quickly to offer moderate terms to the Amphipolitans for their surrender, which they accepted. Consequently, when Thucydides arrived at Amphipolis, the city had already fallen under Spartan control. As Amphipolis was of considerable strategic importance to Athens, reports were received with great alarm. Thucydides became the target popular indignation among the Athenians. As was the usual decision in such circumstances, Thucydides was exiled for his failure to “save” Amphipolis.

Memores acti prudentes futuri. (Mindful of what has been done, aware of what will be.) As it was Thucydides’ fate, one might wonder whether Surovikin has been given a fool’s errand, destined to receive a mark of dishonor for failing to complete a mission that had become moot before he had even journeyed out to perform it. Whatever Surovikin manages to do, he will have to cut it a bit fine given the rapid progress of Ukrainian forces in reducing Russian gains, and their well-demonstrated ability to do a lot more. Ukrainian commanders have proven themselves to be formidable opponents by displaying amazing knowledge of their battle space, foresight and agility acumen, managing to block in one place, counterattack in another, withdrawing their units when conditions were most favorable more often than demanding troops hold on to untenable positions until they were forced to retreat in order to survive or surrender. The ability of Ukrainian commanders to think fast and soundly has been key to their relative success as time is always of the essence. They relentlessly seek to take ground and gain and retain the initiative. More often than not weaker Ukrainian units have been pitted against stronger Russian ones, stronger at least on paper. French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte is quoted as saying: “Strategy is the art of making use of time and space. I am less concerned about the later than the former. Space we can recover, lost time never.” With continued expert advice and robust levels of assistance from the US and NATO, Ukrainian forces could potentially displace and destroy Russian forces at many points before winter sets in proper.

Putin (right) decorating Surovikin (left) with the Hero of the Russian Federation medal for his leadership of the Group of Forces in Syria. If one might consider the role politics might have played in the decision to appoint Surovikin commander of the joint group of troops in the area of the special military operation, it would seem on its face that Putin and the general should have a very harmonious relationship, hardly oil and water. Surovikin’s loyalty and reliability was apparent in his performance in Syria. Surovikin, obedient to the letter, followed through violently in Syria, getting the results that Putin demanded. Unlikely lost on Putin is the fact Surovikin, as a captain commanding an armored unit, was a defender of his beloved Soviet state in the truest sense during the 1991 coup d’état attempt launched by Soviet hardliners, driving through barricades erected by pro-democracy protesters. As noted in the discussion here on his military career, three men were killed in the clash, including one who was crushed.

The Role Played by Political Likes and Dislikes in Surovikin’s Appointment

In greatcharlie’s humble opinion, now is certainly not the best time in Moscow for anyone but Putin to worry about image or petty politics. It is a very odd situation that this persists in the midst of calamity. Even though there is a war going on in which Russia is not performing so well as an invader, image apparently still matters in Moscow. There are ceremonies, speeches in the Kremlin, scholarly foreign and national security policy conferences still being held around Russia all attendended via special invite only. For the elites, it is all more about status than security. The elites still want to improve their relative proximity to Putin and his inner circle. They want to know, who has what title, who is in charge of this or that, who has the lead, who takes orders from whom

To that extent, if one might consider the role of politics might have played in the decision to appoint Surovikin commander of the joint group of troops in the area of the special military operation, it would seem on its face that Putin and the general should have a very harmonious relationship, hardly oil and water. Surovikin’s loyalty and reliability was apparent in his performance in Syria. Surovikin, obedient to the letter, followed through violently in Syria, getting the results that Putin demanded. Unlikely lost on Putin is the fact Surovikin, as a captain commanding an armored unit, was a defender of his beloved Soviet state in the truest sense during the 1991 coup d’état attempt launched by Soviet hardliners, driving through barricades erected by pro-democracy protesters. As noted in the discussion here on his military career, three men were killed in the clash, including one who was crushed.

Certainly Surovikin is not starting from scratch, coming in from outside the centers of power. As mentioned, he served as the Commander of the Russian Federation Aerospace Forces, a rung few have reached since, as aforementioned, the Russian Air Force, the Air and Missile Forces, and the Space Forces were placed under his responsibility. Few have demonstrated the ability to manage as many operational organizations as he has. Although one might point out that the Russian Air Force at war in Ukraine is the one for which he was responsible for many years. Perhaps its performance has been the least impressive among the armed forces.

The suggestion should not be ignored that Putin may be looking at Surovikin as a possible replacement for Russian Federation General of the Army Valery Gerasimov as Chief of General’nyy shtab Vooruzhonnykh sil Rossiyskoy Federatsii (General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation), hereinafter referred to as the Russian Federation General Staff. To find support for that idea, one would only need to look at the condition of the Russian Federation Armed Forces and what the force he has been responsible for has produced in Ukraine. 

Gerasimov could be accused as having underperformed in keeping the armed forces prepared for war. On the eve of the special military operation’s launch, Russian forces situated near Ukraine’s border were still considered quite formidable. This belief was based not just on numbers and their fierce appearance, but on the assumption that Russia had undertaken the same sort of root-and-branch military reform that the US underwent in the 18-year period between Vietnam and its victory in the first Gulf War. Not all,, but many military analysts in the West speculated that the Russian operation would be something akin to a one act drama with an early curtain. The US Intelligence Community concluded that Kyiv would fall in days. Some European officials thought it might just hold out for a few weeks. 

However, starting on the first day of the of the invasion of Ukraine, all of the walls came down on the Russian Federation Armed Forces. Based on their overall performance in Ukraine, the forces that Russia sent into battle seemed almost counterfeit, poorly imitating what was expected by reputation. One could reasonably suggest  that in recent years their capabilities have been subject to hyperbole. As greatcharlie has stated in preceding posts, the Russian Federation General Staff was fortunate that they are not facing US forces. Copious amounts of supporting evidence for that argument has been presented on the battlefield daily in Ukraine. How the mighty have fallen. 

Negligentia sempre habet infortunam comitem. (Negligence always has misfortune for a companion.) Russian forces were not organized for war with precision. Units were not ready for battle. Soldiers had no idea of what to expect. Ukraine was allowed to use its strengths against Russian weaknesses. Ukraine’s smaller units were able to achieve relative superiority force on force initially in the field. One might have expected that occasionally good fortune would shine upon the relatively lightly-armed Ukrainian forces, and a Russian Army or Russian Naval Troops patrol rolling around or crossing into a danger zone might face ambush, a well-organized ambush, and losses would be suffered. With so many patrol ordered in the different avenues of attack by Russian forces, the greater the chance there would be losses. However, Ukrainian forces outrightly routed Russian units over and over on the battlefield and line of successes would force Russia to adjust its strategy.. The possibility of endsieg, victory against the odds, has become all the more real for the Ukrainians.

As discussed earlier to some extent, Putin surely felt the Russian Federation Armed Forces were well-trained and well-equipped to bring swift victory. To be fair, even to Putin, in practical terms, he mainly had the well-choreographed Zapad military and naval exercises to use as a measure of the Russian Federation armed forces effectiveness. The scenarios rehearsed in those exercises were apparently poor preparation for the invasion at hand. The scenarios rehearsed in those exercises were apparently poor preparation for the invasion at hand. There is also the issue that the Zapad exercises were not exactly all that they were made to appear to be in terms of demonstrating their actual strength and capabilities of the Russian armed forces, as well as the possibilities for their use. Imaginably, the truth was deliberately kept from Putin. No matter what was really going on at Zapad, their true value of the exercises can now be discerned by all. Military commanders simply during each exercise went through the motions with elaborate displays of firepower and mobility with little to no concern about how it would all come together in real world situations. The bigger and better Zapad exercises since 2017, lauded by the leadership of the Russian Federation armed forces, were surely “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Putin, himself, had regularly observed the Zapad exercises and everything seemed fine enough.

One NATO commander caught on to what had been happening at Zapad and other Russian military and naval exercises before the invasion and could predict Russian military action in Ukraine might prove for Moscow to be catastrophic. When he was commander of American naval forces in Europe and Africa, US Navy Admiral James Foggo had the duty to plan US military exercises recognized that planning the huge Russian exercises were enormous undertakings. As Russia was planning the Vostok exercises in September 2021 in Siberia, Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, declared it would be the largest since the Soviet Union’s Zapad exercise of 1981. It would involve 300,000 troops, 1,000 aircraft and 80 warships. However, Foggo discovered there was quite a bit of deception involved. Rather than actually field large numbers of soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines, a company of troops (150 at most) at Vostok, for example, was inflated and counted as a battalion or even a regiment (closer to 1,000). Single warships were passed off as whole squadrons.

How spectacularly did the illusion created by Russian commanders disintegrate when challenged by reality! It is a sad lesson for commanders in all armies to learn from. Beyond the seemingly deliberate desire to create an illusion of capabilities, the impression left is that the Zapad hoax over the years is that a certain disinvoltura apparently plagued the Russian Federation Armed Forces commanders, that has manifested itself at the worst possible time in the worst possible way. Clearly, Gerasimov was the main one who fed Putin’s illusion concerning the capabilities and  readiness of the Russian Federation Armed Forces. Maybe Putin has reached a point at which he could see some benefit in making a change. The easiest way is to bring forward other faces from the Russian Federation General Staff. It is somewhat surprising that in the West, investigative journalists have not gotten the hint that Gerasimov is being slow-walked out the door and have not tried to pick up the scent of blood. Some may have. A good guess would be that Surovikin is being advanced piecemeal by Putin to where he wants him to be. Interestingly, the indications and implications of such would also be that Putin has the sense that he has a future as leader of Russia.

Removing Gerasimov would cause some stir, perhaps both plus and minus, even among Putin’s nationalist and ultranationalist following. He has been viewed as a very loyal Putin acolyte for nearly a decade. However, if Putin is acting in that direction, it would surely be “business as usual in the Kremlin” with regard to military commanders at all levels. Putin has already replaced a number of top commanders in its armed forces. In an October 8, 2022 story, RFE/RL expressed from available public reporting, a list of prominent Russian commanders that have been sacked. Reportedly, the head of Russia’s North Caucasus region of Daghestan, Sergei Melikov, wrote on Telegram on October 7, 2022, that North Caucasus native Lieutenant-General Rustam Muradov had replaced the commander of the Eastern Military District, Colonel-General Aleksandr Chaiko. The RBK news agency on October 7, 2022 cited sources close to the Russian military as saying Muradov replaced Chaiko without giving any details. Much of the Eastern Military District’s personnel are engaged in the special military operation in Ukraine, despite the fact that the district is based in Russia’s Far East. Muradov previously led troops in Ukraine’s eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, parts of which have been under Russia-backed separatists’ control since 2014. He also commanded Russian peacekeepers in Azerbaijan’s breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

An October 3, 2022 RBK report stated that the commander of the Western Military District, Colonel-General Aleksandr Zhuravlyov, had been replaced shortly after dramatic Russian losses in northeastern Ukraine in September and the strategic city of Lyman in the Donetsk region had been recaptured by Ukrainian forces. In September 2022, Colonel General Mikhail Mizintsev replaced. General Dmitry Bulgakov as deputy defense minister in charge of logistics.  Curiously, Mizintsev is accused by the European Union of orchestrating a siege of the Ukrainian port of Mariupol early in the special military operation that reportedly killed thousands of civilians. In August 2022, state media outlets in Russia said the commander of the Black Sea fleet had been sacked after Ukraine carried out several successful attacks, including the sinking of Russia’s missile cruiser Moskva and the loss of eight warplanes in an attack on a Russian base in Crimea. As Ukraine continues to liberate settlements in its eastern region from occupying Russian troops, Moscow will likely continue to replace top commanders in its armed forces.

However, Putin apparently appreciates Gerasimov as a grand strategist, a military thinker of some talent. He has well-expressed in military terms the imaginings of Putin and his acolytes on the US ambition to conquer Russia for its abundant resources. Worth noting is the very strong and pertinent 2013 Military Statement a response to NATO expansion and Putin’s sense of vulnerability and belief that Russia stands vulnerable to the US “tricks.” In greatcharlie’s November 16, 2016 post entitled, “Belarus Allows Small Demonstrations Outside KGB Headquarters: As Belarus Curries Favor with the West, Can It Help Russia, Too?”, it was noted that on February 14, 2013 at a conference called “Russia’s Military Security in the 21st Century,” Gerasimov, provided a glimpse of Russia’s official assessment of future wars it may face as outlined in the top secret Plan of Defense of the Russian Federation. The parallels with Putin’s thinking on the Western threat to Russia are stark. The Russian Federation General Staff believes future conflicts will be “Resource Wars.” Indeed, they conclude the depletion of energy resources will soon become an ultimate world crisis and overtake regions. Severe shortages of oil, gas and other natural resources would cause their prices to steeply rise. Russia’s senior military leaders believe outside powers, primarily the US and its allies, may invade their country from several directions to physically grab territory and its resources. Putin accepted the threat assessment of the Russian Federation General Staff, and signed the Plan of Defense of the Russian Federation into law on January 29, 2013. The notion that Russian borders were being threatened by the US and NATO and adequate defensive measures are being taken has near controlled Russian military thinking since, culminating so far in this great blunder in Ukraine.

Suggestions that Shoigu has concerns over General Surovikin would be almost baseless. As Shoigu and Surovikin have interacted on countless occasions while he commanded Russian Federation Aerospace Forces. No friction between them has been publicly reported at least. Many new weapon systems critical to Russia’s strategic defense have been introduced by the Aerospace Forces under his leadership. One might in this case again harken back to 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet Union to give life to such a suggestion. At the time, Shoigu, fairly senior in the Russian Rescuers Corps, was a firm supporter of Boris Yeltsin, then President of the Russian Republic, leading protests against the coup d’etat that forced Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev from office. However, the fact that Surovikin and Shoigu were on opposing sides at that time should not hold any real value in any analysis. It is very unlikely that Shoigu has  borne some grudge against Surovikin over the matter. While greatcharlie cannot swear that Surovikin’s rise is nothing signify concerning Shoigu’s perch at the Ministry of Defense, any suggestion that Surovikin’s appointment has meaning in that direction would seem by the by. The truth is that Shoigu’s role in the rise of Putin and his place in the regime is quite firm and rather singular.

One might recall that in 1999, Yeltsin became acutely aware that he was losing power in Russia, and his supporters were shifting to the opposition. Taking steps to ensure his legacy with less than a year left in office, Yeltsin, with the help of political allies, created a new party, with a new face, loyal to him: Unity. Shoigu, who was serving as Minister of  Ministestvo po Delam Grazhdanskoy Oborony, Chrezvychainym Situatsiyam i Likvidtsil Posledstviy Bedstviy (Ministry of the Russian Federation for Affairs for Civil Defense, Emergencies and Elimination of Consequences of Natural Disasters Emergency Situations also known as the Ministry for Emergency Situations) or EMERCOM, and part of Yeltsin’s successful re-election campaign in 1996, was named the leader of the pro-president party. He was partnered with Alexander Karelin. Elements of Unity’s economic policy were akin to Thatcherism. It included, for example, the promotion of low inflation, the small state and free markets via tight control of the money supply, and privatization. That said, Unity also supported the reliance on powerful police and security structures and media control. After parliamentary elections in 1999, Unity took a commanding position in the Duma. Having secured some control of the Duma, Yeltsin sought a successor for the presidency.

While Yeltsin called Shoigu “our greatest star,” he chose Putin. Yeltsin first saw promise in Putin when he selected him on July 25, 1998 to serve as head of the Federal’naya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsi (Federal Security Service) or FSB. At the time, Putin was an unemployed deputy-mayor from St. Petersburg. He served at the FSB until August 9, 1999, when Yeltsin called him to the post of acting prime minister. Late that same month, there was a bomb blast in a luxury shopping mall by Red Square which was the first in a series of blast resulting in casualties. In September 1999, there were apartment bombings in Moscow, Buinaksk, Dagestan, and Volgodonsk, in Rostov. They collectively killed 300 Russian civilians and wounded hundreds more that were reportedly the responsibility of Chechen Islamic militants. Putin acted forcefully against the mall bombing, the apartment immolations, and a bold Islamic militant incursion from Dagestan into Chechnya, led by Shamil Basayev. The first of 100,000 troops were sent to the northern Caucasus within weeks. In a famous September 24, 1999 speech, Putin spoke with determination in explaining his approach to defeating terrorism: “We will pursue the terrorist everywhere. If they are in an airport, then, in an airport, and forgive me, if we catch them in the toilet, then we will waste them in the outhouse . . . The issue has been resolved once and for all.” Putin marked his rise in power by acting viciously against terror. Shoigu’s Unity Party then served as the instrument for Putin’s rise to the presidency. The Unity Party eventually entered into an alliance with the Fatherland-All Russia political bloc. The Party later morphed into United Russia, the country’s current ruling party that rubber stamps Putin’s initiatives in the Duma. Putin has remained in power by confounding insincerity, and he does not suffer fools lightly. Having observed him closely, Putin obviously feels Shoigu well-serves his needs. Shoigu was neither in the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (the Committee for State Security) or KGB nor worked in St. Petersburg with Putin. He has been able to make use of his own unique sensibilities to understand his leader’s thinking and feelings. An informed guess by greatcharlie is that Shoigu is unlikely going anywhere, anytime too soon.

As remarked earlier, it is not publicly known which particular aspects of Surovikin’s military background, as seen through the singular lenses of his superiors, took on significance in the decision to select him to tackle the “Ukraine conundrum.” Perhaps those aspects would not be those leaders of other countries might seek in an ideal overall commander of a military campaign. Recalling here how Putin acted in Chechnya when brand new to the post of Russian Federation President, it would not be difficult to understand why Surovikin, with his background, would be the commander he would want handling Ukraine.

One might wonder whether Surovikin (above) has been given a fool’s errand, destined to receive a mark of dishonor for failing to complete a mission that had become moot before he had even journeyed out to perform it. Whatever Surovikin manages to do, he will have to cut it a bit fine given the rapid progress of Ukrainian forces in reducing Russian gains, and their well-demonstrated ability to do a lot more. Ukrainian commanders have proven themselves to be formidable opponents by displaying amazing knowledge of their battle space, foresight and agility acumen, managing to block in one place, counterattack in another, They relentlessly seek to take ground and gain and retain the initiative. More often than not weaker Ukrainian units have been pitted against stronger Russian ones, stronger at least on paper.

Surovikin: The Prospective Savior of Russia?

It is very possible that Putin, Shoigu, Gerasimov, and the others on the Russian Federation General Staff authentically feel there is a real chance that under Surovikin’s command, Russian forces can beat back Ukrainian forces tearing through their lines, gain and retain the initiative, and somehow obviate the effects of US, NATO, and other foreign military assistance to Kyiv. The initial Western newsmedia commentaries of what Surovikin would bring to war as the new joint commander of Russian forces was that he would bring “his violent Syria playbook closer to home.” Reporting focused on a rush of heavy rocket attacks against civilian targets across Ukraine. Naturally, Surovikin’s main challenge in Ukraine, will be to solve the structural problems plaguing the Russian military as it faces fierce Ukrainian forces hell bent on liberating every speck of Ukrainian sovereign territory. Many Western Military experts have expressed that view.

Yet, equally naturally, Surovikin has the grand opportunity to apply his thinking–within the limits of the Russian government system–of what has been done wrong, what has been done right, and what can best be accomplished. As broached in-brief earlier, Surovikin may have expressed a singular interpretation of the battlespace. To be succinct and express it as it might still be taught in military educational institutions at the command and staff level, the battlespace is the mental picture a commander establishes in order to analyze and choose courses of action to apply his military assets in relation to time, tempo, and depth. Perhaps Surovikin’s superiors at this point are hoping that his way of thinking will make a difference on the battlefield and they may be turning to him as a last, best resort. Moreover, it could be that the results of the ongoing Ukrainian drive in fact proved Surovikin’s conceptual view of the situation in what was previously his southern front and his neighboring eastern front were correct. He may have expressed what turned out to be the best understanding of how factors as the strengths and weaknesses of Ukrainian forces to include new weapon systems being introduced via Western assistance. He may have sounded the alarm that firepower in particular would allow them “the upper hand” on the battlefield. He may have demonstrated a better understanding, reliable intimations, on how, where, and when to apply the combat power of Russian forces. He may have assessed the strengths and weaknesses of Russian forces and, since their power has dwindled so dramatically, how they could be more effectively and perhaps economically mustered, how those forces could be better protected, and how they might be able to take a stab at making some respectable gains more immediately. Much as noted previously, being commander of the Russian Federation Aerospace Forces, since 2017 has perchance allowed Surovikin to gain experience, an expertise in managing multidimensional aspects of warfare to create a harmonious or synergistic whole. To that extent, he conceivably would lend an expertise applicable to managing the multidimensional aspects of air, sea, space, land, and information operations in his planning and execution of military operations.

Concerning Russian Federation Aerospace Forces specifically, more than simply contributing to the Ukraine campaign as the situation stands as of this writing, they could play an effective role, indeed have a multiplier effect. With his experience as Commander of the Russian Federation Aerospace Forces, Surovikin presumably would know best how to manage all assets of the force to strike strategically and tactically to make a positive difference in the war effort. Strategically, destroying Ukraine’s ability to construct weapons and disrupting its supply of weapons from external sources would likely be a priority. Tactically, a priority would likely be coordinating efforts by Russian Federation Aerospace Force assets with ground forces currently facing great pressure or extremely challenging situations almost everywhere on the frontlines from well-armed, well-supplied, and highly-motivated Ukrainian forces.

