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.

Without Negotiations, the War in Syria May Not End in the Opposition’s Favor

Beyond temporary advances, military activity in Syrian conflict has been not been significant enough to lead one to believe the status quo on the ground may change soon. However, the Syrian Armed Forces have been building up not so quietly both in terms of size and capabilities. Facing desertions, defections, battlefield losses, and poor morale, worsened by ethnic as well as sectarian divisions among personnel (akin to the Sunni-Shi’a divide that still plaques the Iraqi armed forces and the divisions that ruptured the Yugoslav National Army in the 1990s.) To compensate for those losses and difficulties, the Syrian Army has reinforced itself with local militias, and elite troops from allied countries and fighters Shi’a militia groups. Given this build up of its power and the relative weakness of the opposition forces, it might be possible for the Syrian Army to launch a major offensive that would lead to victory for the Assad regime.

The Current Situation
In 2011, the National Coalition for the Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, though its political wing, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) announced its armed struggle uprising against President Bashar al-Assad and his regime. Throughout that summer, its members were engaged in an accelerated mobilization and arms and equipment were amassed. It was not long before arms and equipment began to flow from Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon to the fighters on the ground, known as the Free Syrian Army.

FSA Strength
The initial objective of the Syrian Army and security forces at that time was to prevent the SNC from achieving any real success. The Supreme Military Council (SMC), and its force in the field, the FSA, although initially capturing significant amounts of territory and acquiring momentum, was denied control of Aleppo and a foothold on Damascus. Syrian Army units along the border were given the task to hold their positions, they did not receive any significant reinforcement. A number of border positions collapsed and fell into FSA hands. Strongholds were created in villages, towns, and cities in the shape of a band stretching nearly 30 to 60 miles wide at points from west to east across Syria, from the Euphrates River and Lake al-Assad to Abu Kamal on the border with Jordan. A shorter, connected band of FSA controlled territory was established. It stretched from east to west, from the Euphrates, nearly 40 to 50 miles wide, abutting the Turkish border from Jarabulus to Madydan Ikbiz. Just south of that band was Aleppo, into which the FSA penetrated and secured territory. There was also FSA territory in Idlib province which included a lip of land reaching the coast. Further, the FSA secured a smaller territory in Homs province near Ar Rastan down to the Lebanese border west of Qusayr and over to Talkalakh. Lastly, in Damascus province, the FSA gained territory abutting the border with Lebanon northwest of Damascus from Az Zabadani to An Nabk.

FSA Weaknesses
While the Syrian Opposition wanted regime change, they were not united on many levels. This became most apparent later as they planned the Geneva negotiations in May 2013. At the political level, the SNC and the SMC were at odds not only on negotiations, but on an approach to removing Assad. Initial momentum created enough inertia to drive the FSA to push for greater territory in Syria. This satisfied the SNC because it gave them control over Syrian territory, renamed and reflagged as “Free Syria” and had the effect of removing Assad’s authority over part of the civilian population. While appearing as a success on the part of the FSA, the reality was that without actually destroying the Syrian Army’s capacity to attack and regain ground, destroy the FSA, or keep the Assad regime in power, they had accomplished little. By establishing strongholds and basing itself in town and villages, the FSA had enabled Syrian Army artillery to daily engage in fire missions using heavy guns, rockets, mortars and tank fire against FSA positions. Syrian Air Force bombed and strafed those positions daily.

Further, the FSA, having been mustered together with a curious mix of Syrian retired military, defectors, former reservists, and the movements’ activists, along with Islamic militants and members of the al-Qaida affiliated group, al-Nusra, had some difficulties establishing real cooperation and coordination during operations. The diverse groups at best displayed tolerance toward each other. That situation, along with the fact that the FSA lacked real military power, in terms of fighters, heavy weapons, and the ability to maneuver, meant the force would not likely be able to mount a conventional defense against a potential large scale offensive launched by the Syrian Army and its allies.

The Syrian Army and Allies
The Syrian Armed Forces and its allies can stand up a force that currently holds over 200,000 troops including, the rearmed and adviser supported Syrian Army, other ground units of the armed forces, Mukhabarat or intelligence organizations, the police, Shabiha or paramilitaries and street gangs, as well as Hezbollah, the National Defense Forces, a militia, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iranian Special Forces or Quds Force, Iraqi Shi’a militia.

