Beware of “analysts”: How to assess Russian operations in Syria


November 16, 2015 –

Valentin Domogadsky, PolitRussia – 

Translated for Fort Russ by J. Arnoldski

“On the ‘slow pace’ of operations in Syria”

For already the fifth week, Russian aircraft have methodically and quite effectively wiped Syrian Islamists off the face of the earth, and in doing so actively helped Syrian government forces to begin a full-scale offensive on October 6. Despite the fact that these political and military operations are widely, almost in commodity form, presented today, the blogosphere is filled with disappointment and gloom. 

More than a month ago, dozens of competent analysts and experts on the Ukrainian crisis, finding in themselves analytical skills in the field of military affairs, the organizational structures of modern terrorism, and ethno-religious palettes of the Middle East, now emphasize that they don’t see the successes of the Syrian army’s offensive operations supported by the Russian air force. Aleppo supposedly hasn’t been captured, Palmyra hasn’t been retaken, and Idlib has not been cleaned up. From this it is concluded that our bombardments haven’t had any effect and that the Syrian Arab Army doesn’t know how to fight. However, this recent phenomenon is not unique. 

How they “ditched” Donbass

We could observe a similar phenomenon during the conflict in South-Eastern Ukraine. Many paid attention to those who suddenly became the recognized leaders of the “anti-fascist movement.” Yesterday’s faithful sons of the Fatherland, at the snap of a finger, changed signs and joined the camp of those claiming that “Putin ditched them.” Many presumed that these authors had sponsors. However, this “flight of patriots” has a much simpler explanation. 

Top bloggers and activists who in their time were forced to leave Ukraine regarded the beginning of the uprising in Donbass as their personal ticket to big politics. Assuming that the Kremlin needed faithful and popular people on the ground for realizing its supposed conception of “Novorossiya from Kharkov to Odessa”, top bloggers started to create their images. And in politics, as is known, the main thing is to pose beautifully and not disappear from the information sphere. 

Seeing the necessity to increase their political weight, “anti-fascist activists” were forced to take care of their images. Thus, they began endless analytical marathons in social media, started appearing on popular political shows, broadcasting live from Skype, participating in numerous conferences, and giving presentations at respective club meetings. The most businesslike and intelligent got into organizing humanitarian deliveries, which at the time was the most effective tool for entering the local managerial elite. After all, who ever “feeds” then gets to “run the show.” 

Thus, the amazing activeness of a number of top bloggers and anti-fascist activists cannot be explained by philanthropy (although there was such) but by banal self interest. These guys simply longed to get into Ukrainian politics either by the bayonets of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation or the Novorossiya Armed Forces. They cut out juicy fiefdoms for themselves by cultivating a good image, good relations with the local elite, and by feeding people. 

However, the wet dreams of “Ukrainian refugees” didn’t come true as the Russian military-political leadership had its own vision of Ukraine’s future. And this future did not mean resolving the conflict by rushing tanks all the way to the Moldovan border. This instantly zeroed-out all the ambitious plans of these people to return to big Ukrainian politics. Resentment towards the Kremlin which had “ditched everything” and “kicked up its feet”, pushing Donbass back, came precisely from this. Many simply saw themselves as future assistants to the mayors of Odessa or Dnepropetrovsk. Others saw their futures, as a minimum, with awards for being general field marshals of White Novorossiya. However, none of this came to be. 

But this insignificant category of defeatists interests us only in the context of political prostitution. The nature of the origin of low morale in society is quite different in the case of adequate patriots from those who can be seen in the camp of “future Novorossiya officials.”

This category of those who claim “they ditched us” consists mainly of military-political observers and analysts who, by the very nature of their professions, are obliged to make predictions. And these experts, like many others, have one certain feature. They resort to the trite practice of “translating” the point of view of official military-political authorities while putting forth their own personal visions of problems as truth…

Thus, in their time the concepts of an inevitable storming of Mariupol, Perekop, Kiev, and Lvov by militia forces appeared.  These authors categorically stated that the UAF had all the necessary resources and strength and that folders with such plans were already on the tables of representatives of the military-political leadership and that everything could start any day now. But then the Kremlin intervened and brought the republics to the “treacherous Minsk agreements.”