Dediscit animus sero quod didicit diu. (The mind is slow in unlearning what it has been long learning.) For many, it might understandably be difficult to conceive exactly how under the same leadership, with an additional title, the situation could be altered for its better. With specific regard to the Russian Federation Aerospace Forces, large scale exercises of recent years appear to have been nothing more than staged acts, performances that presented illusions about the capabilities of its different branches. Indeed, those performances were full of sound and fury, but reality signified nothing. In the Ukraine campaign, the Russian Federation Aerospace Forces so far have had little impact to the degree that they were present. The Russian Federation Aerospace Forces have been near nonexistent relative to its size, supposed power, and the expectations of military analysts worldwide. Its best fighters and fighter-bombers have been regularly blasted out of the skies by Ukrainian forces using both pricey sophisticated air defense weapons systems gifted to Kyiv by Western powers and shoulder fired rockets operated by individual soldiers in the field. Russian Federation Ground Forces could be assessed as fighting much as one of a third tier power, seemingly lacking sophisticated aircraft and possessing no close air support assets, and they have resultantly suffered losses the same as an trained observer might expect of a type of third tier force against a high-tech force of a military superpower. In this case, it would appear that with the combined support of the US, the United Kingdom, EU, and NATO member countries, Ukraine, to a degree, is fighting much as that very sort of military superpower described. As greatcharlie has stated in preceding posts, one could only imagine the loss Russian Federation forces would have suffered if they had clashed directly with US forces. If any units sent into battle under that scenario would have been spared, it would have been purely a matter of happenstance.

Still, Putin would unlikely put all of his hopes in the hands of these military men. To go a bit further with the hypothetical, perhaps during one of his summit meetings and bilateral talks with Putin, People’s Republic of China President and Communist Party of China Party Secretary Xi Jinping diplomatically and encouragingly shared the suggestion that he might adopt “a new way of thinking about warfare.” Perhaps he discussed the concept of combined warfare without boundaries emphasizing that a complementary level of energy be placed on matters that could not only greatly influence, but even more, have a decisive impact on its outcome. While it may also include the use of armed force, under the concept of combined warfare without boundaries prioritizes the use of non-military forms of warfare: psychological, media, information, technology, cyber, financial, political, social, and espionage. The aim of combined warfare without boundaries is to weaken the US internally and to exploit its vulnerabilities. Since under combined warfare without boundaries the battlefield is everywhere, everything can be weaponized. On a short list of things weaponized, Xi could have told Putin in this hypothetical situation that, optimistically, there still was time to put things right, but certainly there was no time to waste. It is all hypothetical, imagined from the abstract.

In the past, the activities undertaken as part of combined warfare without boundaries would have fallen under the category of intelligence. Perhaps, they still do. Intelligence services engage in open and clandestine, and covert activities, using appropriate tools and available resources, to create or exploit opportunities to act in support of the policies and the interests of their countries. As part of those activities, the everyday can often become weaponized. Putin is perhaps the most prominent Russian intelligence doyen around today having served in the KGB and as head of the FSB. He would very likely see value and potential in that tack, and would surely have a stream of ideas on what he could do away from the battlefield in a robust way. 

Under such a scenario, one could reasonably expect his mind to harken back to the heady days of the Cold War when he served as an officer in the KGB in the former Deutsche Democratische Republik (German Democratic Republic, also known as GDR or East Germany). Putin and his KGB comrades cooperated–“oversaw”–the work of their HVA counterparts who were infiltrating West Germany and countries beyond in the West to not only collect intelligence but to a great extent prepare as best as possible for a likely conflict between Warsaw Pact forces and NATO Member States in Central Europe. For 34 years, Generaloberst Markus Wolf was the very successful head of GDR’s foreign intelligence service Hauptverwaltung Aufklärung (the Main Directorate for Reconnaissance), commonly referred to as the HVA. With frightening efficiency, he developed an array of tactics, techniques, procedures and methods for operating against his Western opponents in advance of any eventual conflict in Europe between East and West, or to break down the societies of opponents of the Eastern Bloc. Throughout the Cold War, his agents poured into West Germany and when possible countries beyond, secured positions, reported about, and influenced the activities of a multitude of organizations in a broad spectrum of areas, social, political, diplomatic, military, commercial, financial, scholarly,  scientific, and informational. (For those interested in more on Wolf and the HVA, see the November 13 2019 greatcharlie post entitled Book Review: Markus Wolf, Man without a Face: The Autobiography of Communism’s Greatest Spymaster (Times Books, 1997) for a bit more detail on the matter.)

With a dearth of good ideas, some interest could possibly arise in mining benefit from what might seem as an outre thought on first impression. If such a hypothetical exchange on the matter of combined warfare without boundaries were at all true, and under such a scenario, Putin might have put any thought into the matter, he would likely have begun to think beyond the battlefield in a big way. Some might suggest that Putin already was engaged in such activities as observed in Russia’s hybrid warfare attacks in Europe which began in 2014.

Hybrid warfare has been associated with Gerasimov who developed what has been dubbed the Gerasimov doctrine. The Gerasimov Doctrine, an operational concept for Russia’s confrontation with the West, is also a whole-of-government concept that combines military power and soft power across many domains, transcending boundaries between peace and war. However, there is a distinction between combined warfare without boundaries and the Gerasimov Doctrine. When combined warfare without boundaries is applied, the purpose is not to prepare or support the use of force. What is accomplished by non-military means should offset the use of force. To that extent in Ukraine, what is transpiring on the battlefield should not be looked upon as determining the final outcome of the confrontation. 

In a robust application of some simulacrum of combined warfare without boundaries, alterations in a few aspects of Russia’s behavior would likely signal the change. There would likely be greater emphasis on garnering assistance from allies with the wherewithal to contribute assets of high value. That list of allies would likely include: China, Belarus, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), Iran, and perhaps Cuba. Applying combined warfare without boundaries, top diplomats of Ministerstvo Inostrannykh del Rossijskoj Federacii (the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Russian Federation) would approach each to secure the maximum level of assistance. Reports surfaced in September 2022, that Russia was in the process of buying millions of rockets and artillery shells from North Korea to use in Ukraine. That information was reportedly sourced from the US Department of Defense. In August 2022, US officials disclosed that Russia received shipments of Iranian-produced drones. 

Top diplomats would also be tasked with keeping the negotiations door open without leaning too far that way as to encourage bolder action on the battlefield by Kyiv and its NATO backers. It may be the case that when Western representatives approach Putin about peace, he may very well get the sense that he is slowly wearing down their countries and Ukraine. Thereby, his resolve to fight on may be strengthened.

As part of Putin’s twist on an hypothetical implementation by him of a combined warfare without limits strategy similar to that of China might be to green-light direct action of a calibrated nature in a top tier Western country whose foreign and national security bureaucracies surely will not be expecting but actually should have been prepared for once the Ukraine war ignited over some preposterous reasoning began.

Russian Federation intelligence services would be called upon to collect all they can on the level of will Western countries possess on investing in the war: concerns expressed in capitals on capping assistance expenditures, Ukraine’s use of all forms of assistance, and the effects of Moscow’s nuclear threats. Sweet to the ear of Putin would surely be any true Intelligence collected that shows some decay in the united front of the NATO Member States. As the situation stands now, it would seem illusory for the Kremlin to put hope in some deterioration of Western unity or loss of will or concern over the drain funding the war has had on national budgets or an actual pull back of support for Kyiv. Further, if the Russian Federation could hastily organize and task Its respective intelligence services to impact Western countries lined against it in some significant way as to influence events in Ukraine, there would unlikely be enough time to get any operations going before events on the battlefield rendered their fruits meaningless.

As for the Russian Federation Armed Forces, they would still be implored to hold on territory gained. However, in the use of their weapon systems, they would need to be a bit more creative. In the May 30, 2022 greatcharlie post entitled, “Putin the Protector of the Russian People or the Despoiler of Ukrainian Resources: A Look at War Causation and Russian Military Priorities in Ukraine”, it was suggested that ideally for Putin, inhabitants of Ukrainian cities and towns will be displaced due to Russian attacks at such a level that the cities and towns themselves would more or less resemble the southern portion of the city of Famagusta in Cyprus or the village of Oradour-sur-Glane in France. (Given results, it almost seems as if Russian engineering officers, artillery officers, air power officers, and ordnance officers, have drawn up plans for the systematic demolition of Ukrainian cities and towns, district by district, block by block, using ordnance fired from a variety of weapon systems.) The intermittent attacks on populated areas may indeed have some psychological warfare, punitive, or perhaps even a tactical purpose. Yet, something of far greater conception may be behind them. Perchance Russian commanders, as part of a preconceived plan, seek to displace Ukrainians from their homes, out of the cities and town through “massive evacuations” to make them easier to “manage,” easier to control. Surely, Putin would appreciate having the West finance and supply for their care on the other side of the Dnieper River. Destroying certain parts of cities and towns would also make them far less desirable. At the time of this writing, UN estimates are that over 4.1 million Ukrainians have moved into other countries. When Ukrainians move west, the better things become concerning Putin’s likely plans for Ukraine. In that same May 30, 2022 post, it was imagined that following the capture of Ukrainian cities and towns, “There might be the chance that citizens of the Russian homeland would be ‘invited’ to relocate and settle in those cities and towns to participate in their reconstruction and, particularly in the southeast, reside in cities and towns in order to reconstruct and work at ports on the Azov Sea and in the many mineral mines. Veterans of the military operation who were so inclined could be invited to relocate to the cities and towns they ‘liberated,’ in effect to enjoy the spoils of the war.”

Hypothetically under an overarching combined warfare without boundaries concept insisted upon by the Kremlin, Russian forces would act more directly to break the will of the Ukrainians throughout the country. While propaganda would likely have limited effect, there would be the possibility of attempting to break the morale of the Ukrainian people and as important, their will to fight on. To that extent, Ukrainian civilian infrastructure would be targeted with the purpose of terrorism the population, albeit the of terrorizing civilians in this manner would be a war crime. As of this writing, Russian forces reportedly have been bombing Ukraine’s critical civilian infrastructure, to include energy facilities. As put by Amnesty International, the intent of these attacks–somewhat in line of combined warfare without boundaries–is “to undermine industrial production, disrupt transportation, sow fear and despair, and deprive civilians in Ukraine of heat, electricity and water as the cold grip of winter approaches.”

Surovikin (center), Gerasimov (left), and Colonel General Sergei Rudskoy, Chief of the Main Operational Directorate of the General Staff (right). It is very possible that Putin, Shoigu, Gerasimov, and the others on the Russian Federation General Staff authentically feel there is a real chance that under Surovikin’s command, Russian forces can beat back Ukrainian forces tearing through their lines, gain and retain the initiative, and somehow obviate the effects of US, NATO, and other foreign military assistance to Kyiv. It could be that the results of the ongoing Ukrainian drive in fact proved Surovikin’s conceptual view of the situation in what was previously his southern front and his neighboring eastern front were correct. He may have expressed what turned out to be the best understanding of how factors as the strengths and weaknesses of Ukrainian forces to include new weapon systems being introduced via Western assistance. He may have sounded the alarm that firepower in particular would allow them “the upper hand” on the battlefield. He may have demonstrated all along a better understanding, reliable intimations, on how, where, and when to apply the combat power of Russian forces. He may have assessed the strengths and weaknesses of Russian forces and, since their power has dwindled so dramatically, how they could be more effectively and perhaps economically mustered, how those forces could be better protected, and how they might be able to take a stab at making some respectable gains more immediately.

Surovikin: The Invaluable Multilateral Operations Expert

The renowned 19th century Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde explained: “To expect the unexpected shows a thoroughly modern intellect.” Surovikin surely gained experience with multilateral operations as a result of his experience in Syria. Ukraine has doubtlessly put him in contact with operational commanders of allies assisting Russia in various ways. Given the DPRK’s arms shipment to the Russian Federation Armed Forces and persistent murmurs of its troops assisting the Russian with the deployment of their troops, the DPRK’s Korean People’s Army (KPA) General Staff, with the permission of DPRK Chairman Kim Jung-un, by now surely has observers on the ground in Ukraine, examining everyday of the conflict and gleaning every lesson possible. Surely, those lessons learned will manifest in alterations of DPRK armed forces tactics, perhaps even the configuration of certain units, and use of their weapon systems to create whatever advantages they could possibly muster as well as mitigate any apparent weaknesses across the board. That might also include any structural changes their system of government might allow. From the Russian side, the work entailed in establishing interoperability with DPRK ordnance might be developed as a foundation for further areas and levels of cooperation. 

It was suggested at the time when the situation for the Russian forces in the Donbass began to seriously deteriorate that Kim might send 100,000 troops  of the KPA to Ukraine. On first impression, one might view such talk as part of Russia’s political warfare operations. If their suggested deployment should occur, the DPRK expeditionary force could potentially accomplish enough to offset the somewhat grandiose plans of Kyiv to raise a force of 1,000,000 soldiers to eradicate Russian forces from Ukrainian territory, to include the liberation of Crimea. The DPRK’s military is reported to be the world’s fourth largest, with nearly 1.3 million active personnel, and an additional 600,000 serve as reserve soldiers. Noteworthy is the fact that the DPRK has also offered to send over 1,000 workers to assist Russia in rebuilding postwar Ukraine. It has also been reported that Moscow would provide energy and grain in return for the deployment of DPRK troops. According to UN Resolution 2375, passed in 2017, countries are prohibited from supplying the DPRK all condensates and natural gas liquids (paragraph 13). UN Resolution 2397, passed in 2017, limits the annual amount of crude and refined petroleum that can be provided to North Korea (paragraphs 4 and 5). The former resolution also precludes any joint ventures or cooperative entities with North Korea (paragraph 18). The latter resolution reiterates the prohibition of any DPRK national from earning income in other states (paragraph 8). At this point, it would be unreasonable to think that such UN Resolutions have any meaning. Russian forces in Ukraine are already receiving the DPRK weapons shipments. As for prohibitions on the DPRK regarding arms shipments, its military assistance to Russia would also violate UN resolutions. UN Resolution 1718, passed in 2006, prohibits North Korean exports of heavy weapons, such as tanks, artillery, and missiles, and requires UN member states to prevent their transfer (paragraph 8). UN Resolution 1874 (paragraph 9), passed in 2009, and UN Resolution 2270 (paragraph 6), passed in 2016, expanded the export ban to include all DPRK arms, including small arms and light weapons, as well as “technical training, advice, services or assistance related to the provision, manufacture, maintenance or use of such arms or materiel.” Further, under UN Resolution 2270, paragraph 8), the DPRK is also prohibited from any military exports that “support or enhance the operational capabilities of armed forces of another Member State.” Pyongyang has established a record of totally disregarding UN Resolutions.

Napoleon is quoted as saying: “Unity of command is essential to the economy of time. Warfare in the field was like a siege: by directing all one’s force to a single point a breach might be made, and the equilibrium of opposition destroyed.” If DPRK troops, conceivably a combined arms force, were deployed to Ukraine, they would likely be applied as a decisive unified force on the battlefield, rather than separating them into individual units and dole them out as replacements for battered and tattered Russian battalions  Under the latter scenario, the likely command, control, and communications problems might be enormous. Further, the fact that Russian and DPRK have not trained together, at least in recent years, in such great numbers, surely would almost immediately become apparent despite Surovikin’s best efforts. How he would manage that would likely require summoning up answers from the depths of his knowledge, experience and talent. Perhaps the common wisdom is that if Surovikin is hoping to make any decisive moves, they would be planned for the Spring of 2023. However, there is the possibility that he plans to act in the mid-to-late Winter when weather conditions might obviate advantages provided to Ukrainian forces through the use of drones. Astonishingly, Russian forces seem to lack the appropriate equipment to monitor the skies electronically or a frightful lack of competence to do so.

One might recall weather was a key factor in the planning of Germany’ Oberkommando der Wehrmacht for its Ardennes Offensive that was launched on December 16, 1944. As the attack was envisioned, a heavy winter storm would prevent Allied attempts to provide air support and resupply to beleaguered US troops caught head on in the German armored and mechanized rampage through Belgium and Luxembourg, determined to reach the sea at Antwerp. For several days during the offensive, considerable progress was made, causing a huge bulge westward on the US frontlines. The battle was thereby given the name the “Battle of the Bulge.” Eventually, the winter storm that was vital to the German advance cleared enough for Allied air assets to fly in and have a devastating impact against the German attackers. They also managed to deliver much needed supplies–manna from heaven–to US troops. Certainly, it is possible that the drone technology Ukrainian forces possess might be able to overcome any challenges caused by weather conditions. If not, such technologically equipped drones could perhaps be rapidly supplied to them by Western powers

Though DPRK troops hypothetically sent into Ukraine would certainly be prepared to do business and make a good showing on behalf of their Dear Respected Comrade [Kim], it is possible that the hypothesized DPRK force could unexpectedly find themselves caught in a situation with Ukrainian forces similar to what their Russian comrades had in Kyiv and Kharkiv. After all, this hypothetical DPRK expeditionary force, imaginably combined arms,  could hardly expect more close air support from the Russian Federation Aerospace Force than Russian troops have received. They might deploy their own fighters and attack helicopters and fly them out of Crimea or even the Donbas only to find the skies over Ukraine no safer than the Russian pilots had. A disastrous assistance effort to support an ally that comes to mind is that of the British Army which sent a force under Lieutenant-General Sir John Moore into Spain to support the United Kingdom’s Spanish allies against the forces of Napoleon in 1809 during the Peninsular War. The French campaign, initially led by Napoleon himself, defeated the Spanish armies. Moore attempted to attack the French force, a corps under Marshal of the Empire Jean de Dieu Soult with the objective of diverting it. The strength of Moore’s forces was 16,000, which included 15,000 infantry and 9 to 12 guns. Soult’s corps in near parity included 16,000 troops, of which 12,000 were infantry, 3,200 were cavalry. He also had 20 guns

When the plan as conceived failed. Moore withdrew his force, but Soult’s corps relentlessly pursued it. The British retreat, under harsh winter conditions, took Moore’s force across northern Spain while their rearguard fought off repeated French attacks. Both the British and French troops suffered from the severe weather. With the exception of the elite Light Brigade under Robert Craufurd, much of the British force suffered from a loss of order and discipline during the retreat. Having managed against tremendous odds to reach the port of Corunna on the northern coast of Galicia in Spain, a few days ahead of the French, Moore’s troops found their transport ships had not arrived. When the fleet arrived a couple of days later, Soult’s forces also arrived and launched an attack on the British who were embarking. The British had no choice but to fight another battle before leaving Spain, the Battle of Corunna. In the fight which took place on January 16, 1809. Moore’s force repeatedly repulsed attacks from Soult’s force until nightfall, when both sides disengaged. However, during the battle, Moore was mortally wounded, but he died after learning that his men had successfully repelled the French attacks. That night, British forces resumed their embarkation. The last troops sailed away in the morning under French cannon fire. Soult would capture the port cities of Corunna and Ferrol. The outcome of the withdrawal of British forces from Galicia was the fall of northern Spain to the French.

Perchance General Surovikin would also has the solution to avoid a similar catastrophe. Perhaps the hypothetical intervention by DPRK troops would more resemble that of the Prussians at the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815. As it is fairly well-known, during the battle, over 30,000 Prussians under General Der Infanterie Friedrich Wilhelm Freiherr Graf Bulow von Dennewitz and General-Leutnant Otto Karl Lorenz von Pirch shaped the outcome at the Battle of Waterloo. The Prussians desperately sought to capture the strategic point of Plancenoit on the right flank of Napoleon Bonaparte’s Army. Much of the Prussian’s fight against the 10,000 French defenders in Plancenoit was in the streets of the town itself. Though the battle at Plancenoit was to be hard fought, the Prussians eventually overran the French right, causing the French army to turn and flee. Their success sealed the fate of Napoleon. The Commander-in-Chief of the Prussian Army, Generalfeldmarschall Gerhard Leberecht von Blücher was famously to meet British Army Field Marshal The Duke of Wellington on the battlefield between 9:00PM and 10:00PM, close to the Belle-Alliance farm, where history records, the Prussian general conjured up in French: “Quelle affaire !” Given the battering the Allied army had received throughout the day, the relatively fresh Prussian troops were to take the lead in pursuing the fleeing French troops. The Prussians had neverthless lost 7,000 men. Napoleon’s carriage was to be seized by Prussian cavalry at Gemappes, and the routed French were to be given no quarter by the furious Prussian pursuit. Blücher’s advance guard was finally to reach the outskirts of Paris on June 29, 1815. With Napoleon’s abdication on June 22, 1815, the war would officially end upon the signature of the Convention of St-Cloud on July 3, 1815.  Surely, this would be the sort of outcome that Moscow and Pyongyang would be hoping for.

Surovikin (left), Shoigu (seated right), and Russian Federation Colonel General Sergei Rudskoy (center). Surovikin gained considerable experience with multilateral operations as a result of his experience in Syria. Ukraine has doubtlessly put him in contact with operational commanders of allies assisting Russia in various ways. Given the DPRK’s arms shipment to the Russian Federation Armed Forces and persistent murmurs of its troops assisting the Russian with the deployment of their troops, the DPRK General Staff, with the permission of Kim, by now surely has observers on the ground in Ukraine, examining everyday of the conflict and gleaning every lesson possible. Surely, those lessons learned would manifest in alterations of DPRK armed forces tactics, perhaps even the configuration of certain units, and use of their weapon systems to create whatever advantages they could possibly muster as well as mitigate any apparent weaknesses across the board. That might also include any structural changes their system of government might allow. From the Russian side, the work entailed in establishing interoperability with DPRK ordnance might be developed as a foundation for further areas and levels of cooperation. It was suggested at the time when the situation for the Russian forces in Ukraine began to seriously deteriorate that Kim might send 100,000 DPRK troops to Ukraine. Surely, Surovikin would be best suited to manage a multilateral effort with the DPRK.

The Way Forward

Ultimately, it was Putin who created the Ukraine War. Still, commanders are responsible for what was happening to young soldiers in the field. Surovikin expectedly understands the situation in Ukraine. He has been part of the military decisionmaking on the special military operation from its inception. The loss in troops and materiel in Ukraine even to the of top Russian Federation commanders’ eyes must also be absolutely astounding. They are after all only human. All of the ills of the forces they have led have been exposed to the world. The walls have come down. 