A Future Scenario
If an attack were launched, the FSA would very likely face an armored and mechanized assault across a broad front to against the ‘Free Syria territory.” That territory and all lines of communication within it would very likely be cut at five major points in the FSA lines: Abu Kamal, Deir az Zawr, Ar Raqqah, along Lake al-Assad and the Euphrates, and Aleppo. The attacking units would unify, redirect, and be reinforced by Syrian Army units in and around those towns. The objective would then be to encircle defined space including and around those points in FSA territory. The five encirclements would serve as areas of responsibility for commanders in them, yet the encirclements would be linked to each other at specified points. The majority of attacking forces would act as quickly and decisively as possible against the FSA in the encirclements, massing on its strongholds, bases, and training facilities. At the same time, a force of sufficient size and strength would break north, away from each encirclement, toward the Turkish or Jordanian borders, to ensure FSA forces in the encirclements did not receive supplies or reinforcement. Secondary concentric attacks would be made on the edges of the encirclements. All elements of the combat power of the Syrian Armed Forces and its allies would be brought to bare on the FSA in each of the five encirclements.

Outcome
All elements of the FSA infrastructure would likely be removed in the five encirclements. The Syrian security services would very likely attempt to separate the population in the areas from anything connected to the FSA. While attempting to hold on to towns and cities in the encirclements, the FSA would be subjected to the maximum amount of firepower artillery, rockets, mortars, and tanks that the Syrian Army could bring against them. Horribly, the populations of those towns and cities would most likely panic, and chaos and confusion would ensue. Refugees would run from town to town and city to city, increasing the population in each location as they move. That would make mounting a defense at those locations even more difficult for the FSA. As was demonstrated in Qusayr, the FSA is willing to fight to hold down a town knowing the relentless and merciless assaults from the attacking Syrian Army and allied units would terrorize and harm the civilian inhabitants.

Those forces sent beyond the five encirclements, toward the borders of Turkey and Jordan soon would become a blocking force to prevent FSA units to escape to safe havens outside of Syria. They would also likely be driven in that direction under hot pursuit of forces in the surrounded areas. They could very well be trapped moving north or west, displaced from their collapsed defenses and become open to artillery and air attacks travelling on roads or in fields.

Assessment
While it is hoped that the Syrian Army does not launch an offensive and the US and Russia will be able to broker a peace agreement, it is also possible that war will continue. If time is not on the Syrian Army’s side, power certainly is. If the SNC and SMC continue to reject the efforts of the US, Russia, the EU, and Arab States to find a peace, they could create a tragic situation of their own making. There is no popular support or political support within the US or EU for a war with Russia or Iran over Syria. If Russia raises the stakes, the US may not be willing to put its own well-being and interests at stake for amateurs, more interested in posturing and positioning for power, as opposed to ending the killing and behaving as the founding fathers, and mothers, of a reforged nation. Assad is the world’s problem, not just the Syrian opposition’s problem. The world will decide how to deal with him and the world is not reliant or guided by the SNC’s or SMC’s actions. The best suggestion would be for the SNC and SMC to hurry to the negotiation table before it is too late!

Has the Syrian Army Actually Left a Door Open for Peace?

It is difficult to determine what the thinking is behind the operations of the Syrian Army in the present conflict. The Syrian Army has considerable size, strength, and capabilities, enhanced on the ground by the presence of allies such as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Iranian special forces or Quds Force, Hezbollah, the National Defense Forces militia, and Iraqi Shi’a militant brigades. The Syrian Army has far greater combat power available relative to its opponent, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the fighting force of the Syrian oppostion’s military wing, the Syrian Military Council (SMC). It is further enhanced by tons of arms and sophisticated weapon systems from Russia, and additional aid from Iran, and China. Clearly, the Syrian Army is doing very little, with a lot at hand. Just playing it cool! Yet, factors influencing the Syrian Army’s actions, or lack of action, are more likely political than military and perhaps in line with the organization’s culture.