In this case, we are dealing with a graceful sophistic trick. The author, devoid of any literary gift, puts forth analytical materials based solely on a personal understanding of the problems, conditions, and policies of the high leadership. Roughly speaking, these analysts acted as the translators for official Moscow, putting their stamp as if it was the Kremlin’s. 

In a nutshell, this whole armada of analysts and bloggers, after the referendum in Crimea and the appearance of Strelkov in Slavyansk, convinced themselves that Moscow is planning to return all of Ukraine with the help of coercive tools. That is, tomorrow we’ll take Kharkov and after tomorrow – Odessa, and after a week – Kiev. But at some point, these analysts’ fragile picture of the world crashed with harsh reality in which there is no direct military intervention of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation in the Ukrainian crisis.

What is to be done with the thousands of published analytical materials and predictions under the label “Russian World” and “Novorossiya from Kharkov to Odessa” is completely unknown. Decent authors either modestly ignored the new political configuration or acknowledged that they got too excited. The rest continued to push their line. Supposedly, the analyst is correct, the conviction is unchanged, but the problem is the military-political leadership of the Kremlin, which either doesn’t understand what it’s doing (“one step forward, two steps back”) or is simply afraid.

That is, these authors acted on behalf of the Kremlin without any idea of what is happening in the Kremlin itself. And today they oppose the military-political leadership of Russia with their own images from last year. 

How they’re “ditching” Syria

Something analogous is happening today. In early October, after the first airstrikes of the Russian air force, this whole armada of “Ukrainian” analysts began to don the caps of Syrian fighters. Supposedly, after a month or two government forces will dip their boots in the water of the Euphrates. The Russian air force intervened anyway. The insatiable desire to beat the enemy without a serious fight and not take him seriously forms the root of today’s “frustration” with the situation in Syria. 

As in the case of the conflict in Donbass, analysts have put their stamp as the Kremlin’s and put forth their private views on the upcoming offensive of government forces supported by Russian aircraft as if such are the plans of our (or Syria’s) general staff. 

We have traced the process of “analytical evolution” of a number of popular experts and revealed an interesting pattern: in early October, observers rushed to give their forecasts on the prospects of an operation and customized their informational relays and reports from the front line while ignoring the mass of news. Thus, by the beginning of the third week of the government’s ground operations, the gap between what is happening in Syria and analytical materials became apparent, and the authors of forecasts turned the blame around for discrepancies on the Ministry of Defense and the Syrian Arab Army. Just as in the case of Donbass, bloggers’ forecasts were unfulfilled not because of the total incompetence of the forecasters, but because of the “miscalculations” of the Russian military-political leadership. This is a classic of the genre. 

However, the main source of defeatist and decadent moods is not those who don’t treat the situation seriously, but those analysts that are quite competent and respected. They specialize, as a rule, in the Ukrainian crisis, the Russian-American cabal, and European issues. However, the decision of our military-political leadership brought changes to the information agenda, and in connection with this these personages have turned their sights to the Syrian conflict. And having a few dozen reads of their analytical materials on events in Syria gives them a kind of “shortcut” to covering the conflict. 

Unfortunately, all of this “beautiful writing”…appears to be quite convincing, especially for those who started following the Syrian conflict on September 30th of this year. 

“Don’t read Soviet newspapers before lunch”

If we abstract ourselves from all of this literary orgy surrounding the Syrian conflict, then the advance of government forces with the aid of Russian aircraft can surely be called a success. In the space of one month, more than 120 residential areas, ten of which are strategically important communicated nodes, have been liberated. Around 60 field commanders and Amir fighters have been liquidated. The directorates of the Islamists in Idlib, Hama, and Homs have been partially disorganized, and more than 300 command and control facilities have been destroyed. They’ve also run into problems with supplying fighters with materials and equipment. Around 200 workshops and factories for manufacturing ammunition have been leveled. In particular, this is evidenced by the rapidly declining number of anti-tank missile launchers… 

Among other things, the process of political settlement of the conflict recently reached a new level: parties have already exchanged lists of terrorists and “moderates,” recognized the necessity of maintaining a secular state, and have already decided that Assad doesn’t necessarily have to go…

Concerning the “slow pace” of government forces’ advances, let us focus on two military operations which have a few similarities with the current SAA offensive.