Included among root causes for troubles that have surfaced, with which Surovikin or anyone who might come after him must contend, are extremely poor soldier discipline and terrible fieldcraft. Training has likely been lax for decades. Leadership has likely been poor at the lower level leadership for just as long. It is unlikely that senior leaders were circulating or doing so in a meaningful way. One might presume there was a lack of standards particularly among the ground forces and very low morale. If morale was not low in the past, it is surely low now. Russian military technology appears crude as well as corroded in some cases. The world is not discovering how capable NATO has been to confront what was formally understood to be a Russian military juggernaut. Indeed, the world is seeing just how corroded the Russian system is and how that corroded system likely for years had grabbed hold of and mangled the armed forces. What has been manifested from that system in Ukraine has been a longtime in development. Weapons systems which are designed for US military and naval personnel to go to war and win must be robust. This approach is in stark contrast to that of the Russian Federation Armed Forces. An army that operates under the archaic notion that troops are expendable and can be casually sacrificed to achieve objectives will be overcome and overrun in the present era. No one should knowingly be sent to war without being given every chance with regard to their survival and the performance of their equipment.

The above are symptoms of an affliction of corruption that has beset and poisoned authoritarian regimes throughout history. Embezzlement becomes ubiquitous, the powerful feel entitled to spoils befitting their rise. And their countries are bled dry strength and wherewithal stealthily and it is all uncovered in unexpected crises. In every way, the Russian Federation Armed Forces appear to have all along been a paper tiger, emblematic of the very flawed government they serve. William Shakespeare, in Sonnet 66 (1609), provides a short list of ingredients that best describe the realities of authoritarian regimes so appropos concerning the thinly veiled current one of Russian Federation. In the third quatrain, he writes: “And art made tongue-tied by authority, / And folly, doctor-like, controlling skill, / And simple truth miscalled simplicity, / And captive good attending captain ill.”

US-Led Military Strikes in Syria Were a Success: Was a Correlative Political Warfare Success Achieved, Too?

Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad (left) and Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (right). Given all that transpired in Syria surrounding the US, United Kingdom, and French military strikes, Putin, Assad and their respective senior advisers may very well have begun to ask questions about future of relations between their countries. Relations between Moscow and Damascus may have begun moving in a new direction to the dissatisfaction and disappointment of Putin, and the dismay and anger of Assad.

Correlative effects can result from airstrikes, cruise missile strikes, drone strikes, and artillery attacks. Those effects could include damage to surrounding structures, or could mean unfortunate harm to civilians, in or near a target struck. Correlative effects can sometimes include shaping the attitude and behavior of an opponent targeted, his ability think, what he thinks, his ability to fight, and even his interactions with individuals with which he is allied or tenuously unified can be others. A correlative result of the April 13, 2018 US, United Kingdom, and French military strikes in Syria may have been a hard blow upon the ties between Russia and Syria. Indeed, perhaps far more was accomplished by that US-led coalition than the Trump administration could have imagined. On April 13, 2018, US military forces, acting in coordination with military forces from the United Kingdom and France, took decisive action against the chemical weapons infrastructure of the Syria Arab Republic. It was in response to an April 7, 2018 chemical weapons attack against his own citizens in Douma. According to the Trump administration, the US has vital national interests in averting a worsening catastrophe in Syria, and specifically deterring the use and proliferation of chemical weapons. The military strikes took out “the heart” of the Syrian chemical weapons enterprise, but there were other facilities that were not struck due to concerns about civilian casualties. He declined to say exactly how much of the chemical weapons program was taken out. US Defense Secretary James Mattis explained that the strikes were “a one-time shot.” US Marine Corps Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie, the director of the Joint Staff, explained in an April 18, 2018 press conference at the Pentagon that the US carefully plotted out the strength, length of time, and target set of the strikes. Efforts were made to minimize the potential for chemical weapons to leak out of the facilities, with McKenzie saying “we believe we successfully mitigated” the risk. He explained that while it is possible that some material and people were moved from the site in the lead-up to the attack, there were certain pieces of equipment that the regime would not have been able to relocate. McKenzie acknowledged that the three sites did not represent the totality of the Syrian chemical weapons program known to the US. However, McKenzie and Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White emphasized that future strikes in the region could not be ruled out, saying that it is entirely up to the Assad regime. They went on to explain that the use of chemical weapons in the future could lead to more strikes.

After everything, Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad sits ostensibly in relative safety and comfort in Damascus as the leader of all of Syria, even though he only controls a small part of the country’s territory. He only holds on to that with the assistance of Russia and Iran. Even more, he wields as much power as Russia will grant him to wield. To observers, there appears to be a blindness in Moscow about Assad. Yet, Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin is well aware of his Syrian counterpart’s merits and deficits. He has an intellectual understanding of Assad, his habits, his ways. Indeed, at this point, Putin, with albeit some effort, very likely can track his thoughts, and likely has intimations about his moves whenever he thinks about Syria. For some, the optics of their interactions would support the idea that Assad is something akin to a ventriloquist’s dummy for Putin. Others would insist that they have a strong personal bond. Imdeed, there are Western foreign policy analysts and scholars would go as far as to say the relationship with Assad is indissoluble. Putin would likely assert that the two men simply have a better than average friendly rapport based on mutual interests and military, diplomatic, and economic arrangements. It would be practically impossible for the truly experienced not to see that in their relationship, Putin is the top, the leader, the senior party and Assad is the bottom, the follower, the junior party. Often, Putin displays choreographed support for Assad. When relationships are built on mutual interests and useful arrangements, and not a higher bond, sometimes conditions can change to such a degree that the relationship might be altered or ended.

Given all that transpired in Syria surrounding the US, United Kingdom, and French military strikes. Putin, Assad and their senior advisers may very well have begun to ask questions about future of relations between their countries. The interior thoughts, emotions officials in Moscow and Damascus play an important role in all that is happening with Syria. There was nothing but negative feedback for Assad regarding Putin. Assad likely had no doubt that Putin would stand with him against the West. Yet, as the Western military strikes were executed on April 13, 2018, Assad watched as Putin did nothing. The lesson for Assad was that he should not be so trusting of Russia and his other somewhat powerful allies. After all, when desires action from them, he has almost no way to aafely shape their behavior. While Assad did not publicly brood over what transpired on April 13th, he was likely resentful and bitter about it. Postulating that the military strikes in Syria were designed to have the effect of sowing seeds of mistrust and dissent between Russia and Syria would go a bit beyond conjecture. However, there may have been coincidental, correlative political warfare effects resulting from the April 13th military strikes. A glut of information about Assad is held by the intelligence services of the US, United Kingdom, and France. Amid what has been collected is undoubtedly information about the dynamics of Assad’s relationship with Putin. It may confirm that their relationship is now a bit different. The tons of information coming in from Syria may be at a constipation point. Information of that sort may not have been synthesised yet. Nothing has been made public or provided newsmedia reports on whether the April 13, 2018 military strikes had either a deliberate or correlative effect of rocking the boat between Moscow and Damascus has been produced. Still, one can ruminate, outside of the box, that a ball may have begun rolling in a new direction to the dissatisfaction and disappointment of Putin, and the dismay and anger of Assad. The possibility that the relationship may take a new direction is briefly examined here. Opinionis enim commenta delet dies, naturae judicia confirmat. (Time destroys the figments of the imagination, while confirming judgments of nature [God].)

Assad (left) and Putin (right). From all that is publicly known, scoring a political warfare victory was not part of the concept and intent of the US. Unless one was involved in the planning of the military strike, it would be impossible to posit with certainty that some consideration was given to how the military strikes would affect the Russia-Syria relationship. Still the features of a political warfare effort, even if coincidental, are discernible.

Detecting Political Warfare

Again, from all that is publicly known, scoring a political warfare victory was not part of the concept and intent of the US and did not factor into the planning of the military strikes in Syria. Unless one was involved in the planning of the military strike, it would be impossible to posit with certainty that some consideration was given to how the military strikes would affect the Russia-Syria relationship. Still the features of a political warfare effort, even if coincidental, are discernible. Under a definition offered by the RAND Corporation, political warfare consists of the international use of one or more of the implements of power–diplomatic, information, military, and economic–to affect the political composition of decision making within a state. Political warfare is often, yet not necessarily, carried out covertly, but must be carried out outside the context of traditional war. In the broadest sense, it could take the form of anything other than military operations. It could for example include: economic subversion; propaganda–not tied to the military effort; psychological warfare–as part of a military effort; conditional aid to a state; aid to political parties; aid to resistance groups; political accommodation; and, assassination. Brian Jenkins, a security affairs analyst at RAND has explained that political warfare reverses the famous dictum of the 19th century Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz that “war is the extension of politics by other means,” political warfare is the extension of armed conflict by other means. Political warfare does not focus exclusively on enemies who are at large or end with their capture. It targets those on their way in to enemy ranks, those who might be persuaded to quit, and those in custody. Political warfare sees the enemy not as a monolithic force, but as a dynamic population of individuals whose grievances, sense of humiliation, and desire for revenge, honor, status, meaning, or mere adventure propel them into jihad and resistance. Political warfare accepts no foe as having irrevocably crossed a line, but sees enemy combatants as constantly calibrating and recalibrating their commitment. It sees every prisoner not merely as a source of operational intelligence, but as a potential convert. Political warfare is infinitely flexible and ferociously pragmatic. It accepts local accommodations to reduce violence, offers amnesties to induce divisions and defections, and cuts deals to co-opt enemies.

Until recently, things have typically gone relatively well between Putin and Assad. There has rarely been reason for them to think too negatively of one another. However, as circumstances develop in which their perspectives grow in variance on matters of mutual concern. The atmosphere has already changed a bit. It will change even more if Assad decides to use chemical weapons again. Common wisdom in the West is that Assad would unlikely use chemical weapons again, not because his known chemical capability has been denigrated, not because he has been punished him excessively, but because Assad, according to Western thinking, Assad has already won the war with the assistance of Russia and Iran. Dropping more chemical weapons would have no strategic value any Western military analysts can think of. Moreover, it would not make sense to incur the wrath of the US and other Western powers as a result of using such weapons. All of that being stated, it appears the West must learn over and over again that Assad thinks differently than most national leaders, and military analysts as well. Assad has embraced his role as a tyrant. He is concerned mainly with holding power. In his conscious or unconscious mind, he may be haunted by the fear of facing retribution for violent acts ordered in defense of his power and atrocities committed against his own people. Everyone does not think the same and Assad is a perfect example of that. Putin, however, is certainly aware of how different Assad is.

The chief foreign linkage of Syria under Assad and his father, Hafez al-Assad, before him, have been the Russian Federation and the Soviet Union, respectively. The present Assaf has been useful to Russia as a figurehead, a symbol of resistance to the Syrian opposition, ISIS and Islamic terrorist groups  and the West.  He is undoubtedly viewed in Moscow as Putin’s man, and his ball to play with. It was the strength and realities of those ties between Damascus and Moscow  that were poorly considered when the US injected itself in Syria in support of the anti-Assad opposition movement during the Arab Spring in 2011. By the Fall 2015, Assad appeared to lack the ability to remain in power against ISIS and perhaps US-backed Syrian Opposition forces. The military situation began recurvate after Russia, with the urging of Iran, moved its forces into Syria in September 2015 and supported Syrian military operations.

It is interesting how Putin and Assad, two men from desperate backgrounds have established a very positive relationship that goes beyond mutual courtesy and civility. Putin rose from humble beginnings, raised by a mother and father who respectively managed to survive the siege of Leningrad and violent battles during World War II. Assad, on the other hand, was the privileged, eldest son of the former President of Syria, General Hafez Al-Assad, who ruled from 1971 to 2000. Putin completed his studies in law at Leningrad University before embarking on a successful career in the Soviet Union’s Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (the Committee for State Security) known better as the KGB—the agency responsible for intelligence, counterintelligence, and internal security. Along with the well-earned praise of his colleagues and positive evaluations from his superiors, he had a record of service that led others to support his rise to the pinnacle of power in Russia. Assad was educated as a doctor, trained as a surgeon, and lived a comforrable life in London before being called home to take the reigns in Syria after his father’s death. Indeed, one man, Putin, was self-made, with his knowledge and capabilities shaped and polished by every obstacle and adversity he managed to overcome. The other man, Assad, had everything in life laid out in front of him, and there were few character shaping struggles. Ignis aurum probat, miseria fortes viros. (Fire provides proof of gold, misery, proof of strong men.)

In crafting a fruitful relationship with Assad, Putin seems to have handled him much as he would have handled an operative during his days in the intelligence industry. During his one-on-one contacts with Assad he has likely spent time motivating, befriending, briefing, advising, counselling, debriefing, and perhaps paying and welfaring him. It has served to establish the bridge between them. It is the sort of interaction to which Putin is attracted. It has helped to shape the dynamic and apparent congenial nature of their exchanges. It is likely that somewhere, Putin keeps notes that are part of a personal study of Assad. At age 65, Putin as a man and a leader, and in terms of capabilities and shrewdness, is far more advanced than Assad who is 52. For Putin, there certainly would be advantage in maintaining the relationship as is, if he can. There is an expediency in working with something, someone that you understand, who has been predictable. It is hard to imagine Putin might be overly concerned with Assad’s feelings. Yet, while Putin might only relate to other leaders much as strangers on a train, his relationship with Assad has been something more. In all the years until this point, whenever he met with Assad, they likely simply picked up wherever they leave off. Assad was granted a ticket to the high table international affairs by Putin. Contrarily, Assad cannot do much independently to enhance Putin’s life.

Putin (left) and Assad (right). In crafting a fruitful relationship with Assad, Putin seems to have handled him much as he would have handled an operative during his days in the intelligence industry. During his one-on-one contacts with Assad, he has likely spent time motivating, befriending, briefing, advising, counselling, debriefing, and perhaps paying him. It has served to establish a bridge between them.

Putin almost never fails to publicly cover Assad’s actions that reach the world’s gaze. He has supported Assad with strong words, diplomatic maneuvering at the UN and bilaterally with a handful of receptive countries, mostly it neighbors. He has of course, supported him by deploying Russian military forces to his country to protect his regime. Moscow’s initial response to the Assad’s chemical attacks in Douma was a grand denial that the Assad regime had anything to do with it. Russia, a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council, sought to fight fire with oil, giving credence to the idea that Assad did not and would not use chemical weapons and the entire matter was a hoax. This was made worse by Russia’s futile attempt make the investigation of the chemical attacks a joint venture in which Russia would work alongside the UN Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) at the site of the attack and in their research labs. It must not be forgotten that Assad should not have access to chemical weapons at all, but an intriguing diplomatic tact taken by Moscow in 2013 left the door open to that. On September 14, 2013, Moscow and Washington reached an agreement under which Russia guaranteed Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile and all equipment for producing, mixing, and filing chemical weapons would be destroyed before the end of the first half of 2014. The OPCW would implement the agreement.  The genesis of the agreement was an August 21, 2013 chemical attack by the Assad regime against several towns of the Ghouta agricultural belt to the West and East of Damascus.  Reportedly the administration of US President Barack Obama was nearing a decision to launch US-led punitive strikes against Syria. A suggestion was made by the US Secretary of State John Kerry stated offhandedly at a press conference on September 9, 2013 that the US might not conduct military strikes if Assad placed Syria’s enture chemical weapons stockpile under international control within a week. Hours after that statement, Russian Federation Foreign Minister managed to have Syrian Arab Republic Foreign Minister Walid Muallem agree to the idea. On April 13, 2018, and back on April 6, 2017, the Trump administration, based on clear and convincing evidence took action against Assad contrary to decision of the Obama administration when it had the opportunity. Most importantly, however, action had to be taken because both Russia and Syria clearly failed to meet their responsibility under the 2013 agreement. There has been little no mention of the September 14, 2013 agreement by Moscow or Damascus after the April 13, 2018 chemical attacks. Moreover, rather expressing of concern over the use of chemical weapons, as could be expected, prevarications emanated from Moscow and Damascus concerning the attacks.

Moscow also made false claims that the majority of cruise missiles fired into Syria were shot down. Russian news outlets, as well as social media from the region, had claimed as many as 70 percent of coalition weapons were shot down by Syrian or Russian air defenses. But the Russian systems did not attempt to intercept the incoming weaponry, and the Syrian system launched around 40 surface to air missiles after the last targeted weapon hit its target, Referring to this type of activity by Moscow as information warfare perhaps gives it too much respectability as its purpose is to position it as master of the mob: anti-US, anti-EU, anti-West, and pro-Russian elements worldwide. Even Moscow must realize that in each case, all of its falsehoods would be overcome by the truth over time. Assad clearly had no concern over having frightful clouds hang over himself for atrocities committed before and during the Syrian War. There is not much that could further vulgarize his reputation. From experience of the Soviet Union as well as that of their own Russian Federation, officials in Moscow should have learned that the wounds Russia’s image suffers from such antics are all self-inflicted, deleterious, and all very unnecessary. Russia is reduced to a level akin to a “Fourth World” dictatorship, a so-called “Banana Republic”, when it prevaricates on matters concerning the US.

Every time Moscow distorts the truth, it confirms the worst about itself. The ugly image many policy makers, decision makers, and analyst in the West long since have had seared in their minds about Russia are reinforced. Few anywhere in the world can be confident what’ Moscow says is true, except those willing to be deceived. When Putin and his officials make claims on other occasions to the effect that Russia is a land of the mind, this questionable behavior, along with a lot of other things, puts that notion in doubt.

Intriguingly, Moscow puts significant effort into improving its image as a world leader, yet undermines that effort by backing Assad and destroying its image in the minds of many. There are consequences to the way one lives. He who walks with wise men will be wise, but a companion of fools will be destroyed. On April 11, 2018, Trump wrote on Twitter: “You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!”, referring to Moscow’s alliance with Assad. Assad, by his actions, has repeatedly immobilized Putin. He is left unable to smoothly move on to better things. If there are future chemical attacks by Assad, it is uncertain what the future of his relationship with Putin will be. A number possible scenarios exist based on questions Putin and Assad might ask themselves as well as steps they might take as the situation between them develops. Those steps would likely fall under the category of political warfare.

US President Donald Trump (above). It is intriguing to observe Moscow put significant effort into improving its image as a world leader, and then undermine that effort by lending unwavering support to Assad after he has acted against the norms of civilized world. On April 11, 2018, Trump wrote on Twitter: “You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!”, referring to Moscow’s tie with Assad. By his actions, Assad immobilizes Putin, leaving him unable to move on to better things.

Is Assad Worth the Trouble?: Scenario for Putin

Due to flaws in his government, his own deficiencies as a leader, and perhaps a lack of empathy, Assad failed to spare the people of the old ills of war and crime. Without the support of Putin and Russia, one could reasonably conclude that Assad would have been brushed aside awhile ago. Indeed, in 2015, Assad appeared to lack the ability to remain in power against both ISIS and other Islamic terrorist groups and the US-backed Syrian Opposition forces. Policy makers and decision makers in Moscow and Tehran doubted Assad could hold on to power in Damascus without assistance. They mainly feared the real possibility that Syria would fall in the hands of ISIS. One could only imagine what would have been needed to regain and retain control of the country if ISIS had forced the regime out of Damascus. Putin provided a rational for Russia’s intervention in Syria in a speech at a meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization in Dushanbe Tajikistan, on September 15, 2015. In response to Western criticism of Russia’s move, Putin explained, “We support the government of Syria in its opposition to terrorist aggression. We have provided and will provide necessary military and technical support and call on other nations to join us.” Putin noted the exodus of refugees toward Europe and the crisis in Syria was a result of the support foreign powers provided the Syria opposition rebels. He said, “I would like to note that people are fleeing Syria because of the military actions that were largely imposed externally by deliveries of weapons and other special equipment. People are fleeing to escape the atrocities committed by terrorists.” Putin went on to state, “[The refugees] are fleeing from radicals, above all. And if Russia had not supported Syria, the situation in this country would have been worse than in Libya, and the stream of refugees would have been even greater.”

Speaking to Western and Arab capitals, Putin declared, “We must sideline geopolitical ambitions, refrain from so-called double standards, from the policy of direct use of separate terrorist groups to achieve opportunistic goals, including the change of governments and regime that may be disagreeable to whomever.” Concerning Assad, Putin relayed that he might be willing to enter a power-sharing agreement with opposition but that the fight against terrorism was the priority. To that extent, Putin explained, “The Islamic State is providing ideological indoctrination and training to fighters from different countries including, unfortunately European countries and the Russian Federation, and many former Soviet republics. And of course, we are worried with the possibility of them returning to our territories.” As explained in a December 30, 2015 greatcharlie post, commanders of the Russian Federation Armed Forces reportedly believed the military objective of any ground operations in Syria should first be to create a regime stronghold in what is referred to as “Useful Syria” (Suriya al-Mufida) from Damascus up to Aleppo through Homs. That would require Russia and its allies to sweep up the Western part of Syria. The objective was to take pressure off Latakia, a pro-Assad, Alawite heartland and locale of an important airfield and take pressure off Tartus, a long-time Soviet Naval port passed on to the Russian Federation Navy. It is key for the delivery of military material to Russian and Syrian forces and important for the conduct of military operations in support of Syria. After reaching Latakia, Russia and its allies would turn toward Idlib. Part of the force could have pushed farther north to gain control of the Syrian-Turkish border west of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party’s (PYD) territory, blocking the US coalition and ISIS from access to it. In an additional phase of their offensive, Russia and its allies would press eastward. A key objective was to take Palmyra from ISIS and the oil and gas resources around it. Russia began to gain control of the situation on the ground in Syria soon after deploying significant forces there in September 2015. At this point, the fight to secure “Useful Syria” has essentially been won. Syria, however, is still reliant upon a military and security umbilical cord tied from Moscow to Damascus.

Discord obtains when things get mixed up. Assad would likely disagree with any assessment that described him as a follower, or stated that his existence is contingent upon Russian power. He would likely describe himself as partner with Putin and other leaders and that Syria is working jointly with its allies. It is imaginable that Assad believes he is delegating part of the job of using military power to defeat Syria’s enemies to Russia and others. For Assad, all arrows point his way, for he almost always thinks and acts in terms of self-interest. Assad would likely proffer that Syria in the aggregate has the capability and capacity fend off threats to its security. Trouble comes when Assad sets out to confirm his thinking with heinous acts of violence, such as the chemical weapons attacks, which he knows are antithetical to norms of the civilized world, counter international law, and in defiance of demands made of his regime by the UN Security Council through resolutions. Assad apparently has much to prove to his fellow countryman, to other regional leaders, to his allies such as Russia, and the rest of the world. When he has lashed out, and he has done so regularly during the war, he proves that he is truly a despot. Errare humanum est, perseverare diabolicum. (To err is human, to persist in it, is diabolical.)