The Syrian Army
While official statistics say the Syrian Army had a strength of 220,000 troops when the war began, the International Institute for Strategic Studies believes that number has fallen to 50,000 loyal forces mainly among Allawite Special Forces, the Republican Guard, and the 3rd and 4th Divisions. However, other analysts have also estimated that when the ranks of the security forces are counted as a whole, including the Mukhabarat or Intelligence organizations, the police, and Shabeeha or paramilitaries/street gangs, the number again rises near 200, 000. The commander in chief of the Syrian Armed Forces is President Bashar al-Assad (the title also includes the rank of field marshal). Day-to-day operations are controlled by Minister of Defense and deputy commander in chief, General Fahd Jassem al-Freij, and chief of general staff of the Army and the Armed Forces, Lieutenant General Ali Abdullah Ayyoub. Lieutenant General Ayyoub took direct control of the defense of Aleppo and Damascus. Qusayr was the army’s most robust operation since. However, the operation and its success was followed on all fronts by unimaginative and moderate activity. This has helped to create a confusing picture of Syrian Army commanders’ capabilities.

Qusayr: Not A New Start
In Qusayr, the Syrian Army had specific objectives and initially acted decisively. Qusayr, was Syrian equivalent to Sinjar in Iraq. Qusayr was an entry point for foreign fighters into Syria. (Sinjar was a location determined by the US Joint Special Operations Command to be the entry point for numerous terrorist groups coming into Iraq. US operations in Sinjar had a crippling effect on al-Qaida in Iraq.) The attack on Qusayr was to have a tremedous impact on al-Qaida in Syria. Yet, in addition, by capturing Qusayr, the Syrian Army would cut off Qatari and Saudi Arabian weapons shipments to the FSA coming in covertly from Lebanon It would re-link Damascus to the coast. Further, its capture would mean the beginning of the end for FSA control of Homs province. Weeks before the attack, villages surrounding the town were captured by the army, and units from Hezbollah and the National Defense Forces militia. The town was struck by artillery fire and air sorties the morning before the assault on the town began. Being reported at the same time were Syrian Army advances on other fronts specifically on Halifaya, a town occupied by the terrorist group, the al-Nusra Front and in Damascus, in the Barzeh district. In the following three days, Syrian Army operations lost momentum. The reduction of Qusayr was then taken over by Hezbollah.

In spite of the plethora of analyses that claimed Qusayr was the start of something new for the Syrian Army. Yet, Qusayr was not part of an effort to win the war. It was an effort to eliminate a “uncomfortable advantage” the FSA had. As US Secretary of State John Kerry explained two days after the assault on Qusayr began, the battlefield advances were “very temporary.” Since then, firefights have occurred in Latakia, Aleppo, Homs, Damascus Rural, Damascus, Aqunaitirah, Deir az Zawr, Dar ‘aa, Homs, and Hama. Daily attacks on the FSA mostly take the form of artillery, rocket, and mortar fire missions against FSA strongholds and suspected bases. There have been also occasional raids and arrests, but no general movement. Rather than the start of something new, Qusayr was not the beginning of anything.

Time and Attrition
President Assad may recognize that the FSA lacks the manpower and weaponry to attack and effectively hold enough territory in Syria to claim control over the state. FSA forces, alone, would never be able to threaten what Assad cares for most, his presidency and his regime. It might be viewed that Assad is fighting the war the Syrian opposition’s political wing, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) and FSA wants. They desire time to establish a working government in the “Free Syrian Territory.” However, Assad may also feel time is on his side. He may very likely believe that allowing enough time, disunity with the SNC, disunity between the SNC and the FSA, a loss of revolutionary zeal, and a loss of motivation and morale within FSA ranks, the opposition will lose its energy. While plausible, at the moment, that does not appear likely to occur.