The first operation was the storm of the Iraqi city of Fallujah by American coalition forces in November, 2004. The occupational contingent of 14,000 fighters was opposed by nearly 3,000 Islamists. Before storming, a few city blocks were pounded by coalition aircraft. The direct ground operation lasted three weeks. That is, the professional American army, four times the strength of the Islamists…took three weeks to deal with 3,000 fighters. 

The Syrian army has had a dozen such Fallujah’s with militants on the frontline. However, the level of combat readiness of government forces is in no way comparable to the American army in 2004. And, once again, the Russian air force doesn’t have the possibility of systematically leveling cities to the ground on the principle of “no home, no problem.” And today’s Syrian rebels, in comparison with the forces that resisted the Americans during the first years of the occupation of Iraq, are warriors without fear or reproach. The Syrian Arab Army has long been fighting against groups which a number of regional states are most likely unable to stand up against. Also, government forces don’t have a superiority of number. 

The second example is of a different scale, but in assessing the prospects of the Syrian conflict, it is our opinion that this should be relied on. This is the experience of the Second Chechen War. The mass-scale military operation of the Russian armed forces began in August, 1999 and finished after almost a year in the summer of 2000. Finally, the problem was resolved in 2009, when the counter-terrorist operation was cancelled. If we are trying to guess the timeframe of the operation, then we should focus on the example of the Chechen campaign.

However, there are several caveats. The modern Syrian army, unfortunately, is not up to the standards of our armed forces even of the 1990’s. The scale of the operation is also incomparable. It’s enough to glance at the map and calculate how much money the sponsors of terrorism are providing to the militants today. Yet, despite a number of inconsistencies, assessing the prospects of the Syrian army is appropriate on the basis of the Chechen example. 

We can assume that what we gained over the course of the experiences of two Chechen wars forms the basis for planning military operations, and the process of politically solving the conflict. It can be betted that Russian specialists are already searching for their “Syrian Akhmad Kadyrov.” 

Note from J. Arnoldski: This article might at first glance appear to be confusing, irrelevant, or too abstract for Western readers, so a brief explanation and setting of its context is in order. Domogadsky has two goals in this piece: (1) warning readers of those “Hurrah-patriots” and “one-hit wonder analysts” from the time of the climax of the Russian Spring who subsequently claimed that  “the Kremlin ditched Novorossiya” and who are starting to do the same with Syria; and (2) asserting that Russian operations in Syria can indeed be called a success so far. 

In regards to the first point, Domogadsky attempts to explain the phenomenon of so-called “analysts” who, at the height of the Donbass uprising and civil war, positioned themselves as if they were at the forefront of Kremlin policy-making. When their adventurous and ambitious “forecasts” of the turn of events in Ukraine proved to be unfounded or ridiculous, they quickly blamed the Kremlin for being inconsistent when it was in fact their own delusions which confused the situation the entire time. Domogadsky claims that “disappointment” with the Russian leadership’s decisions during this period of heightened geopolitical conflict is not even the fault of these adventurous “analysts” who operate on the basis of self-interest or delusion, but in fact the fault of entirely competent analysts who have failed to take a longer-term perspective before declaring forecasts whose failure to actualize is supposedly the work of a “treacherous Kremlin”, and whose “misfires” are picked up by the former group in arousing the “Kremlin ditched everything” slogan. This is a crucial controversy which is relevant within the framework of information war.

As regards the second point, Domogadsky claims that Russian-Syrian joint operations have been a tremendous success when put into their proper context. Those “patriots” discussed above are wrong to assume that any Russian military operation will be swift, merciless, and accomplished with a stroke of brute force. Instead, Domogadsky proposes that the long-term, strategic and cautious approach of the Russian leadership should be taken as a barometer. Moreover, Domogadsky’s brief drawing of a comparison between Syria and Chechnya, and his claim that Russia is seeking a “Chechen solution” for Syria, is entirely novel and original. 

While these points might be self-evident or obvious to some, they are important points of controversy among participants in the information war, and Domogadsky’s work is both a rebuttal and proposal aimed at those seeking to combat Western propaganda and work out cohesive, realistic analyses of geopolitical developments and the actions of the Russian leadership within the limited space that it has to operate in a multi-front war. 

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