Assad (left), Putin (center), and Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (right). Commanders of the Russian Federation Armed Forces reportedly believed the military objective of any ground operations in Syria should first be to create a regime stronghold in what is referred to as “Useful Syria.” Once Russian forces moved into Syria in September 2015, the military situation began to recurvate. The fight to secure “Useful Syria” has essentially been won. Syria, however, is still reliant upon a military and security umbilical cord with Russia.

In Syria, the Assad regime, through an unending propaganda campaign, projects an image of its president in a way in which he is in firm control. That image also serves to assure the Syrian people that they still live in a sovereign state and that they have control over their own destiny. That image is completely inaccurate. Yet, there is little in Syria to interfere with that imaginative process as the government has strict control over media. True, Syrians can see that Putin has provided thousands of Russian advisers, troops and airmen who are engaged in daily operations to fend off and destroy the regimes adversaries. Yet, Syrians supportive of the Assad regime would likely assure that the tie between their leader and Putin was unbreakable. Rather than feel threatened, they, in fact, welcome Russia’s presence and taken refuge in the umbrella of the added security provided by the Russians. They are happy to believe they need not fear for their survival as long Putin and Russia are working hand in hand with their country. Simultaneously, those same Syrian’s would argue that Assad is still the real power in Syria. Moreover, they are likely ignorant or unconcerned with the problems Assad’s actions have caused Russia. Vivit et est vitae nescius ipse suae. (Man lives in ignorance of his own life.)

Assad very likely believes his self-crafted, virtual image truly mirrors his real life. Looking at newsmedia video clips of Assad in Damascus, one might be bemused by the artificial size of his life. Syria is an authoritarian regime ruled by Assad much as, but albeit far less orderly and competently than his father before him. Politically, Syria is an odd hybrid, a quasi-national socialist, Islamic state. Assad is accepted by his beloved Alawites as well as elites from his own Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, other like-minded political groupings, business leaders, and leadership of the Armed forces and the security services. The People’s Council–the national legislature of Syria–and the Syrian judicial system cannot even provide a fig leaf of democracy for Assad regime. Syria’s elites appear satisfied with conditions in “Useful Syria”. It is something akin to a kingdom of gold for them. The coffers of Syria have serve the purposes of the elites and Assad. It is a type of larceny Assad inherited from his father. Those in Syria who have money, power are celebrities, heroes of the society, having what the majority can never attain. The Presidential Palace on Mount Mezzah is emblematic of Assad’s efforts to provide a venir of prosperity and power over a broken country in unimaginable suffering has visited countless homes.

None could doubt at this point that the life, happiness of the common man means nothing in Assad’s Syria. Assad does not have the type of government that elevates human beings. Assad has never used his words or events in the outside world to encourage Syrian to raise themselves up, to be more, to accomplish more. Assad uses words to stimulate nationalism, to cause Syrians to accept that the source of their country’s problems is the aggressive, greedy, external world, the West as opposed to any cause that comes from within, such as himself. An appropriate understanding among all Syrians about of what is happening in Syria will never be obtained as long as they are fed contradictory or insufficient facts. Even if the “have nots” in proximity of elites demanded some changes, an almost inexhaustible number of agencies among the security services would subdue them, punish those who do not revere the masters of their society. When the war is over, Syrians who can, would like to love the simpler lives they had once before. Syrians want to return to Assad’s version of peace and tranquility: the peace of submission to the regime; the tranquility of working in a secure position within the narrow confines of the regime’s dictates. Assad’s vision for future of Syria is most likely based on self-interest, his own well-being. The hope that anchors him is that he will remain in power, and the problems that have seized him since the civil war in Syria began in 2011 would eventually go away. Est enim unum ius quo deuincta est hominum societas et quod lex constituit una, quae lex est recta ratio imperandi atque prohibendi. Quam qui ignorat, is est iniusta s, siue est illa scripta uspiam siue nusquam. (For there is but one essential justice which cements society, and one law which establishes this justice. This law is right reason, which is the true rule of all commandments and prohibitions. Whoever neglects this law, whether written or unwritten, is necessarily unjust and wicked.)

Perhaps it would not be judged as a fair comparison, but compared with countries in the West, Syria could hardly be viewed as a normal, functioning, sovereign country. A sovereign country that cannot defend its borders is not authentically sovereign. Moreover, Syria could be labelled derelict given the condition of most of its towns and cities. To Putin, who, unlike Assad, is thinking realistically about the future of Syria, it is very apparent that reconstruction in Syria will be another huge hurdle to overcome. The bellwether of Syria’s future condition can be observed in South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transnistria, Donetsk People’s Republic, and the Luhansk People’s Republic. Lacking any significant resources from the US and the rest of the international community to rebuild, that would be the only viable long-term condition that Syria could reach with Moscow’s assistance alone. Syria would simply become a larger version of those political, economic, and social disasters. Few other countries or international organizations appear willing to dive in to help Syria with signigicant financial assistance or investment. Few countries are in a rush to reopen or fully staff their embassies in Syria. They most lilely believe there would no benefit, but only difficulties in working with Assad. As a result, the Syrian people are shut off from those in the rest of the world who might be able to truly help them.

Optimists would hold out some hope that the situation would improve. However, no international conference, no guarantees from Russia to keep him in check, no surgical procedure even, could make Assad palatable to the West at this point, or to any government in the Middle East other than Iran. Manipulations that might ordinarily knock things back on track with Assad would likely have been exhausted or be seen as useless. It may be safe to say the Assad will never develop, never change. Luckily for Moscow, Assad is actually at its disposition. Given the strong influence Russia has on the Assad regime’s main elements of his power, the Syrian Arab Armed Forces and the security services, at the very least, the effort might be made to remder Assad’s presidency symbolic. In a more virile approach, Russia, perhaps in sync with Syria’s foreign benefactors, might seek to replace Assad with a leader who would be more acceptable among the Syrians, more palatable for themselves. As far as Assad’s well-being was concerned, the basing arrangements for Russian naval, air, and ground forces, and the relationship developed with Putin would no longer have meaning.

Assad would likely disagree with any assessment that would describe him as a follower, or that his existence is contingent upon Russian power. He would likely describe himself as partner with Putin and other leaders and that Syria is working jointly with its allies. It is imaginable that Assad believes he is delegating part of the job of using military power to defeat Syria’s enemies to Russia and others. For Assad, all arrows point his way, as he nearly always thinks and acts in self-interest.

Keep the Status Quo or Assert Himself?: Scenario re Assad

So far, Assad has been able to have his cake and eat it, too! He has defiantly launched chemical weapons against his own people, while savoring the general protection and support of Russia and others. How long this situation will last is uncertain. Surely, the Russians will have a say in that. There are still a lot of hand shakes and pats on the back from Putin meant to encourage. Yet, a handshake or pat on the back cannot supplant rejection. It cannot correct a problem or resolve a serious disagreement.

If Assad were to sense an undercurrent of dissention toward him inside Syria, he would undoubtedly physically thin out the ranks of those he would deem potential plotters and replace them immediately with a more loyal sort. He would do so taking care not disturb the defined ecosystem of power elites, sending the message that he demands loyalty but avoid starting another uprising particularly among those who have supported him.

Such events would certainly catch the attention of the Russians. Assad might conclude that Moscow may see some benefit in aiding an group of Syrian elites willing to remove him. An “organic rebellion” that could remove Assad would be more agreeable to Putin and elites in Russia who might have already concluded that his removal will lead to more beneficial outcome of Russia’s investment there. He may fear that removing him under such conditions might be more understandable to tyrants in rogue regimes worldwide who may also rely upon Russia to back them with military force, some level of economic wherewithal or payments. However, Assad would not willingly step aside for a successor albeit selected by friendly, outside power, even if he had some say in who would replace him. He surely would not sit idly by as the plot developed to put his reign to an end.

Looking at the US, United Kingdom, and French military strikes in the aggregate, it somewhat understandable that some analysts doubt that Assad and his advisers in Damascus would be so spun up by them. The US-led coalition has conducted airstrikes in Syria against ISIS and targets threatening coalition ground forces for many months. The Israeli Air Force has conducted regular strikes in Syria so precise and effective and with impunity, that one could say with some humor that the Israelis were using parts of Syria as a bombing range. The issue is that the military strikes of April 13th were the second time the US has deliberately attacked Syrian targets and the second time Russia did not act. That is the rub. Prior to the Western military strikes, Russia urged the US to avoid taking military action in response to an alleged chemical attack in Syria. On April 10, 2018, the Russian Federation Permanent Representative to the UN Vasily Nebenzia stated: “I would once again beseech you to refrain from the plans that you’re currently developing.” He warned Washington that it will “bear responsibility” for any “illegal military adventure.” A threat from Moscow to down US missiles came from the Russian Federation’s Ambassador to Lebanon, Alexander Zasypkin, who said his comments were based on previous statements by Putin and the Chief of Staff of the Russian Federation Armed Forces General Valery Gerasimov. The Russian Federation Armed Forces stated on March 13, 2018, that it would respond to any US strike on Syria by targeting any missiles and launchers involved. However, Russian air defense systems did not attempt to intercept the incoming weaponry, and the Syrian system launched around 40 surface to air missiles after the last targeted weapon hit its target, according to the Pentagon. The Pentagon noted that the S-400 systems were not turned off, simply not activated, leaving open the option their radar systems were used to tracking incoming threats but the weapons systems were not fired. The fact that those systems were active but not used may serve as evidence that the deconfliction line between the US and Russia, which was used to urge Russia not to escalate the situation, had been effective.

Within his own close circle in Damascus, it may very well be that Assad’s grievances are well-expressed. There may be lung busting exertions of his sense of being betrayed once again by Putin, driven by a nagging sense at this juncture that his relationship with him does not have much future. Assad may wish to take matters into his own hands. Seeing Assad interact with Russian emissaries in Damascus, he left little evidence of being riled emotionally by actions by his benefactors. The Interfax News Agency quoted Natalya Komarova, governor of Russia’s autonomous Khanty-Mansiysk district, made it a point to state: “President Assad was in absolutely positive spirits. He is in a good mood.,” To date, Assad has not publicly proffered any fevered dreams of conspiracy about the military strikes. His own officials and advisers are likely impressed by a type of controlled schizophrenia he displays. Nevertheless, the April 13th military strikes, and events surrounding them, may have set the stage for counteractions by Assad. It may very well be that Assad will launch additional chemical attacks to demonstrate that his regime does not feel threatened by US power, prove to himself that he is not being led by the nose by Putin, and ironically to pull Russia deeper into the situation as it has sought to full back by failing to act April 13th. To foreign policy and military analyst, it may all seem irrational, and that would be a reasonable response. Still, everyone does not think the same. Assad, the trained surgeon, has done so much that would be deemed improbable, it would seem counterintuitive to assume he will act in accord within any norms in the future. Scenarios for other ways in which Assad might seek retribution might include the following:

1) Assad might decide to establish some simulacrum of the US Lend-Lease arrangements of World War with China. Under it, China could possibly build its own military base or port. Assad could receive guarantees of significant assistance from China in Syria’s reconstruction efforts. China could also agree to provide Syria advanced command, control, communication and surveillance systems and agree to allow Syrian forces create garrisons and store Syrian military hardware on its new bases. Assad’s goal in that hypothetical situation would not be to allow a build-up in Syria by China that would establish it as a counterbalance to Russian military power. Assad’s goal in allowing a enough of a build-up that would lead Putin to better the value and importance of his ties to Syria. A decision by Assad to reach out to China might be viewed as injudicious given the possible consequences. Chinese ambitions in Syria might be difficult for Damascus to tame. The opportunity to build bases so close to Europe would present an I exhaustive list of possibilities for Chinese military planners. Putin may overreact to the decision and strongly suggest that Assad to rescind the invitation to China creating a genuine, visible rift between the two countries. Under circumstance, for Assad it would simply be a existential choice to create some counterbalance to Russia power in his country or at least convince Putin that he was willing to do so in order to better position himself with the Russian leader.

2) Assad may attempt to strike US or other Western troops with chemical weapons. Assad may seek to do this even if a suicide mission is required. While he and his advisers may view the operation as risky. Yet, they may also wrongfully believe that as long as the US-led coalition’s response does not result in a direct attack against him,  they may view it as a calculated risk. If Russia decides not to respond in defense of it ally, Syria, Assad might be able to convince himself that he has proved at least to the Syrian people in Useful Syria that he is strong and that he can do powerful things. The US has about 2,000 troops on the ground in Syria, supporting the ongoing US-led Coalition mission to defeat ISIS militants that remain in the region. The April 13th military strikes have created some concern at the Pentagon that those troops could be vulnerable to retaliation from Syrian forces. Efforts by Assad to put his forces in a position near US-led coalition ground forces must be scrutinized and keep in the coalition’s cross-hairs. If multiple streams of intelligence indicate those forces pose a danger, they should be pushed back or destroyed. There is always the possibility and the danger of miscalculation by Assad. As long as Assad thinks rationally, logically, this scenario could never materialize, as he would be deterred by the thought that an attack on US or another coalition ground forces would be met by an immediate, devastating military response. The targets of the US attacks would hardly be limited to the forces that launched them. Attempts at deconfliction for such attacks might be made, but they would take place regardless of whose forces might be nearby or mixed in with Syrian forces. Depending the response of Russia if its forces were caught in the middle of it all, Assad might manage to drag Moscow into what was likely the worst nightmare it thought of when it deployed its forces to Syria.

If Assad wants to maintain conditions that will allow the march of time to move forward in his favor, he should be reluctant to bother Putin about matters surrounding the April 13th chemical attacks. Doing so would very likely raise even greater concern in Putin. Assad’s circumspection itself may have already awakened Putin’s curiosity. Putin, after all, is super observant. It is a quality that stirs admiration from some and or elicits terror in others. If any one could detect a hint of anger or dissention in the eyes, in mannerisms, in bearing and deportment, in the words of another, it would be Putin. If he manages to discern a new uneasiness in Assad, that might trigger Putin to take steps against him or at least begin peering into the regime with a nearly zoological interest in its main players, searching for a plot against its main ally. Yet again, it may be that Assad is not worried at all about Putin’s reaction. Rather, Assad’s primary concern may be managing Putin’s behavior. Assad may believe that he has been successfully doing that. A mistake in that possible “management effort”, however, would be to attempt to convince Putin that he can count on him. It would be an even bigger mistake for Assad to try to get the pulse of Putin, to find out what he is thinking about him. No one should ever ask Putin if he loves them. The answer in nearly every case would be “No!”

If Assad wants to maintain conditions that will allow the march of time to move forward in his favor, he should be reluctant to bother Putin about matters surrounding the April 13th chemical attacks. Doing so would very likely raise even greater concern in Putin. Assad’s circumspection itself may have already garnered Putin’s curiosity. Putin, after all, is super observant. If he manages to discern a new uneasiness in Assad, intimate trouble, it might cause him to take steps against him.

Is It Time to Wrap Things Up with Assad?: Scenario re Putin

Fata volentem, ducunt, nolentem trahunt. (Destiny carries the willing man, and drags the unwilling.) Moscow entered into all of its deals with Assad, strengthened links to him, with its eyes open. Putin would unlikely have engaged with Assad in a search for areas of common ground on handling chemical weapons. Putin is not conciliatory. He very likely set rules for Assad on the matter. However, leaving the door open for Assad somehow to use the weapons has come back to haunt him. Given what has transpired, Putin surely can reasonably be viewed as being complicit in Assad’s use of chemical weapons. Yet, while Putin may find Assad’s attitude toward those in the West, in the Middle East, and in his own country who oppose him to be understandable, he may also view his approach as reckless.

Syria is broken, and with someone such as Assad at its helm, hardly any outside of the country, capable of supporting its reconstruction, would be willing to do so. In Moscow, there must be some authenticity in its examination of Assad and what it will be able to do with him in the future. Putin most likely sees that there is nothing about Assad that would indicate he can be transformative, creative, or productive. After the April 2017 cruise missile strikes by the Trump administration, a discourse should have been initiated in Moscow on how to better handle the remnants of Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal and how to defeat their use against Russian Federation Armed Forces in Syria. If Putin can truly discern what billows in Assad’s mind, he may have already made the decision to move against him. Finding a leader or group of very senior leaders among elements of power in Syria may not be too difficult. Most in Damascus who are in the best position to know what is happening in Syria understand they live in privileged times. They may not speak of, or whisper, about being called on to be part of a change in leadership. Still, they may be considering where they will stand and how they will act if the situation arose.

To this point, nothing has been stated to indicate that there was anything time sensitive about Putin’s relationship with Assad. Syria’s standing internationally has not been good to say the least. Assad has not used any time or exploited any opportunities to make improvements in his situation. It is unknown whether Assad is ignorant, willfully ignores, or perhaps even suppresses thoughts about reconstruction, something Russia, by jumping into Syria may have committed itself to as a duty. Assad does not appear emotionally devastated by what has befallen his country. This was observed in his very congenial newsmedia appearances the day after the April 13, 2018 military strikes.

Assad is not a shy man, and is unlikely frozen in fear contemplating what Putin might respond the fact that he has rocked the boat so thoroughly. Even if only unconsciously, though, he likely has felt an elevated level of concern over his future since April 7, 2018 chemical attacks. Putting himself in Assad’s shoes, perhaps Putin could imagine that Assad is feeling a bit betrayed by his unwillingness to deter or defeat the Western military strikes in Syria, no matter how unreasonable that would have been. Putin can be sure Assad knows him well enough to realize that expressing his disappointment through impotent snarling will accomplished nothing useful or good. Yet, he also may sense that in the long run that Assad may not be truly able to move on. Putin might consider that when one is angry for a long time, one in a way becomes comfortable with that anger. Soon that anger becomes so familiar that the individual forgets feeling any other way. Assad is a calculator, although he albeit uses an odd calculus. Sed tamen ira procul absit, cum qua nihil recte fiery nec, considerate potest. (But still anger ought be far from us, for nothing is able to be done rightly not judiciously with anger.)

Putting himself in Assad’s shoes, perhaps Putin could imagine that Assad is feeling a bit betrayed by his unwillingness to deter or defeat the Western military strikes in Syria, no matter how unreasonable that would have been. Putin can be sure Assad knows him well enough to realize that expressing his disappointment through impotent snarling would have accomplished nothing useful or good.

Putin may eventually need to make a decision if Assad cannot restrain himself from using chemical weapons again. As mentioned earlier, It is possible that Putin has already has plan for responding to Assad’s future actions. Big issues likely remaining are exactly when and how to set things up. It is also possible that given the gravity of the decision to remove Assad from power, he has not made a final decision. He may prefer to mull things over until he is left with no choice. To decide exactly how to proceed, Putin would unlikely need to refer to any notes or look among huge piles of information collected from Syria to find pieces that answered his questions. He would only need his knowledge, experience, insights, intuition, and instincts. Putin would review what Russia really wants with Syria, what its goals are. He would then need to thoroughly consider how exactly removing Assad will better able Russia to reach those goals. Putin may decide to give Assad the benefit of doubt. He knows the margin between being very clever and being very stupid is very thin. If in some odd way, alien to most reasonable thinkers, the goal of Assad’s behavior only been to strengthen his position with Putin and ensure Russia’s investment and commitment to his well-being and the well-being of the country.

However, if Assad seems to be on the road to doing something spectacular, going astray and lashing out against its long time ally, Putin would invariably choose to act first and decisively. Assad would not have any lobby available to advocate for him in the Kremlin. Money is short in Russia. Decision makers would hardly sign on to allowing Syria to languish without end in a difficult and dangerous situation given the moves of its leadership. While Assad created an image of himself as a strong leader in Damascus, in Moscow, a portrait has most likely been painted that depicts him a being bad for the long-term interests of Russia and Syria. Russia never had the intention of sacrificing its own image to make Assad look good. As mentioned earlier, Assad has no problem with acting in a way that makes Russia look bad. Among likely steps Putin would consider are the following three:

1) After some convincing, have Assad voluntary depart Syria to begin exile somewhere in Russia. The Syrian people would be informed via a video recording that Assad is completely fine and well-aware for, and it was necessary to move him to Russia due to an imminent threat from Western powers to capture him and usher him to the Hague for War Crimes trial. Once, in Russia, it could be said Assad would never be surrendered to anyone and, that he would indeed be returned to Syria once Russia resolves the matter. In the meantime, the Syrian people would have an interim, acting president. In fact, Assad would never return to Syria. If Putin were to ask Assad to leave Damascus, he would have no need to ask twice. Damascus would become a far more dangerous place for him if he does not go.

2) Through a coup de main, Putin could have Assad suddenly captured and relocated to an undisclosed site in Russia. This would be done after making appropriate arrangements furtively with Syrian military officers, security service officials, and other elites in Damascus. Again, he could be brought to an undisclosed location in Russia. After some He would be strongly encouraged to made a video recording for broadcast in Syria indicating that he is safe, doing well, and was brought to Syria’s main ally, Russia, temporarily for his own safety. The specific threat Assad would not need to be disclosed. For security reasons, the source of the information would not revealed. Forcing Assad to leave would be an alternative to having him eliminated.