“The Gentler Syrian Army”
There is the possibility that the Syrian Army has avoided mass attacks and phased operations against FSA held territory because its commanders want to take a visibly less-aggressive approach in the conflict. The Syrian Army full power and capabilities have not been brought to bare on the FSA. This has given many in the international community the sense that there is no worry that the FSA would be overwhelmed, and there really is no need for emergency action, including the use of force by the US and the EU against Syria. True, the Syrian Army’s activities have been moderate, even though the death toll in Syria is high and grows steadily. (Recent Institute for International Strategic Studies estimates of civilian deaths are around 94,000.) Although the Syrian Army has recklessly fired artillery into towns and villages and Syrian Air Force has bombed civilian targets, recordings of FSA members committing crimes against humanity that were video recorded and viewed worldwide. Supporting this “gentler look” of the Syrian Army, are arguments made by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that portray Syria as the victim of European leaders “fuelling the fires of war.”

Foreign Proxies for Syria?
Rather than serve as a party to a proxy war, perhaps Syrian Army commanders hope their foreign benefactors would instead fight for Syria. The French Foreign Minister estimated that 3000 to 4000 Hezbollah fighters were in Syria. Israeli analysts estimate that 4000 Iranian officers and men from the IRGC and Quds Force were on the ground. The Russian military presence has not been specified, but in 2012, the Guardian concluded it was considerable. It is doubtful that the Russians will contribute ground forces for the fight. However, Russian advisers would unlikely move too far from S-300 or any other advance missile systems it may provide the Syrians. Reports exist of a planned Russian sale of MiG-29 fighters to Syria soon. Perhaps Russian pilots will train the Syrians in Syria and fly with them. (It is hard to see how the Syrian Air Force would absorb the weapons fast enough to ensure their use in the near term. Taking two examples from history, Russian pilots flew MiGs and drove tanks in Korea in 1950 covertly and manned anti-aircraft and intermediate range ballistic missiles in Cuba in 1962.) The Iranians would certainly be willing to fight alongside the Syrian Army much as they fought alongside the Bosnian and Herzegovina Armija from 1994 to 1995. Hezbollah is already in the fight, particularly within the Syrian provinces bordering Lebanon. As mentioned earlier, Hezbollah has been given the task to mop up FSA resistance in Qusayr. Iraqi Shi’a militia have been steadily arriving in Syria. They have come to fight. However, having its allies fight for Syria might create sovereignty issues for Assad afterward. Some allies might seek to remain in Syria and retain control of territory they might gain. Since those allies are generally more powerful than the Syrians, that could pose a real problem for Assad’s regime if it is not agreeable to such plans.

The Syrian Army’s “Business Culture”
Another factor in Syrian Army commanders’ planning of operations could be Assad’s actions to date. Assad has clearly gone too far. The commanders must realize that once peace is achieved, with the defeat of the FSA or a settlement, the international community will very likely hold those responsible for war crimes accountable. That was the case in Bosnia, where political and military officials, unable to evade justice, found themselves on trial in The Hague. Planning for life after the war, and after their military careers, is foremost in the minds of senior Syrian Army leaders. In Syria, officers receive reasonable pensions, but salaries are supplemented by entrepreneurial exploits. Many officers own hotels and resorts, defense and high-tech firms, agro-businesses and wood product firms, construction and transportation companies, as well as other industries. They form a portion of the business community. (This situation is not unusual among government bureaucrats, diplomats, and military leaders of other states in the region.) The Assad regime’s survival will enable the senior officers to retain their interests and allow them have a place to stay without fear of capture. For them, it is not best to have an all of nothing fight to the finish. They want the war to end with Syria in reasonable shape. They may even be able to retain their ranks and positions in a transitional government. However, they would unlikely have the same degree of protection from international, as well as Syrian, justice. Assad, knowing this, is likely very careful not to push his commanders too hard for big moves and more action.

It seems the presence and influence of allies and Syrian Army’s “business culture” are factors as important in planning operations in war as men and materiel in the field. Under current conditions, it is unlikely the Syrian Army will lose. Whether it would seek to destroy the FSA is unclear. As long as it is not asked to do so, it will not. Due to foreign influences on the Assad regime and a possible “openness” toward a peaceful resolution among senior Syrian Army leaders, US Secretary of State John Kerry’s approach to Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov to create peace, may be far more important to the outcome of the war in Syrian than a meeting in Geneva between the parties in conflict. However, since Syria’s journey toward the future must travelled by the Syrians, they must be present at the start of that journey.