3) There is the possibility that after appropriate arrangements have been made again with Syrian military officers, security service officials, and other elites, Assad might be assassinated. Russia would be the arbiter of the matter with likely nods from Iran and Turkey,

With Assad removed, Putin would move quickly to install his successor. It would be necessary for Russia to have a central figure, a strongman, one in charge in Syria to assure it has a central conduit through which it could impose its will. Assad’s successor, certainly an Alawite, would be enabled to hold a degree of power similar to that Assad held as long as Russia remains in strength in Syria, and is willing to mitigate pressure placed on the regime from Islamic extremist groups as Al-Qaeda and ISIS, and the battered and tattered Syria Opposition forces as well. The change, no matter how necessary or expected, would be traumatizing to many in Damascus and in every capital that has supported him. It would be the end of a sad story concerning the misuse of power, the poor stewardship of a country. Moscow would likely dub the successor’s acting presidency as a caretaker government. Only with the insistence of the US and other P5 Members, would new elections be held.to replace him.  The acting Leader’s presidency would be tainted by the irregular nature of his installment. At the UN Security Council, there would be reminders of Resolution 2254 (2015) concerning free and fair elections in Syria. Moscow would dance around it claiming there that new constitution had not been drafted as also required under the resolution. Moreover, Moscow would explain that conditions were not right for elections as the war was not over. Meanwhile, it would argue Syria was on the right path and seek aid for its reconstruction.

A more tense relationship may eventually ensue if possible future military strikes from a US-led coalition, or even Israel, are met with inaction by Russia. If Assad is able to detect real trouble from his benefactor, he might draw back, and walk back any statements. However, if he fears for his life, anything is possible.

Will He Bite the Hand That Saved Him?: Scenario re Assad

Although Putin has not heard grumblings from Mount Mezzah, he surely recognizes that his relationship with Assad has not been not perfect since the April 13th missile strikes. Putin cannot be sure that Assad accepts that he is concerned with him or Syria or that he has any real compassion for what has befallen his regime. Putin knows that he too would feel somewhat betrayed by any ally who promised to stand by him against an adversary, yet did nothing during an attack. Putin may sense that Assad, after constantly hearing rhetoric from Moscow about curbing the power and defeating its adversary, the US, has not seen any significant efforts in that direction even when opportunities present themselves, such as the April 13th military strikes. Putin cannot deny that he completely and correctly, abandoned his ally in the face of US diplomatic pressure and military power. Under such circumstances, Putin’s promise after the April 13th missile strikes to provide Assad with new, high performance weapons amounted to a bromide. It could not resolve problems facing the Russia-Syria relationship.

It seems unlikely that Assad will remain quiet if there were future Western military strikes in response to his further use of chemical weapons or other dark moves, and as on April 13th, Russia fails to act. Conspiracy theories are an element as ubiquitous as rumors in statements of officials and common conversation among citizens within rogue, authoritarian regimes. It is a corrupted version of thinking out of box preferred mostly because it typically points to behavior of external elements, enemies and false friends, as causality for a regimes disappointments and failures. Assad and his advisers may be discussing whether Russia even considered defending Syria from the military strikes of the US, the United Kingdom, and France. Some might postulate in confidential meetings that Russia may have been hoping the US would destroy Syria’s remaining chemical weapons inventory. Assad and his advisers know that Moscow was in contact with Washington in the days and hours before the military strike. US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff USMC General James Dunford explained that normal deconfliction channels were used to deconflict the airspace that we were using. Dunford further explained that the US did not coordinate targets or any plans with the Russians. Yet, in Moscow, the head of a Russian parliamentary defense committee, Vladimir Shamanov, said Russia was in direct contact with the US Joint Chiefs of Staff about the situation. Hearing this view from Russia would likely satisfy Damascus as it would support surmisals there that Russia assisted the US in identifying targets as the Russians certainly did not use any countermeasures interfere with US efforts to target sites. In an inner monologue, Assad may ponder whether the failure of Russia to act may mean that there was some truth to expressions made by Moscow and Washington in 2017 that there was a new, cooperative era in US-Russia relations. That would contradict what Russia insists in private, and what is strongly hinted public statements, that the US is its adversary. Assad could conclude that in the crafting of the April 13th military strikes, Russia had a figurative vote!

A more tense relationship may eventually ensue if possible future military strikes are met with more inaction by Russia. It is in that environment that Putin would very likely consider moving against Assad. He would most likely act without warning. If Assad is able to detect trouble, he would draw back, and walk back any statements. However, if he fears for his life, he will likely act. Indeed, there could be a final demonstration of his power. He will make a stand or lash out with vigor before he goes. His concealed stockpiles of chemical weapons might even allow him to strike any erstwhile allies with some effect.

Surely, Assad comprehends that Russia commands great power. However, Assad may also feel that there are limits to Putin’s ability to respond to his aggressive moves. Putin would be remiss not to explore whether that is Assad’s thinking. Assad may believe even now that as long as he has chemical weapons and has demonstrated a willingness to use them, he can deter the few allies he has from turning against him. People with the most absolute power in history have tried to hold on by their fingernails knowing when they let go, all will be gone. They have often self-destructed. Misused power is always built upon lies. Tyrannical figures redefine what exists into projections of their egos. There are no noble thoughts. They become wrapped up in themselves. Assad seems to find pleasure in what is evil. As time goes on, the more tragic he becomes as a figure.

Surely, Assad comprehends that Russia commands great power. However, Assad may also feel that there are limits to Putin’s ability to respond to his aggressive moves. Assad may believe that as long as he has and has demonstrated a willingness to use chemical weapons, he can deter the allies he has from turning against him. He could also use them in a final self-destructive act. Putin would be remiss not to consider that possibility.

The Way Forward

In Act I, scene iv, of William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, Generals Macbeth and Banquo have already defeated two separate invading armies, from Ireland and Norway. Following that, they encounter three witches as they cross a moor. The witches prophecy that Macbeth will be made thane of Cawdor and eventually King of Scotland, and Banquo, will beget a line of Scottish kings. Once the witches vanish, Macbeth and Banquo speak skeptically of their prophecies. However, some of King Duncan’s men arrive to thank the generals for their victories and tell Macbeth, just as the witches prophesized, that he has been named thane of Cawdor. The previous thane was executed for betraying Scotland by fighting for the Norwegians. Arriving at King Duncan’s castle, Macbeth and Banquo profess their loyalty and gratitude toward him. King Duncan announces Malcolm will be named heir to his throne. Macbeth declares his joy but notes to himself that Malcolm, the Prince of Cumberland, stood between him and the crown the witches also said he would have. Standing aside, Macbeth says to himself: “The Prince of Cumberland! that is a step On which I must fall down, or else o’erleap, For in my way it lies. Stars, hide your fires; Let not light see my black and deep desires: The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be, Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.” Regarding the military strikes from the US, United Kingdom, and France, the most effective way for Assad to deal with the matter and maintain the status quo is accept that what happened, has happened, and no matter how upsetting it might be, it cannot be changed. Retribution is not a reasonable or rational option. Creating difficulties in Syria’s relationship with Russia by advancing the idea will only lead to additional problems  does not need. Negative feedback from the Assad regime’s experience when it fought alone in Syria without Russia assistance may have helped convinced Assad not to make waves. Still, as the situation on the ground has changed somewhat with the US-led coalition’s efforts against ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and other Islamic militant groups, he may feel that regime forces are in a better position to do more by themselves. Syrian elites and some average citizens may be welcoming, supportive of the Russian partnership and presence at the moment. However, after observing the effects of few months of rain and wind on the ruins of cities and towns, they may eventually recognize that Moscow cannot support “Useful Syria” in a way that would allow for its rebuilding. The situation would only worsen if pressure was placed on Russia over Syria through future sanctions.

If Assad continues launching chemical attacks, Russia will need to keep justifying his actions and its failure to control him. It may very well be that Putin has developed a negative outlook on Assad, particularly concerning his reliability and trustworthiness. Given Assad’s nature, perhaps Putin has foreseen that the time will come to wrap things up with him. Assad’s wrongs have been too big to successfully cover up using the usual public relations methods. His inadequacies have become stark. Russia is not dealing with a brush fires in Syria, but a serial arsonist in Assad. Syria exists in a condition that the Syrian people would not have too much difficulty moving forward and getting past Assad’s loss. They have been doing that for seven years now. They have faced one tragedy after another. Many Syrians may have been concerned about Assad’s safety after the April 13th military strikes. They only knew he was safe when they saw him on national television the next morning. If the Syrian people were to learn that Assad was gone, those outside of the regime’s good graces in Syria, those displaced, and those who live as refugees worldwide would likely roar and dance in celebration. Those in Useful Syria would be very likely be disappointed, distraught, and likely some in the North Mezzah and Ar Rabwah neighborhoods where he has resided, would be devastated. Still, the old, Assad, would be replaced by the new. With little choice otherwise, all Syrians would move on to the next phase. Omnia autem quae secundum naturam fiunt sunt habenda in bonis. (Whatever befalls in accordance with Nature [God’s will] should be accounted good.)

Under Pressure Over Aleppo Siege, Russia Hints at Seeking Deal with US: Can Either Country Compromise?

US Secretary of State John Kerry (right) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (left) are the central points of diplomatic interaction between the US and Russia. They have worked together on a variety of urgent and important issues concerning their countries. They are now slogging away trying to find a way for the US and Russia to jointly end the Syria War and establish peace. Kerry has proposed US-Russian military coordination with preconditions. However, to secure an agreement on it, Kerry must convince Putin, not Lavrov, to change Russia’s positions.

According to an August 15, 2016 New York Times article entitled, “Under Pressure over Aleppo Siege, Russia Hints at Seeking Deal with US,” Russia suggested that it was close to an agreement on a military collaboration with the US to attack ISIS fighters in Aleppo, Syria as part of a solution to the unfolding humanitarian disaster there. US officials had no immediate comment on that claim. That joint effort would represent a new level of cooperation between the two countries which seek an end to the five-year-old Syria War. They support opposing sides. The New York Times reported foreign policy analysts believe Russia was negotiating in an attempt to avoid the appearance of blocking humanitarian aid to civilians in war-torn Aleppo by its airstrikes in Syria, Russian Federation Foreign Minister noted however, “It is of utmost importance that terrorists would not be getting reinforced with militants, guns, and munition [sic] supplies under the humanitarian aid disguise.” Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was the official who made the statement on the possible agreement. He explained in a measured way: “We are moving step by step closer to a plan—and I’m only talking about Aleppo here—that would really allow us to start fighting together to bring peace so that people can return to their homes in this troubled land.”

Russia and its Syrian, Iranian, and Iranian-led allies have faced significant setbacks on the battlefield as a result of their opponents’ abilities to capitalize on their inadequacies and mistakes. Russia will need to decide whether its actions will remain in the gap between contributing significantly to the efforts of allies fighting in support of the regime of Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad and working with the US to act more effectively and more decisively against mutual Islamic militant opponents. The prospective agreement, to which Shoigu referred, would stem from military talks underway in Geneva. Those talks were set up as a result of a proposal proffered by US Secretary of State John Kerry to share intelligence with Russia and coordinate airstrikes against ISIS and other Islamic militant groups. However, Putin and senior Russian officials seem to view the proposal less from how it will help end the war than how it may present the chance to get compromise from the US on Syria and promote Russia’s immediate objectives there. Kerry’s proposal has been put forward as the administration of US President Barack Obama comes to a close. Still, after eight years of contacts, a inordinate amount of obloquy has recently been hurled back and forth from officials in Washington to Moscow. Failure to get an agreement on coordination will undoubtedly make it more difficult for Russia to get an agreement from the US on reconstruction and peace-enforcement which would be important for Russia to have. Reconstruction in Syria will be a decades-long, very expensive effort. Russia will need to gather partners to help with its costs and its execution. A peace-enforcement mission, perhaps under UN auspices, will likely be needed to ensure that peace would be given a chance to take hold. Russia should keep in mind that the US has proven to be an invaluable partner in such complex reconstruction efforts and peace-enforcement missions worldwide in past years.

The Obama administration may not be enthused about working with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Syria, but it seems to recognize that Russia, with its considerable military investment in Syria, can play an important role in ending the war. Putin must recognize that much could be accomplished with US know-how and resources in both efforts. If he cannot recognize the good that cooperation would bring at first glance or simply refuses to make mutual compromises with the US to gain its assistance, what is left for the US is to get him to understand via diplomacy. US Secretary of State John Kerry has slogged away seeking the right approach to make that possible. A few recommendations are offered here. The Syria War appears to be getting worse. Experience may make US and Russian officials averse to finding compromise on military coordination on Syria. Pride and ego can also harden attitudes. If such influences cannot be set aside, the two sides may remain locked into their relative positions for a long while. Praeterita mutare non possumus, sed futuraprovidere debemos. (We cannot change the past, but we can anticipate the future.)

Often poker faced in talks, US Secretary of State John Kerry, a statesman, speaks in a manner that is easy, comfortable, assuring, and logical. He is an agile thinker who seeks creative solutions to problems, often requiring him to be discreet. He worked well with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the removal of chemical weapons from Syria in 2013. They worked on the same side during the Iran Nuclear Talks during two years of negotiations from 2013 to 2015. He may achieve similar success with Lavrov on Syria.

US Inaction Leads to Russian Action

Obama made it clear from the start that he was skeptical of using US military force in Syria. In a notable August 18, 2011 speech, Obama made the direct statement, “the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” There were many additional declarations, insisting that Assad step down. Yet, having taken that maximalist position, there was an unwillingness to act. Within the Obama administration, it was truly believed that Assad would simply fall away, but that did not occur. That led the Obama administration in 2012 to provide the Syrian Opposition Movement with its support in the hope that Assad could be pressured to the negotiating table by Free Syrian Army advances and eventually agree to step down under a settlement. However, the US effort in Syria was designed and recognized by many as work on the margins. Obama would begrudgingly authorize the creation of a US-led coalition to airstrikes against the ISIS juggernaut that ran through Iraq in 2014. Those operations against ISIS were expanded to include ISIS targets in Syria. Obama sent US special operations forces to Iraq to advise and train Iraqi Security Forces and Iraqi Kurd military formations. Still, there would be no US combat units sent to fight ISIS in Syria.

Putin, however, did what Obama said he never wanted to do in Syria. In September 2015, Putin took the option of solving the conflict in Syria on his terms using a strong military hand. He explained that Russian Federation forces were sent into Syria both to “stabilize the legitimate authority” of Assad and to fight ISIS. He put a limited number of troops on the ground to protect Russia Federation military sites, and to serve as advisers and instructors for Syrian Arab Army units and volunteer units loyal to the regime. He would join Syrian, Iranian, and Iranian-led ground forces in battle against opponents using Russian Federation air power. Putin’s actions were mulled over, well-plotted, and implemented as to apply a calibrated amount of pressure on opponents of the Assad regime using measured amounts of military resources and controlling expenses. He was willing to accept a certain amount of risk in operations and was prepared to contend with some loss of personnel. Russia’s succor has benefitted Syrian, Iranian, and Iranian-led forces fighting on the ground not only in terms of military resources but also through guidance in the use of them.

Russia’s intervention did not mean an end to US-Russia diplomacy on Syria. Russia has supported talks between the Syrian Opposition and the Assad regime. Even before Russia went into Syria, Lavrov engaged in talks with the US to episodically establish a variety of cease-fires, nationwide and in specific provinces and negotiate humanitarian corridors. When Russian Federation military operations began, Moscow initially sought cooperation with Washington on Syria, but it was sought, however, solely on Russia’s terms. Those terms, in line with Putin’s concept for intervening in Syria, included providing diplomatic and military shelter to Assad and attacking, not only ISIS, but Western-backed rebel groups of the Free Syrian Army that oppose the Assad regime. Obama and other Western leaders sought to bring Putin into a US-led coalition. However, that would occur with the understanding that the goal of the coalition was the removal of Assad from power. Given the disparity between their positions, on November 27, 2015, Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin,  played down the idea of cooperation at a Kremlin press conference. That announcement was surprisingly slow in coming given that the Obama administration was unsupportive of Russia’s intervention from the get-go. On September 30, 2015, US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter forecasted about Moscow’s military involvement in Syria, “The Russian approach here is doomed to fail.” Obama stated on October 2, 2015: “An attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire and it won’t work.” Interestingly, Kerry was still authorized and ordered by Obama to negotiate some arrangement in which the US and Russia would coordinate in the ISIS fight.

Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has prying eyes that rarely turn away.  He has masterfully used diplomacy to turn policy into action in accord with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s concepts and intent. At this point, the Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry are well-versed on each other’s idiosyncrasies. They are able to gain insight from every inflexion, tone, and or change in voice.

Kerry-Lavrov Diplomacy

Diplomacy requires finding some middle ground, typically through some compromise, upon which an agreement can be reached and better relations can hopefully be built. Despite a divergence in interests, the US and Russia achieved early diplomatic success on Syria when an agreement was reached on a list of rules to ensure military aircraft from the US and Russia would not mistakenly run into or fire on one another as they conducted airstrikes. However, Kerry and Lavrov are the central points of diplomatic interaction between the US and Russia. Diplomatic success on Syria would eventually be achieved by them. They have worked together on a variety of urgent and important issues concerning their countries. They worked well together on the removal of chemical weapons from Syria in 2013. They worked on the same side during the Iran Nuclear Talks as the P5+1, the UN Security Council’s Permanent Five Members (the US, Russia, the United Kingdom, France and China) plus Germany managed to construct an agreement on the Iranian nuclear program after nearly two years of negotiations from 2013 to 2015.   Often poker faced in talks, Kerry, a statesman, speaks in a manner that is easy, comfortable, assuring, and logical. He is an agile thinker who seeks creative solutions to problems, often requiring him to be discreet. Lavrov has prying eyes that rarely turn away.   He has masterfully used diplomacy to turn policy into action in accord with Putin’s concepts and intent. At this point, the two diplomats are well-versed on each other’s idiosyncrasies. They are able to develop insight from every inflexion, tone, and or change in voice. In oculis animus habitat. (In the eyes their character lives.)

A product of efforts by Kerry and Lavrov to find common interests among the warring parties in order to stop the violence in Syria was the December 18, 2015 UN Security Council vote on Resolution 2254 on Syria. It called for a ceasefire and a peace process that held the prospect of ending the Syria War. The resolution was agreed upon unanimously, 15-0, but sharp differences remained between the US and Russian positions. Russia’s key demand was that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad be allowed to remain in power. It is a position also supported by China and Iran. Removing Assad from power in Damascus remained a US requirement. Yet, the resolution made no mention of whether Assad would be able to remain in power or run in any future elections. UN Security Council Resolution on Syria 2254 essentially called for the following: a ceasefire had to be established and formal talks on a political transition had to start in early January 2016; groups seen as “terrorists,” including ISIS and the erstwhile Jabhat al-Nusra were excluded; “offensive and defensive actions” against such groups, referring to US-led and Russia airstrikes, could continue; UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was asked to report by January 18, 2016 on how to monitor the ceasefire; “credible, inclusive, and non-sectarian governance “ should be established within 6 months; free and fair elections” under UN supervision to be held within 18 months; and, the political transition should be Syrian led.

What followed Resolution 2254 was UN Security Council Resolution 2268, unanimously adopted on February 26, 2016. The new resolution, brokered by Kerry and Lavrov, called for an immediate “cessation of hostilities” in Syria upon which the Assad regime and the Syrian Opposition agreed.  Countries with influence on the parties agreed to press them to adhere to their commitments.. Then, on March 14, 2016, the Geneva Talks resumed. They were the first talks in two years and came at a time when a marked reduction in fighting was perceived. Still, what created real hope that the war might soon end was the surprise announcement by Putin on the same day as the resumption of the peace talks in Geneva that he was “ordering the withdrawal of the main part of our [Russia’s] military contingent” from Syria. Putin explained: “The effective work of our military created the conditions for the start of the peace process.” He continued, “I believe that the task put before the defense ministry and the Russian armed forces has, on the whole, been fulfilled.” Only the day before the announcement, Putin and Obama spoke by telephone, after which the Kremlin said the two leaders “called for an intensification of the process for a political settlement” to the conflict, but Assad’s future was not discussed. Putin’s decision pull his fprces put of Syria seemed to fall in line with that pledge. In addition to the withdrawal announcement, Russian Federation UN Permanent Representative Vitaly Churkin explained “Our diplomacy has received marching orders to intensify our efforts to achieve a political settlement in Syria.” Regarding what lied ahead in Syria for Russian Federation forces, Churkin noted, “Our military presence will continue to be there, it will be directed mostly at making sure that the ceasefire, the cessation of hostilities, is maintained.”

If a feigned retreat by Putin was synchronized with the “cessation of hostilities” and used to manipulate opponents of Russia and its’ allies, the move was effective. Islamic militant groups that were not included in the ceasefire agreement engaged in firefights and fired artillery across battle lines prematurely seeking to better position themselves to exploit expected advantages resulting from Russia’s departure. Ire over the shaky ceasefire and the Assad regime’s violations of it reportedly drove some moderate Opposition fighters over to ISIS and other Islamic militant groups.

Putin’s “Feigned Retreat?”

Russia Federation forces withdrew from Syria, but estimates are that only 10 to 25 percent actually left. Moreover, Russian activity in Syria increased. Reuters reported the “Syrian Express,” the nickname given to the ships that have kept Russian forces supplied via the Black Sea Russian port of Novorossiysk to the Russian naval base at Tartus, Syria. It shipped more supplies, equipment, and munitions into Syria in the two weeks following Putin’s withdrawal announcement than it had two weeks prior. Russian Federation Air Force and the Syrian Arab Air Force continued to destroy the opponent’s units, material, and command, control, communication and intelligence, training facilities, and other targets. The ground forces of Russia’s allies remained active and returned a good portion of Syrian territory back to the Assad regime. Kerry and Lavrov carried on with their diplomatic efforts, but the ceasefire did not hold.

The Obama administration seemed to view Putin’s withdrawal announcement as a type of feigned retreat. The feigned retreat is a military tactic said to have been introduced to the West in the 8th century by the Frankish Duke and Prince Charles Martel. Under it, an army would pretend to withdraw or behave as if it has been routed in order to lure an opponent into a position of vulnerability. It was a difficult tactic to execute, requiring the use of well-trained soldiers. Once the opponent presses into the withdrawing army, undisciplined troops would panic and lose coherence, and the rout would become genuine. Charles Martel used the feigned retreat to defeat the army of Chilperic II and Ragenfrid of Neustria at Ambleve in 716. He attacked their army as they rested midday, he then feigned retreat to draw them from their wooded defensive positions into open ground where the situation was reversed. Charles Martel used the tactic again to draw an invading Islamic army into attacking at Poitiers in 732 by leaving his defenses relatively open. He did not construct pits and other obstacles and positioned his horsemen in a way to convince the Islamic army that it would not be enveloped if it charged in. The feigned retreat reportedly was used with moderate success by William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

One might postulate that Putin’s feigned retreat included synchronizing his withdrawal announcement with the resumption of the Geneva talks, and while the “cessation of hostilities” was in effect. In that environment, opponents of Russia and its allies were perhaps considered more apt to be manipulated. The maneuver, if actually executed, appears to have worked. Mainstream opponents of Assad were unable to control the actions of some Islamic militants some of which they were tenuously aligned. Islamic militant groups, not included in the internationally sponsored ceasefire, engaged in firefights and fired artillery across battle lines, apparently seeking to immediately exploit Russia’s departure. Accusations of ceasefire violations were heard from all sides around Syria. Ire over the shaky ceasefire and the Assad regime’s violations of it reportedly drove some moderate Opposition fighters over to ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other Islamic militant groups. A coalition of Free Syrian Army units, Islamic militant groups already existed in the form of Jaysh al Fateh. The ceasefire became untenable once Russian Federation Air Force and Syrian Arab Air Force jets provided air support for Syrian Arab Army units and pro-Assad regime allies in those exchanges. Putin’s feigned retreat also ostensibly allowed Syrian, Iranian, and Iranian-led units to rearm and resupply for offensive action toward Palmyra.

The Russian Federation armed forces and intelligence services use their own intelligence tactics, technique, procedures, and methods to meet the needs of Russian Federation commanders and planners. Russian Federation commanders and planners certainly would like believe that by intensifying their own intelligence gathering activities, they can achieve success, particularly by using air power, without US assistance. However, their concern over recent successes of their opponents and their failure to effectively respond to them indicates they are not so certain of their capabilities

Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds?

The perception of a feigned retreat of Russia from Syria did not make US-Russia diplomacy easier. US officials were already regularly reproaching Russia over its repeated airstrikes upon “moderate” anti-Assad groups while ostensibly seeking to attack ISIS. Obama’s disappointment could be discerned in his statements. On August 6, 2016, Obama admonished Putin over Russia’s actions in Syria by stating: “I’m not confident that we can trust the Russians or Vladimir Putin.” He continued: “Whenever you are trying to broker any kind of deal with an individual like that or a country like that, you have got to go in there with some skepticism.” Timeo danaos atque dana ferentes. (I fear the Greeks even when they bring gifts.)

Obama’s uncongenial words could be characterized as a shot across Russia’s bow and perhaps signaled fatigue over the diplomatic process with Russia had set in. However, in diplomacy, words and behavior matter absolutely. Kerry knows that diplomacy must be handled with a certain amiability and gentleness in order to create the environment for the development of mutual respect and understanding. In talks on Syria, he would hardly omit what some anonymous US officials have called “inconvenient facts” about Russian actions. He surely broaches such matters, but in way that avoids closing any doors and avoids igniting a negative exchange with Putin, Lavrov, or any official of the Russian Federation government. Regardless of any personal feelings he might have over an issue, he must maintain his balance in spite of them.

Russia will not be able to use its military wherewithal alone, at least in a limited way, to secure victory on its terms in Syria and “get out of Dodge.” Enough support exits for Islamic militancy in the world that a struggle over US and Russian interests in Syria is being overshadowed by the continuous rise of Islamic militant groups there. This was evident at Aleppo where Russia’s allies could not maintain their siege. Commanders of Islamic militant groups seem capable of constantly making adjustments and replenishing with fighters (as above) by the hundreds, creating a more vexing situation on the ground.

Kerry remains authorized and ordered to establish cooperation. Obama did indeed say with opprobrium, “The US remains prepared to work with Russia to try to reduce the violence and strengthen our efforts against ISIL [ISIS] and Al-Qaeda in Syria, but so far Russia has failed to take the necessary steps.” Kerry and Lavrov continued their diplomatic efforts, sponsoring the International Syria Support Group, a multinational effort seeking to create the conditions for peace talks. Moreover, remaining on the table was Kerry’s proposal offering to share US intelligence with Russia and coordinate airstrikes against ISIS and other Islamic militant groups, with the precondition that the Syrian Arab Air Force halt its airstrikes against mainstream Opposition military units. As mentioned earlier, senior US and Russian Federation military officials have been negotiating in Geneva over how they would coordinate under Kerry’s proposal as well as restore an overall ceasefire. The Russian Federation armed forces and intelligence services proudly use their own intelligence tactics, technique, procedures, and methods to meet the needs of commanders and planners. Russian Federation commanders and planners would certainly like to believe that by intensifying their own intelligence gathering activities, they can achieve success without US assistance. However, they have unquestionably been unsettled by the recent successes of their opponents and their failure to respond effectively to them. Beyond human intelligence collection—spies, the US gathers continuous signals and geospatial intelligence over Syria. Multiple streams could assist the Russian Federation commanders and planners in pinpointing ISIS and other Islamic militant groups on the ground even if they are dispersed. Air assets of the Russian Federation and its allies could destroy them, disrupt their attacks, and support ground maneuver to defeat them. In support of the proposal, Kerry and Lavrov have already agreed that a map could be drawn up indicating where Islamic militant groups are positioned. They also have agreed that US and Russian military personnel working in the same tactical room would jointly analyze the intelligence and select targets for airstrikes. Est modus in rebus. (There is a middle ground in things.)

Nevertheless, at this juncture, Kerry is not oriented primarily on drawing out compromise from Lavrov, Shoigu, or senior Russian military officials in Geneva. Indeed, Kerry knows he must convince Putin, himself, that it would be in Russia’s interest for him to change his position. Putin hardly believes that US assistance would have significant value to Russia. Regarding Syrian Arab Air Force airstrikes, Putin has said he has no control over what Assad does with his forces and has explained the Syrian leader does not trust the US. Much as Obama has negative impressions of Putin’s actions and intentions, Putin holds certain negative impressions of Obama. Putin may also feel uncertain about making any deals on Syria with one US leader now, only to face another in a few short months. Certainly, at the State Department, Defense Department, and other elements of the US foreign and defense policy establishment, legions of diplomats and officials are working on what was called in Ancient Rome a maremagnum, a complicated issue requiring the efforts of many to solve. As no approach has wangled compromise from Putin so far, new approaches are needed. Some alternative approaches are offered here.

The value of US assistance might be increased in Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin’s mind through a demonstration of US capabilities. The US could also demonstrate how US assistance would have value by using the intelligence resources it proposes to share with Russia in order to target and destroy a number battle positions of ISIS and other Islamic militant groups in Syria, and disrupt and destroy developing attacks and counterattacks against Russia’s allies. Russian Federation officials could also be given a US battle damage assessment.

Recommendations

To help Putin countenance Kerry’s proposal, Kerry could explain that cooperation on intelligence and an airstrikes against Syria will speed the end of the conflict. Russia may not be able to use its military wherewithal alone, at least in a limited way, to secure victory on its terms in Syria and “get out of Dodge.” Enough support exits for Islamic militancy in the world that the struggle by the US and Russian over their respective interests in Syria is practically being overshadowed by the continuous rise of Islamic militant groups there. Commanders of Islamic militant groups seem capable of constantly making adjustments and replenishing with fighters by the hundreds, creating a more vexing situation on the ground. That was evident at Aleppo where Russia’s allies could not maintain their siege. Indeed, Putin could be reminded that on July 28, 2016, after a month of negotiations and immense pressure from Qatari and Turkish representatives, Jabhat al-Nusra announced that it broke with Al-Qaeda and had officially changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. Almost immediately, reinforcements for Jabhat Fateh al-Sham began to flow into Syria from the border with Turkey. At least 100 new fighters arrived in Aleppo each day, together with numerous convoys carrying arms, ammunition, and supplies. During the effort to break the siege, Opposition forces and Islamic militant groups were observed fighting side by side under the banner of Jaysh al Fateh. Even after the siege was broken, it was explained in a briefing at the Russian Federation Ministry of Defense, Russian Federation Lieutenant General Sergei Rudskoi that about 7,000 Jabhat Fateh al-Sham fighters were massing south-west of Aleppo for over a week and still being joined by new fighters. Rudskoi said the fighters had tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, artillery and vehicles with weapons mounted on them. Kerry could explain that the problem will grow exponentially over time as commanders of Islamic militant groups make further adjustments and reinforce by the hundreds, creating a new, more vexing situation on the ground. Kerry could point out that so far, Russian Federation Air Force has barely isolated the battlefield and has failed to deny their opponents reinforcements and supplies needed to win engagements. At best, its efforts could be measured by its contribution to the destruction in Syria to include civilian deaths and the obliteration of nonmilitary structures. As it was discovered after the destruction of the Abbey of Monte Cassino in Italy during World War II, Germans troops were afforded better concealment from Allied airstrikes and ground attacks in the structure’s debris. One might assume senior US military officers are discussing these matters with their Russian Federation counterparts in Geneva. However, these disconcerting facts about Russia’s Syria campaign may not have reached Putin.

To further encourage a change in Putin’s perspective on Kerry’s proposal, the US could increase the value of its assistance through an actual demonstration of US capabilities. That might be accomplished by providing Putin with a complete US military analysis of the setbacks Russia and its allies have faced in Syria, and the relative strengths and weakness versus their Islamic militant opponents. It might be demonstrated exactly how US intelligence resources it proposes to share with Russia and US military resources would have value to Russia by targeting and destroying a number battle positions of ISIS and other Islamic militant groups in Syria, and disrupt and destroy developing attacks and counterattacks against Russia’s allies. Putin could be shown via video how the unique capabilities of US weapons systems could enhance the quality of air strikes. He could also be provided with US military assessments of those attacks.

Kerry might also seek to connect with Putin by reminding him that leaving Syria without at least initiating some complex comprehensive plan for reconstruction and peace-enforcement would be a mistake. That would create ideal conditions for the resurrection of ISIS, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, or the establishment of another Islamic militant group to fill the vacuum of power around the country. That was what occurred in Iraq after US forces departed, the problem in Libya with the removal of the regime of Muammar El-Ghaddafi, and it is a growing problem in Afghanistan. Putin must consider that cooperation between the US and Russia in the fight against Islamic militant groups would set the stage for close and effective cooperation between the two countries on a postwar reconstruction and peace-enforcement mission in Syria. Without it, Russia’s investment in Syria might amount to nothing in the end. In discussing postwar Syria, Kerry could give assurances on how the US will respond with regard to certain hot issues. For example, at a UN meeting in Vienna on November 14, 2015, Kerry proposed allowing all Syrians, “including members of the diaspora,” participate in national elections, betting that if Syrians around the world participated in it, Assad would lose. Putin was never going to standby for that and has used force, in addition to the fight against ISIS and other Islamic militant groups, to best shape the situation in Syria to secure Russia’s interests. Mending that fence may require a very hard decision concerning Assad by the Obama administration. Further, Kerry could point to the international reconstruction effort launched in Bosnia in 1995 under the Dayton Peace Agreement and the creation of the multinational peace-enforcement force in support of the agreement’s implementation, I-FOR (Implementation Force). The US and Russia cooperated as members of that force and the follow-on force, S-FOR (Stabilization Force.).

By reaching an agreement now on Syria and conducting effective airstrikes against ISIS, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, and other Islamic militant group, there would be a greater chance that US-Russian coordination would be preserved by the next US administration. Further, that military cooperation might influence a US decision to assist at some important level in reconstruction and possible peace-enforcement mission in Syria. US participation in those efforts could encourage participation from other countries.

Regarding Russian concerns over the future of US leadership, Kerry could explain that Russia should act quickly now with the assurance that the US will be working directly to destroy ISIS and other Islamic militant groups. An agreement will at least allow for a US-Russian working relationship for few months, putting tremendous pressure on ISIS, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, and other Islamic militant groups from the air. Kerry could emphasize the reality that reaching an agreement now on Syria and coordinating effectively under that agreement would increase the possibility that US-Russian coordination at that level would be preserved by the next US administration. Further, that cooperation could greatly influence a US decision to assist at an important level in postwar reconstruction and a possible peace-enforcement mission in Syria. Russia has recently sought stronger ties with Arab countries, bolstering economic ties with Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Kuwait and diplomatic overtures with Algeria, Iraq, and Egypt. Russia’s hope is by courting those countries they would become more receptive to its’ calls for a political solution in Syria. It is also hoped those countries would become responsive to an eventual campaign by Russia to gain financial support for Syria’s reconstruction. However, US participation in those efforts may do much to encourage participation from those Arab countries and Western countries as well.

Kerry’s words alone may no longer have any impact on Putin. To provide a new perspective on the proposal, Kerry could try to bring third parties that have some standing with Putin into the negotiation process. There are no national leaders who could serve as independent third party to address Kerry’s proposal with Putin. However, Kerry could perhaps seek assistance from Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church or Kirill Patriarch of Moscow and Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church to speak to Putin. They could discuss the need to forgo placing primacy on national interests and focus on the global threat posed by ISIS and other Islamic militant groups, and the tragedy that has befallen the Syrian people. They cannot support war, but they can support collaboration between the US and Russia to halt the evil of Islamic militancy in Syria.

These approaches should not be presented as guesswork on the potential success US assistance may bring. Rather, they should be presented as hard facts to get Putin to see what is possible and change his perspective on cooperation. Finding success from the approaches presented here may be a long-shot. Kerry knows that you miss 100 percent of the shots you do not take.

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (above) and senior Russian officials are apprehensive over US actions and intentions on Syria. However, many US officials have been expressing concerns about coordination with the Russians. They doubt Putin will compromise. They believe that Putin cannot be trusted. On Syria, it may be best for the US and Russia to work as partners. Choice itself is not good. It is the right use of choice that counts. Nothing could be worse than thinking of what might have been if things had been done thusly. Hopefully, that will not be the case for the US or Russia on Syria.

The Way Forward

Tot capita, tot sententiae. (So many heads, so many opinions.) Putin and other Russian officials are quite apprehensive of US actions and intentions on Syria. However, many US officials have been expressing concerns about coordination with the Russians. They doubt Putin will compromise. Moreover, they believe Putin cannot be trusted. Trusting Putin may be difficult for them, but trust us not so relevant in this case. Senior US and Russian military officials would be working together on targeting and sending down missions to unit commanders in a joint operations room. If some shift in Russian behavior, no matter how slight, is discerned by the watchful eyes of senior US military officials, the entire operation could be halted immediately. Under Obama’s concept, what seems most important to him is that a good faith effort at coordination be made. Besides, doing the job of targeting ISIS and groups such as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham will be difficult enough as they are now intermingled with many mainstream Opposition units. Many US officials have expressed concern that sharing intelligence with Russia could result in revealing US intelligence sources, methods, and capabilities. Yet, deciding what to share and reveal is a puzzle that can be resolved. Putin seems attached to the Assad regime. However, given what has been reported on Kerry’s proposal, it does not include a precondition on Assad’s presidency.

The problem of Islamic militancy in Syria emerged during the struggle between Assad and the Opposition and given the international threat it poses, it is an urgent problem. US President Franklin Roosevelt did not easily accept Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union as an ally, but given the threat of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany, the choice was clear. On Syria, it might be best for the US and Russia vraft an agreement to coordinate their efforts. Choice itself is not good. It is the right use of choice that counts. Nothing could be worse than thinking of what might have been if things had been done thusly. Hopefully, that will not be the case for the US or Russia on Syria.

Military Leaders Discuss Plans to Counter ISIS Beyond the Battlefield: While the West Plans, Russia Conquers ISIS in Syria

A Russian-built BM-30 Smerch multiple rocket launcher (above) fires on ISIS’ positions in Syria. Despite airstrikes from a US-led anti-ISIS coalition, the impact of Western countries on the ISIS fight has been limited. Since September 2015, Russia, Iran, and Syria have been driving the true ISIS fight on the ground. Given their progress, many capitals have sought to get in on the planning for the creation of political, social, and economic conditions in Syria that will allow for its rebuilding. Yet, before broaching those matters, ISIS still must be defeated militarily.

According to a July 20, 2016 New York Times article entitled “Military Leaders Discuss Plans to Counter ISIS Beyond the Battlefield,” officials from the US and its’ coalition allies in the ISIS fight hammered out details in how to stabilize and govern the cities of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, strongholds of ISIS, in the event that Iraqi and Syrian fighters retake the cities in the coming months. The French Defense Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, who was present at the meeting at Joint Base Andrews in the US state of Maryland, noted the many setbacks ISIS had suffered, pointing to its losses in Iraq as well as its loss of Qaiyara and Manbij in Syria. US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter stated, “We need to destroy the fact and the idea that there can be a state,” adding that battlefield success in Iraq as well as Syria was “necessary.” After those statements, US General Joseph Votel, the commander of the US Central Command, explained that discussion at the meeting mostly centered on how to stabilize Mosul in Iraq, assuming Iraqi forces can take it back from ISIS. Focusing on Iraq at the Joint Base Andrews meeting was reasonable given the efforts of the US and its allies there. The need to resolve struggles for power among Sunni, Shi’a, and Kurdish groups is pressing. However, focusing on what might be done in Syria is somewhat surprising given that the US and its allies, despite US-led coalition airstrikes, are not playing the main role in the ISIS fight there. The fight in Syria is being driven by a Russian-led coalition.

Since September 2015, Russia, along with its Iranian and Syrian allies, have destroyed ISIS units, material, and command, control, communication and intelligence and training facilities and has return Syrian territory back to the hands of Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad. True, there are many foreign military forces operating in Syria, but the effort of Russia and its allies is a very visible, full-scale, multidimensional military operation. As its main objective, Russia seeks to shape events on the ground in Syria in order to “stabilize the legitimate authority” of Assad. Russia also seeks to defeat ISIS by annihilating its military formations in the field, eliminating its leaderhip, and eviscerating its so-called Islamic Caliphate to the extent that the organization will never be able to resurrect itself. Western complaints and commentary on Russia’s combat operations in Syria have been nonstop since its’ first sorties in country. The US and United Kingdom have constantly accused Russia of attacking mainly “moderate” anti-Assad groups, rather than ISIS. The EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, called Russia’s role a “game changer” and said “It has some very worrying elements.” Putin has ignored such insistent voices from the West. He would likely prefer Western governments saved their ministrations for their own operations on the margins in Syria.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has engaged in multiple talks with US Secretary of State John Kerry on Syria. They have discussed the possibility of acting jointly against ISIS. However, on the ground in Syria, Putin has decided to get on with the matter rather than allow it to languish in the halls of inaction. Russia has been on the move, propelling Iranian, Iranian-led, and Syrian forces forward rapidly. Yet, most recently, Russian Federation commanders and planners have noticed that their allies have faced difficulties in responding to new challenges from ISIS on the ground. Russia must resolve that problem. Much as officials at Joint Base Andrews acknowledged, the end of the war in Syria has begun to take on defined features. Questions exist over what type of peace will take shape in Syria. Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin said that he fully grasps the challenges that lie ahead regarding the rebuilding of Syria. Putin explained, “We must act carefully, step by step, aiming to establish trust between all sides to the conflict.” He also explained that a new and effective government could be formed in Syria once such trust is finally built. Putin said that a political process is the only way to reach peace, and he claimed Assad “also agrees to such a process.” However, the war has not been won yet. Before fully broaching those matters, ISIS still must be defeated via the military operation and peace must be secured. Only then can the focus become creating political, social, and economic conditions that will allow for Syria’s rebuilding. Festinare nocet, nocet et cunctatio saepe; tempore quaeque suo qui facit, ille sapit.  (It is bad to hurry and delay is often as bad; the wise person is the one who does everything in its proper time.)

Disconcerting Breakdowns Among the Allies

Following the Battle of Palmyra, Russian, Iranian, Iranian-led and Syrian Arab Army units, were at a point of high morale on the battlefield. The scent of victory was in the air. However, in that positive atmosphere, there was the danger for troops among the allies to feel too strong, lose their heads, become undisciplined, and fail to perform in a military fashion. ISIS seemed to have found an advantage in this situation. Indeed, ISIS units have displayed a surprising new capability to organize effective counterattacks. Iranian, Iranian-led and Syrian Arab Army units were often unable to protect their forces.

Following the Battle of Palmyra, Russian, Iranian, Iranian-led and Syrian Arab Army units were at a point of high morale on the battlefield. The scent of victory was in the air. However, in that positive atmosphere, there was the danger that troops among the allies would begin to feel too strong, become undisciplined, and fail to perform in a military fashion in combat. ISIS seemed to find an advantage in this situation. ISIS began to display the capability to organize effective counterattacks which the allies were unable to beat them back.

In tranquillo esse quisque gubernator potest. (Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm.) The situation stood in great contrast to that in the days immediately after Russian, Iranian, Iranian-led, and Syrian forces captured Palmyra. The allies appeared to have coalesced as a team and it seemed possible that they would soon rush into Raqqa and Deir Ezzor. ISIS engagements units of the allies repeatedly developed into routs. ISIS showed no signs of having contingency plans for the loss of cities, towns, and villages in its so-called Islamic Caliphate. The allies did observe ISIS laying mines and setting booby traps on avenues of approach to their battle positions. However, counterattacks, which would be expected from a professional fighting force to regain territory or cover its’ withdrawal, were not seen. Since that time though, ISIS has learned how to retreat, and has repeatedly generated difficult situations for the allies.

Many of the top commanders and planners in ISIS are former officers of Saddam Hussein’s military or security services. In 2014, those Iraqis were behind the impressive capability of ISIS to move its units with a professional acumen. Their skills were seemingly brought to bear again when ISIS units came out of their battle positions all around Syria to push the allies back. There were even clashes with ISIS units around the main Jazal Field near Palmyra. Intense Russian Federation airstrikes were required to push ISIS back. Unexpected difficulties, friction, should be expected in any military operation. Yet, the problems that beset the allies to a large extent resulted from bad decisions and inadequate military moves. Syrian Arab Army commanders have been unable to avail themselves of Russian Federation air support and artillery. Iranian, and Iranian-led forces, specifically, continued to take a one-dimensional approach to ground maneuver in Syria much as it has in Iraq. Both forces had the ability to request support from Russian surveillance technologies, air power, and artillery, but those resources were not utilized to pound attacking ISIS units.

ISIS fighters (above) organize for an attack. As Russian, Iranian, Iranian-led, and Syrian forces began to take territory from ISIS, it seemed at first that the terrorist group had no contingency plans for losing territory in its so-called Islamic Caliphate. However, ISIS appears to have learned how to retreat. Many commanders and planners behind the movement of its’ forces across Iraq and Syria in 2014 were former officers of Saddam Hussein’s military or security services. Their acumen was brought to bear again when ISIS units came out of their defenses around Syria and pushed the allies back.

Shoigu Investigates

Experto credite. (Trust in one who has experience.) Russian Federation Defense Minister, General of the Army Sergei Shoigu arrived in Syria on June 18, 2016 to meet Assad and surely to examine the problem of increased ISIS infiltration and counterattacks. The added significance of Shoigu’s arrival was the fact that he is known as Putin’s “Do It” man. His ability to achieve success in almost any undertaking is the basis for what greatcharlie.com calls the “Shoigu factor.”  Once Shoigu allayed Assad’s concerns over ISIS’ new moves and Russia’s military cooperation with Syria, Shoigu likely discussed the problem in granular detail with the commander of the Russian Federation’s Military Expeditionary Group in Syria, Russian Federation Army Colonel General Aleksandr Dvornikov, and his air and ground commanders. Shoigu was concerned. He was well-aware that the allies would not be able to limp into Raqqa and Deir Ezzor while ISIS clawed their units to pieces with counterattacks.

Volo, non valeo. (I am willing but unable.) At first look,  Shoigu likely recognized how difficult it was for the three main allies perform with assorted forces under their control, each possessing varied degrees of size, strength, military capabilities, experience, and leadership. Regarding leadership, Shoigu likely discovered how much the acumen of militatry commanders among Russia’s allies differed. Those rdisparities and others should have been underscored and factored into planning, and when possible, compensated for. Instead, perhaps to promote goodwill and unity among the allies, they seemed to have been played down.   Indeed, there was probably plenty of head nodding in agreement in meetings between Russian, Iranian, and Syrian military officials when there was discussion on topics as how to win the war, the need to maximize advantages resulting from the inoperability of Russian-built weapons systems all of the allies used, the integration of ground and air capabilities, and the coordination of action against ISIS.

When Russian Federation military advisers and instructors began trainnig Syrian Arab Army troops in September 2015, they discovered that regular army units needed to be retrained from the squad, platoon, company, and battalion level. Shortages of competent officers and noncommissioned existed throughout the Syrian forces. Advisers and instructors did their best. However, deficiencies that were present before the Russians arrived, managed to resurface as ISIS began to put pressure on the allies via counterattacks.

Shoigu, himself, was likely part of a number of meetings of that type. As recently as June 9, 2016, Iranian Defense Minister Brigadier General (Sartip-e Yekom) Hossein Dehghan welcomed Shoigu, and Syrian Arab Republic Defense Minister and Chief of the General Staff of the Army and the Armed Forces Colonel General Fahd Jassem al-Freij for a meeting in Tehran. Shoigu stated prior to the meeting that topics discussed would include “priority measures in reinforcing the cooperation between the defense ministries of the three countries in the fight with the Islamic State” and Jabhat Al-Nusra. Yet, when ISIS applied pressure, infiltrating into areas retaken by the allies and by launching counterattacks, it was revealed that what was being proffered in theory at senior military meetings was not being translated into practice. Iranian, Iranian-led and Syrian Arab Army units could not act fully in a unified, coordinated way with Russian Federation forces in response to unexpected and creative maneuvers by ISIS. Effectively working alongside very sophisticated Russian Federation forces required an agility and flexibility in thinking that Syrian Arab Army commanders and paramilitary unit commanders did not possess. Unable to respond otherwise, they held fast to their own ideas for the command and control of their forces and their own plans and timetables for moving their forces against ISIS.

Interestingly when Russian Federation military advisers and instructors set out to train Syrian Arab Army troops in September 2015, they immediately discovered that regular army units, despite having a good amount of discipline and combat experience, needed to be retrained from the squad, platoon, company, and battalion level. Shortages of competent officers and noncommissioned officers existed throughout the Syrian Arab Army due to battle casualties and a large number of defections to both the Syrian Opposition forces and Islamic militant groups such as ISIS and Jabhat Al-Nusra. Platoons that supposedly held 20 to 30 troops held around 5 to 10 troops, the commander included. Even before the war, signalmen, gunners, engineers, and other military specialist for the most part were only assigned on paper. Russian Federation military advisers and instructors also discovered that there was the need to instruct Syrian Arab Army commanders on better coordinating actions at the brigade and division levels and among higher military authorities. Before Russian military advisers and instructors arrived, “maneuver” in Syrian Arab Army amounted to chaotic movements of companies, battalions, and paramilitary units. No single commander’s concept or operational plan guided them. Artillery and air units acted independently, ignorant of the positions or movements of friendly ground troops.

Troops of the pro-Assad paramilitary group, the Desert Falcons (above), are being addressed by their commanders. Military advisers and instructors not only trained Syria forces, but also distributed new field uniforms, flak vests, and protective helmets from their inventories. Before Russian military advisers and instructors arrived, “maneuver” in Syrian Arab Army amounted to chaotic movements of companies, battalions, and paramilitary units. Artillery and air units acted independently, ignorant of the positions or movements of friendly ground troops.

Regarding paramilitary units (shahibas) loyal to the Assad regime, it was observed that all of them needed to be retrained. That was a difficult task. Despite the fact that many troops in the paramilitary units had seen several years of war, few were aware of how to properly shoot and move on the battlefield. Few had any worthwhile physical training. Volunteer commanders were typically appointed by paramilitary unit members despite the fact that they had no training or experience in leading troops in battle, properly making appropriate decisions in complex military situations, as well as making decisions in everyday situations on the frontline. The discipline of paramilitary troops was a problem that reared its head when the paramilitary units manned checkpoints. A further problem was the unwillingness of paramilitary units to defend areas other than their hometowns. Paramilitary unit volunteers had to be provided basic training then instruction on fighting as part of part of a squad, platoon, company, and then the battalion. Iran, itself, had already deployed Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)-Quds Force (special forces) officers and advisers to Syria. They have mobilized pro-Assad paramilitary units into the 70,000 strong National Defense Forces to fight alongside the Syrian Arab Army, brought in Shi’a volunteer brigades from Iraq and Afghanistan, and Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon.  Only Republican Guard and Special Forces units and a few mechanized brigades possessed satisfactory levels of readiness. Republican Guard units were well-equipped and staffed with professional soldiers and stood practically self-sufficient with organic artillery, airborne, and special purpose forces. Still, its units were only 70 percent manned at best.

Russian Federation military advisers and instructors, as well as those of the IRGC, and IRGC-Quds Force, were unlikely delinquent in their duty. They likely did their best to prepare Syrian Arab Army units for the fight to eject ISIS from their country given the troops and time available. Their solicitude extended to the distribution of new field uniforms, flak vests, and protective helmets from Russian inventories among the newly trained Syrian Arab Army units. Those units were also provided with new Russian vehicles to enhance their mobility. However, deficiencies that were present before the Russians arrived, resurfaced despite those efforts

Russian Federation Air Force Tu-22M3 bombers (above) strike ISIS targets in Syria. Russian Federation air power can hit ISIS hard, destroy its units, and delay and disrupt their movement. Iranian and Syrian forces must be able to fully avail themselves of that Russian military resource if the allies hope to defeat ISIS. When air power is synchronized with, compliments, and reinforces friendly ground movement, it can help drive friendly units forward.

Effects of the failure of Russia’s allies to avail themselves of Russian military resources included a decrease in the tempo of the allies’ offensive action and near loss of the initiative. It resulted in a need for more sorties during air support missions and increased firefights with ISIS, creating the potential for greater friendly casualties. Robust Russian Federation air power should have been used liberally all around Syria to delay and disrupt movement by ISIS units and when possible destroy them. Russian Federation air power should have been synchronized with, complimented, and reinforced movement by friendly ground forces.

Russian Federation commanders and planners are aware that in the fights for Aleppo, Idlib, and other urban centers, the ground forces of allies could do more than simply chisel away at enemy lines. Numerical advantages are rare on the frontlines in Syria, yet an attacker can economize in less active areas in order to develop local superiority at the point of his main effort. The attacker, after concentrating quickly, can strike hard at an unexpected place and time to throw the defender off balance. Once the attack is underway, the attackers’ chance of success can be improved if he moves fast, aggressively pressing every advantage, and if he capitalizes on opportunities to destroy the enemy’s forces and the overall coherence of his defense.

Russian Federation commanders and planners also know air power can greatly impact enemy moves in urban centers. If forced to move quickly in the face of Russian air power, an enemy commander would be allowed less time to ensure his unit’s concealment. It could cause him to move when conditions would not impede aircrews’ search of his unit. Rapid movement could also decrease the effectiveness of his air defense systems, allowing aircrews greater freedom to search for his unit, increasing the chance for it to be spotted. So far in Syria over 95 percent of Russian Federation Air Force sorties are flown at 15,000 to 20,000 feet primarily to evade enemy air defenses. When aircews cannot identify targets, airstrikes are made in areas where air intelligence reports the enemy is located. In attacking urban centers, that can result in collateral damage in the form of civilian deaths and injuring and the destruction of nonmilitary structures.

Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (above) arrived in Syria on June 18, 2016 to address the problems of increased ISIS infiltration and damaging counterattacks. In meetings with Russian Federation military commanders and planners, Shoigu surely explained that it was not feasible to wait for their Iranian and Syrian counterparts to communicate with them when they are on the attack or facing counterattacks. He undoubtedly directed them to better coordinate with their allies.

Shoigu’s Diagnosis

In his meetings with Russian Federation military commanders, Shoigu surely emphasized that it was not enough to simply stay in communication with Iranian and Syrian Arab Army commanders while they are on the attack or when they are facing counterattacks. Shoigu likely stressed that they had to maintain situational awareness, and authentically coordinate their actions with their allies and help them exploit opportunities created. There was also a shake up in the Russian Federation’s military command structure in Syria. Russian Federation Lieutenant General Aleksandr Zhuravlev replaced Dvornikov. Zhuravlev is known best for helping to plan the Palmyra offensive.

Chief of the Armed Forces General Staff of the Russian Federation, General of the Army Valery Gerasimov on March 28, 2016 stated Palmyra was “liberated thanks to the support of Russia’s air force and special operations forces.” It seems Russian Federation air power and spetsnaz will also be relied on to underpin the allies’ ultimate victory in Syria. Responding to the problem with resources available, Shoigu ordered increased air strikes and the increased deployment of Russian spetsnaz advisers among Syrian Arab Army units. The goal would be to improve the direction of artillery fires against ISIS counterattacks along the Syrian Arab Army’s axis of advance toward Raqqa and Deir Ezzor and in support of battle positions of allies all around Syria. Russia had already supplied Russian-built heavy artillery and multiple launch rocket systems to its allies, to include: 152-milimeter MTSA-B guns, BM-27 Uragan and BM-30 Smerch rocket launchers, and TOS-1A Solnitsa rocket launchers. Spetsnaz units could assist Syrian Arab Army units in coordinating ground assaults with air support and artillery fire, in building hasty defenses, and in improving unit security. By degrading enemy forces with fire in support of assaults, the goal is not to create attrition battles but to enable the successful, rapid maneuver of friendly forces.

Soon after Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu made improvements in Syria, desired results seemed visible on the frontlines. The 60th Brigade of the Syrian Arab Army’s 11th Tank Division (above) supported by the 67th Brigade of the 18th Tank Division and the National Defense Forces were liberating points along the International Highway en route to the besieged city of Deir Ezzor. As they push forward, commanders of these Syrian units will be better able to coordinate with their Russian Federation counterparts and to avail themselves of Russian military resources.

Soon after Shoigu’s visit to Syria, improvements seemed visible on the frontlines. The 60th Brigade of the Syrian Arab Army’s 11th Tank Division supported by the 67th Brigade of the 18th Tank Division and the National Defense Forces were liberating towns and villages along the International Highway en route to the besieged city of Deir Ezzor. In Deir Ezzor’s Industrial District, the Syria Arab Army’s Special Task Force “Al Qassem Group” undertook the task of clearing the remaining ISIS fighters from the district’s streets. They joined the Republican Guard’s 104th Airborne Brigade and 137th Artillery Brigade of the 17th Reserve Division in the fight for Deir Ezzor. The Syrian Arab Army High Command also ordered a change in command of the 17th Reserve Division from Syrian Arab Army Major General Mohammed Khaddour to Syrian Arab Army Major General Hassan Mohammed.

Regarding fights in urban centers, it was reported from southern Aleppo that a mix of Iranian-led units, primarily Iraqi Shi’a militias such as Harakat An Nujba, Katayb Hezbollah, and Assaib Ahl Al Haqq — two of which are operating Russian-made T-90 main battle tanks acquired by the IRGC in early 2016 —launched repeated counterattacks against the Jaysh Al-Fateh coalition, and Free Syrian Army units. Allies loyal to the Assad regime to include private military companies such as Liwa Suqour As Sahra and Liwa Dir As Sahel, Shi’a militias such as Liwa Nussr Az Zawba’a and Quwwat Al Galilee as well as a Lebanese Hezbollah unit, have launched attacks in southern Aleppo. Meanwhile, the Russian Federation Air Force is engaged in a campaign in western Aleppo and targeting the towns of Hayyan, Anadan, Hreitan, Kfar Hamra and Ma’arat Al Artiq positioned along avenues of approach into northern and eastern parts of Aleppo city. Most recently, Russian Federation Air Force airstrikes have targeted Castello Road, the last route out of the Syrian opposition-held eastern part of the city. As for the Syrian Arab Air Force, it continues to hit targets in Idlib city, Ma’arat An Nauman and eastern Aleppo.

Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu led to questions about the progress of the Russian Federation Military Expeditionary Group in Syria. After his visit with Russian Federation commanders and planners, the decision was made to replace Russian Federation Colonel General Aleksandr Dvornikov with Russian Federation Lieutenant General Aleksandr Zhuravlev. Zhuravlev will oversee the allies’ capture of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor and the final destrustion of ISIS in Syria.

Retaining the Initiative to the End

In the April 6, 2016 greatcharlie.com post entitled, “How Russian Special Forces Are Shaping the Fight in Syria: Can the US Policy Failure on Syria Be Gauged by Their Success?,” it was stated that ISIS could potentially establish a redoubt east of Deir Ezzor along the Khabur and Euphrates Rivers, and Syria’s border with Iraq. The goal of that theoretical defensive line would be to forestall the ultimate collapse of the Islamic Caliphate in Syria and to inflict as many casualties among attacking forces as possible with a suicide defense. However, well-planned offensive action by Russia and its allies might serve to obviate that possibility. The military principle of offense prescribes that maintaining the initiative is the most effective and decisive way to dominate the battlefield. On the offensive, there must be an emphasis on the commander’s skilled combination of the elements of maneuver, firepower, protection, and intelligent leadership in a sound operational plan. The initiative must be retained. Moving forward, firepower, the allies’ greatest strength, must be used to its’ maximum advantage. Firepower can serve maneuver by creating openings in enemy defenses, but also destroy an enemy’s vital cohesion, his ability to fight, and effectively act. Indeed, one of the most important targets is the enemy’s mind. The allies should engage in actions that will sway moves by ISIS to enhance the opportunities to destroy it.

The drive against Raqqa and Deir Ezzor in a way resembles the circumstances in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. The Israelis, after defeating the Syrians, pushed up to the Golan Heights at its northern border, and then executed an economy of force operation. Israel kept a portion of its forces on its border with Jordan, even though hostilities did not break-out between the two countries. Israeli forces in the Golan Heights conducted artillery attacks on Damascus with long range guns to give the impression that they were going to seize that city while sizeable Israeli forces were concentrated south against Egyptian forces in the Sinai Peninsula to their southwest. After concentrating against Egyptian forces in the Sinai, Israeli forces threw their strength at Egyptian weakness, the gap between the Egyptian Second and Third Armies. The Israelis subsequently encircled the Third Army eliminating it as a threat to Israeli territory,

Before the final push against them begins, Russian military spetsnaz units could be positioned in the gap between Raqqa and Deir Ezzor to perform the task of detecting and thwarting efforts by ISIS to establish lines of communication between the two cities. They could also be positioned to block ISIS infiltration into Syria from Iraq and territory now controlled by the Assad regime. Spetsnaz units could conduct raids, set up ambushes, and establish kill zones. They could operate vigorously at night when ISIS units might try to conceal their movement.

Much as with the Egyptian Second and Third Armies in the Sinai in 1973, ISIS units in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, albeit in a limited way, could move units into territory controlled by the Assad regime. They could also become hubs for the reestablishment of lines of communication between ISIS in Iraq and Syria. By hunkering down in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor in the face of an onslaught from Russia and its allies, ISIS can claim that it held on to the capital of its Islamic Caliphate. Raqqa, in particular, would likely become a symbol of resistance and power for ISIS to a greater extent than it is now and its narrative on the city’s defense would become an invaluable recruiting tool for the organization. For Assad to claim that he has retaken control of Syria, he must control urban centers and the surrounding areas of Raqqa, Deir Ezzor and other cities such as Aleppo, Idlib, Latakia, Homs, Palmyra, Darra and certainly Damascus. For Putin to claim that it stabilizes the legitimate authority of Assad. Putin must destroy ISIS in Syria or, at a minimum, leave it scattered and tattered, reduced to a size and strength incapable of forcing Assad from power and unable to resurrect itself. If Raqqa and Deir Ezzor cannot be taken rapidly, Russia and its allies must encircle the cities. After assembling overwhelming force to direct against ISIS units, both cities could be attacked. Before that fight would get underway, spetsnaz units could be positioned in the gap between Raqqa and Deir Ezzor to perform the task of detecting and thwarting efforts by ISIS to establish lines of communication between the two cities. Spetnaz could also be positioned on known and suspected ISIS infiltration lanes into Syria from Iraq and lanes into territory now controlled by the Assad regime. They could block those lanes coconducting raids, setting up ambushes, and establishing kill zones for air strikes and artillery fire. Spetsnaz could operate vigorously at night when ISIS units might try to conceal their movement.

The loss rate of ISIS could be increased by having aerial platforms capable of stand-off attacks continuously engage ISIS defenses, and by stationing fighter jets and bombers in orbit 24-hours a day above ISIS locations identified by spetsnaz to engage in continuous strikes. They could also hit targets of opportunity identified by aircrews whenever they might be authorized to fly at lower altitudes.

The Way Forward

According to the Alexandrian Life of Aeschylus, as they walked on stage during the first performance of Eumenides, the chorus of furies was so hideous and frightening in appearance that “they caused young children to faint, patriarchs to urinate, and pregnant women to go into labor.” ISIS, during its grand entry on the world stage, in Syria and Iraq, put on full display its very bloody, murderous side. ISIS mercilessly murdered hundreds of military prisoners, foreign hostages, and innocent civilians. ISIS left no doubt that it is not only a terrorist organization, but a pagan death cult. While concerned about the rise of ISIS, Putin was never impressed with the group. In a speech on his deployment of Russian Federation forces to Syria, Putin remarked on ISIS’ behavior in a disdainful tone, saying, “We know how they do such things; how they kill people; how they destroy cultural monuments. . . .” In that same speech, Putin explained that in the ISIS fight, Russia would provide Assad and other allies “the necessary military and technical support.” Russia has done that and ISIS may soon be defeated in Syria.

Omne initium difficile est. (Every beginning is difficult.) Once Russia and its allies squeeze the life out of ISIS in Syria, they must not allow ISIS to resurrect itself. A capable military presence must be set up in Syria to keep ISIS out or at least under control. The success of the joint military efforts of Russia and its allies may provide the foundation for a peace enforcement mission in Syria and an eventual reconstruction effort. With reconstruction costs in mind, the possibility exists that Russia and its allies would cooperate with the US over what remains of the ISIS fight in Syria and the US-led fight against ISIS in Iraq. Among other possibilities, Iranian and Iranian-led forces, in support of the Assad regime and their Syrian Arab Army allies, could coordinate actions with units of their comrades in Iraq. Both forces fall under the command of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps-Quds Force Commander General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani. Locking down the border will collaterally support the ISIS fight in Iraq. It was hypothesized in 2015 by the Middle East Institute that Syrian Kurds’People’s Protection Units (YPG) might be co-opted to help establish a security zone incorporating their own territory and some more along the border with Iraq to help keep ISIS out of the area and help maintain a sustainable peace. How Putin will proceed is uncertain, but right now, Russia is playing a central in Syria and he is free to decide as he pleases.

How Russian Special Forces Are Shaping the Fight in Syria: Can the US Policy on Syria Be Gauged by Their Success?

During the fight for Palmyra, Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) took a photo (above) from the cellphone of a Russian spetsnaz officer reportedly killed in combat and posted it on the internet, apparently attempt to shame Russian forces fighting in Syria or claim some type victory. Instead, by posting the photo, they gave the whole world a glimpse of a few of the courageous Russians who have been gallantly fighting the scourge of ISIS. At Palmyra, Russia was seen fulfilling its promise to defeat ISIS and support Assad.

According to a March 29, 2016 Washington Post article entitled, “How Russian Special Forces Are Shaping the Fight In Syria,” Russian special forces (spetsnaz) operating on the front have remained mostly out of the public eye, but with the seizure of Palmyra in the Eastern Homs Province that is no longer the case. The article asserts Russian spetsnaz have come to the forefront of Russia’s Syria narrative because the battle for Palmyra plays into the rhetoric that Russia intervened to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). Chris Kozak, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War was quoted in the articleas saying involvement of spetsnaz in Palmyra “looks great.” He further stated, “. . . their involvement against opposition groups in Aleppo or Latakia doesn’t fit the narrative.” TheWashington Post reports it is unclear when Russian spetsnaz began operations in Syria, though prior to Russia’s intervention there, Russian troops had long helped advise and train Syrian forces. Michael Kofman, an analyst focused on Russian military operations at the Washington think tank, the Center Naval Analyses (CNA), told the Washington Post that Russia operates several spetsnaz units in Syria, to include Zaslon, KSO, and detachments of reconnaissance teams. Zaslon is a special purpose group of the Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki(Foreign Intelligence Service) or SVR made up from former spetsnaz troops. For some time, Zaslon has been in Syria providing support for Russian military and diplomatic personnel and standing ready to extract people, documents, or technologies Russia would not want to lose if Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad’s regime began to collapse. KSO or Special Operations Forces Command is the Russian Federation’s equivalent to the US Joint Special Operations Command.

As it was explained in November 30, 2015 greatcharlie.com post entitled “Russia Plays Down Idea of Coalition with West to Strike ISIS in Syria; An Agreement IS Needed on Assad,” use of special purpose forces, spetsnaz, would likely be critical to the Russian effort. Spetsnaz can advise Russian allies, locate and designate targets for air strikes, and engage in direct action against ISIS to include locating and killing specific Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) leaders and conducting raids and ambushes against ISIS units. Kofman says, “Russian special forces are doing a lot of the targeting for Russian airstrikes and a lot of advising for the Syrians.” He said they also provide most of the intelligence on the ground for Russian airpower and help run Syrian operations. Spetsnaz appear to be participating in combat alongside Syrian troops at the tactical level. Kofman told the Washington Post that spetsnaz and advisers on the front line have helped Syrian troops and Assad’s allies consolidate gains and take ground, despite the hype surrounding the detachment of Russian aircraft in the country. He called them the glue that is helping the Syrians fight as a much more capable army.

Dum tempus habemus, operemur bonum. (While we have the time, let us do good.) The massive presence of ISIS in Syria created a predicament for both the Assad regime and the Syrian Opposition. ISIS was eventually recognized internationally as a bloody, murderous terrorist organization, murdering military prisoners, foreign hostages, and innocent civilians. Although the Assad regime supported by Russia and the Syrian Opposition was supported by US, and work was being done on the margins, neither superpower appeared willing or able to do what is necessary to support their Syrian beneficiaries. That all changed in September 2015, when Russia, following Iran, intervened militarily support to Assad. Many worldwide discovered for the first-time that Russia, just as the US, has very capable airpower assets and special forces.  US President Barack Obama stated on October 2, 2015: “An attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire and it won’t work.” Yet, absent a robust US effort with the Syrian Opposition to counter Putin’s move, Russia and its allies found themselves with room for some real open field running in Syria. Indeed, Russia has been on the move, propelling Iranian, Iranian-led, and Syrian forces forward rapidly. The success of spetsnaz units and other Russian forces in Syria has pressed the US to try to mitigate the damage of the prospective “loss” of Syria and failed policy of containing Assad until he could be removed at the negotiation table. The success of spetsnaz provides an interesting measure to gauge the collapse of that policy on the ground.

The Russian state media highly publicized the return of Russian Federation Air Force jets from Syria after Putin’s surprise withdrawal order on March 14, 2016. A percentage of Russian Federation forces were withdrawn. However, Putin had no intentions of abandoning Assad. What occurred at Palmyra should have served to dispel such rumors. The “Syrian Express”, the nickname given to the ships that have kept Russian Federation forces supplied in Syria, shipped more equipment and supplies to the Russian naval base at Tartus in the two weeks following Putin’s withdrawal announcement than it had two weeks prior.

Russia Goes In

Russian Federation forces entered Syria under the leadership of Russian Federation Army Colonel General Aleksandr Dvornikov in September 2015. Dvornikov formerly held the post of First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Central Military District. Supposedly few in Moscow knew Dvornikov had been assigned to Syria and details of combat operations developed and executed under his command remain classified. In an official interview withRossiyskaya Gazeta in March 23, 2016, Dvornikov explained the situation facing his Russian Military Group in Syria upon arrival in-country as follows: “The terrorists who numbered more than 60,000 occupied around 70 percent of territory of Syria. Gangs had seized control of the major cities of Idlib. Palmyra, and Raqqa. The terrorists controlled a large part of the suburbs of Homs and Damascus, conducted large scale offensives in the province of Latakia and were preparing to surround and capture Aleppo. And the key Damascus-Aleppo highway, joining the south and north of the country, was under constant threat of blockade by the militants. On top of that, the government troops were exhausted after 4 years of hostilities and were holding off the terrorist offensives with great difficulty. The population was leaving the country en masse.” In addition to gloomy Russian assessments, alarms were sounded by Russia’s ally Iran. Allegedly from July 24, 2015 to July 26, 2015, Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)-Quds Force (special forces) Commander, General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani held numerous meetings in Moscow. More importantly, Suleimani met with Putin and Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.According to accounts of the meeting in Reuters, Suleimani outlined the Assad regime’s crumbling situation in Syria. He explained that Syrian Opposition forces were advancing toward the coast, threatening the heartland of Assad’s Alawite sect and endangering Tartus, where Russia maintains its only Mediterranean naval base. This reportedly alarmed the Russians who already understood matters were in steep decline militarily for the Assad regime. Suleimani then placed a map of Syria on the table and explained why there was still time to reverse the situation. Ratio et consilium propriae ducis arte. (Reason and deliberation are the proper skills of a general.)

After Russian Federation forces began operations in Syria, there was a change compared with things antecedent on the ground. In his Rossiyskaya Gazeta interview, Dvornikov outlined advances made by Russian, Iranian and Syrian forces: “Taking control of key regions of the northeast of the province of Aleppo seriously affected the militants’ supply lines and the transfer of reinforcements from Turkey through the corridor between Jarabulus and Azaz. This created the conditions for the crushing defeat of ISIS to the north of Aleppo. What do we have now? We have the liberation of the Kuweires airbase as well as a number of settlements that had been under terrorist control for more than three years. The militants have been completely driven out of the province of Latakia. Coastal areas, in which a significant part of the population of Syria is concentrated, have been cleansed of the terrorists.” With regard to the Hama, Homs, and Damascus provinces, Dvornikov toldRossiyskaya Gazeta: “These provinces are located in the central part of the country. And, for the most part they have been cleared of illegal armed groups. Now a most active process of reconciliation is going on there. From a military point of view, it is very important that the major roads in Syria are under the control of government forces. Generally speaking, during the military operation, Syrian troops—with air support—liberated 400 populated areas. The potential of terrorist groups was halved, they lost the initiative and the territory controlled by them was reduced by 10,000 square kilometers.” Per ardua, ad astra. (Through adversity to the stars.)

Russian Federation forces entered Syria under the leadership of Russian Federation Army Colonel General Aleksandr Dvornikov (above) in September 2015. Dvornikov formerly held the post of First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Central Military District. Supposedly, few in Moscow knew Dvornikov had been assigned to Syria. Dvornikov revealed in an interview that Palmyra’s capture would open up the road to Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, create conditions for reaching and controlling the border with Iraq, and re-establish control over three large oil and gas fields which had previously served as a source of income for ISIS.

The Palmyra Battle

The total number of troops involved in the fight for Palmyra from the Russian, Iranian, Iranian-led, and Syrian coalition of forces was over 5000. Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, General of the Army Valery Gerasimov has been diligent in the deployment of forces to Syria, maintaining a sizeable, capable reserve for operations elsewhere. Russian Federation forces have been deployed economically, to avoid being bogged down in support of its allies, but also to ensure ISIS could be destroyed and prevented from relocating and resurrecting itself. Russia deployed significant numbers of ground forces to work in coordination with air assets. Russian units operating TOS-1 and BM-30 Smerch heavy multiple rocket launcher systems as well as Mi-24 Hind helicopter gunships were utilized in support of operations to retake Palmyra.

The Russian state media highly publicized the return of planes from Syria after Putin’s surprise withdrawal order on March 14, 2016. It was not a hoax. Russian Federation forces were withdrawn however, as analysts informed AFP, the withdrawal was very limited, with estimates ranging between 10 and 25 percent of its forces in Syria. However, Russian activity seemed to have increased. Reuters reports the “Syrian Express,” the nickname given to the ships that have kept Russian forces supplied via the Black Sea Russian port of Novorossiysk to the Russian naval base at Tartus, has shipped more equipment and supplies to Syria in the two weeks following Putin’s withdrawal announcement than it had two weeks prior. Just before the assault on Palmyra, Russia publicly admitted, for the first time since it launched operations in Syria in September 2015 that spetsnaz were on the ground as part of the offensive.

Spetsnaz units have locating and designating ISIS targets for airstrikes in advance of contact with them by Russian, Iranian, Iranian-led, and Syrian ground forces. Russian attack helicopters, as well as spetsnaz serving as sharpshooters, serve as over watch for forces Russian allies, ensuring that even small, unorganized bands of fighters of ISIS would not be able to engage in independent actions to disrupt the ground operations. Dvornikov explained: “. . . Two thousand terrorists, originally coming from the Russian Federation—were destroyed on Syrian territory. Of these, 17 were field commanders.” By targeting Russian members of Islamic militant groups in Syria, Russian forces contributed immensely to the safety and security of their country and its citizens and the international effort against those Islamic militant groups as well. Chief of the Armed Forces General Staff of the Russian Federation, Valery Gerasimov on March 28, 2016 said Palmyra was “liberated thanks to the support of Russia’s air force and special operations forces.”

Offering an example of the type of fighting in which Russian forces have been engaged, a Russian spetsnaz officer, Aleksandr Prokhorenko, was killed while directing airstrikes upon himself when surrounded by ISIS fighters near Palmyra according to the Russian military on March 24, 3016. (He reportedly had been working in Syria for just a week.) ISIS took a photo allegedly from his cellphone and posted it on the internet in an apparent attempt to shame Russian forces fighting in Syria or claim some type victory. (The causality is really unknown. The thinking behind ISIS decisions is hard to decipher.) Instead, by posting the photo, the world was given a glimpse of a few of the courageous Russians who have been fighting gallantly against the scourge of ISIS in Syria. Certainly, most people in the world are united in thinking ISIS must be destroyed. Quem metuit quisque perisse cupit. (Everyone wishes that the man whom he fears would perish.)

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appointed Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Brigadier General (Sartip-e Yekom) Mohammad Jafar Assadi (above) as the IRGC commander in Syria. Russian-Iranian military cooperation on Syria was established in July 2015. Iran has deployed several thousand (IRGC)-Quds Force (special forces) officers and advisers to Syria, mobilized pro-Assad shabihas (militias) into the National Defense Forces to fight alongside the Syrian Armed Forces, and brought in Shi’a volunteer brigades from Iraq and Afghanistan, and Hezbollah units from Lebanon.

Concerning Syrian forces, many of them, to include nearly 1000 Syrian Marines and National Defense Forces militiamen, were brought up to Palmyra from Latakia, Aleppo, Qunetta Provinces. This movement of troops was enabled by the “cessation of hostilities” that began on February 27, 2016 that stemmed from the Geneva III Peace Talks on Syria.Those forces linked-up with hundreds of fighters from Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraqi Shi’a militias, and even Afghan Shi’a Liwa al-Fatimiyoun. Iran deployed the IRGC to support coalition forces in the operation. Russian-Iranian military cooperation on Syria came into effect via an agreement in July 2015. Both countries agreed to inject support into the Syrian Armed Forces to counter Assad’s accelerating losses. Joint operations rooms have been set up to bring the allies together, along with the Iraqi Government, which is supportive of Iran’s actions in Syria. (One joint operations room is in Damascus and another is in Baghdad.) Iran, itself, had already deployed several thousand Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)-Quds Force (special forces) officers and advisers to Syria. They have mobilized pro-Assad shabihas (militias) into the 70,000 strong National Defense Forces, to fight alongside the Syrian Armed Forces, brought in Shia volunteer brigades from Iraq and Afghanistan, and Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon. Many IRGC officers and advisers have been killed fighting alongside their allies in Syria. After a meeting in Tehran between Putin and Iran’s Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on November 23, 2015, the decision was made to step up coordination between the two countries on Syria. A senior Iranian official told Reuters, “What was agreed was Iran and Russia would pursue one policy which will benefit Tehran, Moscow, and Damascus.” Reportedly, Khamenei appointed IRGC Brigadier General (Sartip-e Yekom) Mohammad Jafar Assadi as the IRGC commander in Syria. He is known as Abu Ahmad in Syria.

Large deliveries of Russian heavy artillery and multiple launch rocket systems also had an impact on the frontlines of the Syrian Army, Hezbollah, and the Shia militias. That equipment included: 152-milimeter MTSA-B guns, BM-27 Uragan and BM-30 Smerch rocket launchers, and TOS-1A Solnitsa rocket launchers.

The offensive proceeded as a three pronged frontal assault similar to previous regime directed operations against Palmyra in the Eastern Homs Province, displaying little to none of the sophisticated operational design that characterized the recent campaign in Aleppo Province. Dvornikov explained in his Rossiyskaya Gazeta interview that the capture of Palmyra would “open up the road to (IS strongholds) Raqqa and Deir Ezzor and create conditions for reaching and taking control of the border with Iraq.” Syria’s military on Sunday also confirmed that the battle for Raqqa—the de facto capital of the jihadists—is the plan. Dvornikov also noted that “control was re-established over three large oil and gas fields, which had previously served as a source of income for the terrorists.” As important, a barrier has been created for several critical regime-held oil and natural gas fields that provide electricity to Western Syria. Further, ISIS’ ability to project force into Western Syria from the Euphrates River Valley was reduced.

Russian, Iranian, Iranian-led, and Syrian forces have not been holding on anywhere. After Palmyra, they pushed onward toward Deir Ezzor province, an Islamic state bastion. They also pushed toward the so-called capital of the Islamic Caliphate, Raqqa, and other ISIS-held towns along the way.

Possibilities: Battle of Annihilation?

Despite laying mines and setting booby traps for advancing Russian-led forces, it seems learning how to retreat has been a difficult experience for ISIS. One might have expected counterattacks to cover its withdrawal. Assad regime troops have not been holding on anywhere and after Palmyra, they pushed onward toward Deir Ezzor province, an Islamic State bastion. They also pushed toward the so-called capital of the Islamic Caliphate, Raqqa, and other ISIS-held towns along the way. The day following Palmyra’s capture, aSyrian military source said “The army was concentrated around Al-Qurayatayn.”

Russian, Iranian, and Syrian military planners and commanders, of what is essentially a Russian-led coalition, must recognize that beyond Palmyra, fights with ISIS could become more intense as ISIS fighters observe their so-called Islamic Caliphate being reduced. This may be especially true for the battles of Deir Ezzor and Raqqa.  ISIS fighters will be desperate to hold on to their Caliphate and demonstrate their will to resist and the capabilities of their group knowing the world would watching. The effects of such intensified efforts must be mitigated.

Russian air assets, along with air assets of its allies, should engage in a feeding-frenzy against ISIS. ISIS fighting positions in front of the Russian allies must continue to be degraded with close air support as well as unrelenting artillery onslaughts. ISIS fighters must face certain death if they hold their positions or be killed or captured once driven out of their positions. In tandem with the hot pursuit of ISIS by Russian and allied forces on the ground, airstrikes could support efforts to divert fighters of destroyed or displaced ISIS units away from their lines to locations where “kill zones” could be established. The attrition rate of ISIS should be increased by having aerial platforms that allow for stand-off attacks with anti-personnel weapons remain in near 24-hour use on targeted defenses and targets of opportunity such as isolated ISIS units in the desert.

The tempo and volume of Russian air strikes targeting ISIS leaders—and other rogue Islamic militant groups when identified—should be increased exponentially. Command centers and any gathering places of ISIS leaders, must not be allowed to exist. If possible, they should be struck simultaneously to throw the groups into chaos and confusion and make it very difficult for them to regenerate. Locations hit by airstrikes where ISIS might attempt to recover anything equipment or gear must be hit again to halt those recovery efforts. The communications of ISIS should be either destroyed or disrupted by other technical means permanently destroying any surviving leaders’ abilities to control over their units. Known and suspected assembly areas and rally points for ISIS units must be attacked from the air. In units left rudderless, acting without coordination, hopefully unit cohesion will begin to suffer, and they will lose their effectiveness completely. Small unit leaders should be left with the choice to allow their fighters to die in place or make a dash for the Euphrates, where along with other units, they should be consumed through a coordinated plan by Russian, Iranian, Iranian-led, and Syrian forces for annihilating any last ditch defense. Life should be made unlivable for ISIS in Syria.

Russian air assets could support raids and ambushes by spetsnaz units. Spetsnaz units should be issued portable GShG-7.62 rotary machine guns to give them the capability to kill ISIS fighters at a high rate in kill zones, raids, and ambushes as well as destroy any ISIS counterattacks. Spetsnaz units will likely need to operate vigorously at night when ISIS fighters might try to conceal movement. As directed by Moscow, individual spetsnaz units, in a special reconnaissance role, could continue to go into ISIS controlled areas, locate, and kill specific ISIS fighters from Russia, or when directed, take prisoners. Some spetsnaz must be dedicated to fighting other Islamic militant groups in Syria such as the Al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra.

Russian, Iranian, and Syrian military planners and commanders likely recognize that beyond Palmyra, fights with ISIS could become more intense, as ISIS fighters observe their so-called Islamic Caliphate being reduced. This may be especially true for the battles of Deir Ezzor and Raqqa.   ISIS fighters will be desperate to hold on to their Caliphate and demonstrate the capabilities and will of their terrorist group. The effects of such intensified efforts must be mitigated.

Caliphate Redoubt in Syria?

Six months after US and United Kingdom forces landed in Normandy in June 1944 during World War II, it was thought by senior German military commanders and hypothesized by Allied military planners that the Nazi government would be moved to a mountainous area of southern Germany and Austria. From there, a determined force could hold out for some time, complicating the situation for any occupying force in Germany. Allied planners referred to that area hypothetical defensive zone as the National Redoubt. It was discussed among German military planners as the Alpenfestung. While the idea of the Alpenfestung was investigated, it was never created. Instead, rumors were deliberately spread by a special unit set up by the German Minister for Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels to keep a redoubt idea alive. Yet, not being complacent, Allied military commanders ordered bombing raids to reduce locations that would be critical to operating the redoubt. It is difficult to say what ISIS leaders would do if Raqqa and Deir Ezzor fell. While there are no mountain ranges on the line of march of Russia and its allies to set up an Islamic Caliphate redoubt in Syria as imposing as the one conjured up by both sides in Germany, luck might have it that Iraqi military commanders in ISIS might try to set up a “line of death” east of Deir Ezzor along the Khabur and Euphrates Rivers, and Syria’s border with Iraq. The goal of that theoretical defensive line would be to forestall the ultimate collapse of the Islamic Caliphate in Syria and to inflict as many casualties among Russian-led forces as possible with a suicide defense. Real luck would come if reinforcements were rushed in where available in Iraq. (Though, US-led, and Iranian-led, forces have caused ISIS inside Iraq considerable problems, making any effort to move units from there to reinforce a redoubt in Syria dubious.) If Russian-led forces observe a redoubt being formed, it would present them with the opportunity to deal a tremendous blow against ISIS from which it would never recover. With overwhelming firepower, using every means of combat support and reconnaissance and surveillance for targeting available, the entire ISIS force could be annihilated. All ISIS commanders, planners and fighters in the defense would need to be destroyed much as near entire Japanese forces were destroyed following island battles in the Pacific during World War II. Acribus initiis, incurioso fine. (Zealous at the commencement, careless toward the conclusion.)

Russian air assets, along with those of Russia’s allies, should engage in a feeding-frenzy against ISIS. ISIS fighting positions in front of the Russian allies must continue to be degraded with close air support as well as unrelenting artillery onslaughts. Airstrikes could be directed at diverting ISIS fighters of destroyed or displaced groups away from the frontlines to locations where “kill zones” could be established. Targets of opportunity in the desert should be destroyed. Russian air assets could support raids and ambushes by spetsnaz units.

The Way Forward

When Putin went into Syria in September 2015, he did so not only to fight ISIS, but to “stabilize the legitimate authority” of Assad. To that extent, he wanted to defeat ISIS or, at a minimum, reduce its presence in Syria to a size and strength incapable of forcing Assad from power, nor subsidize efforts of the Syrian Opposition Movement to maneuver with US and EU assistance to undercut Assad. So far in Syria, Putin has effectively left no doubt with the Russian people, but also the world, that he is a leader who is able to respond effectively to security issues and that Russia is a global power. The ejection of ISIS from Palmyra was a major achievement on top of all of its success in Syria. Russia was seen fulfilling its promise of defeating ISIS and supporting Assad. News of the event has garnered unenthused recognition from the Washington and European capitals.

Ad mores natura damnatos fixa et mutari nescia. (Human nature ever reverts to its depraved courses, fixed and immutable.) Some might speculate that Putin may choose to forestall backing the attacks on Raqqa and Deir Ezzor as the UN Talks in Geneva may reach a result that would keep Assad in power and serve Russia’s interest. However, Putin’s decision making manifests a sense of pessimism regarding human nature. Interactions with the West have been a struggle, Russia is still being sanctioned over Ukraine. Putin most likely expects to encounter some machinations from Western capitals that would cause Russia’s interests to be subordinated by their own. He very likely felt he had encountered something of that nature during UN Talks on Syria in Vienna on November 14, 2015 when Kerry is said to have proposed allowing all Syrians, “including members of the diaspora,” participate in the national elections. Kerry seemed to be betting that if Syrians around the world participated in the vote, Assad would never be able to remain in office. In part to counter such moves, Putin has sought to significantly shape the situation on the ground by supporting the combat operations of Syrian Armed Forces along with forces Iran has brought to, or organized in, Syria. Once all of Russia’s goals on the ground are achieved, Putin would seek to finalize some political arrangement for Syria. What may be shaping up is a race by the US-led and Russian-led anti-ISIS camps to take Raqqa and to establish their will in Syria.