Posted by Curt on 19 February, 2018 at 3:57 pm. 3 comments already!


The death of “dozens” of Russian mercenaries in Syria — some reports say “hundreds” — is quite significant.  Russia under Vladimir Putin has been playing a weak hand skillfully, so skillfully as to have convinced many people that Russia is a rising rather than a declining power.  America is doing itself no favors by going along with the Russian propagandists on this score:  when Radio Free Europe paints these ‘mercenaries’ as having been discarded as unimportant, it gives credence to the Kremlin’s claims that they have little control over their deployment.  In fact, the use of deniable assets is key to Russia’s approach.

What that means is that there is a significant mismatch in US commitment to this conflict, versus Russian commitment.  That endangers American servicemembers and our allies.  The United States needs to rethink its commitment to this war.  Either the US should fight it as the very serious high-stakes conflict its enemies think this war is, or it should pull back to more defensible lines.  To do otherwise is to court having our forces overrun.

I.  The Russian Involvement in Syria Underscores the Strategic Importance of that War

Russia has real but limited military resources, and deniable assets like the ‘mercenaries‘ employed by the PMC Vagner organization represent a strategic investment for the Russians.  Deniable assets deployed in Syria cannot be deployed in Ukraine, for example, where the Russians are also hotly contesting a civil war.  How important are such deniable forces?  The United States recently announced the sale of Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukrainian forces, designed to deal with “unlabeled tanks.”  Similarly unlabeled men — called “little green men” in the press, and thought to be Russian special operations forces — have been at the forefront of Russian support for its partisans in that conflict.  The “little green men” also appeared in Russia’s successful conquest of Crimea.  Mercenaries provide an additional layer between the operators and the native partisans.  Reports from Syria indicate that the Vagner organization is serving to prepare the ground for formal Russian special operators, and as an assault force that can afford to take casualties at rates that would be ruinous if they cost the lives of expensive-to-train special operators.

Given the usefulness of such forces in Ukraine and elsewhere, then, the use of these mercenaries in Syria is significant.  The Ukrainian conflict has not gone entirely in Moscow’s favor, but they are using these forces in Syria instead.

Why would they do that?  The Russians correctly understand that the battles being fought right now in the Middle East are going to determine the structure of the world’s power relationships for at least a generation.  The questions at stake include whether Russia will continue to have a naval base in the Mediterranean sea; whether Iran will cement its domination of the northern Middle East, and its oil; whether the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, will have their own oil exports subject to closure by Iran and its proxies; and whether or not the United States will remain a major player in the Middle East at all.  Turkey’s status, and thus NATO’s continued viability, are in play as the Turks are being pulled away from the West by this conflict.  Israel’s survival is not necessarily of much interest to the Russians, but it is certainly also an issue that could be settled by this conflict insofar as it enables Iranian domination of Syria and Lebanon.  A lot is at stake.

II.  War and Proxy War: Players and State of Play

Now that it is evident that the Russians value outcome of the Syrian war highly, and that they have good reasons for doing so, let us run through the basic state of play.  For Syria, Iraq, and Turkey, this is more a war than a proxy war.  Their military forces are engaged in the war fully.  Syria’s military is in tatters, however.  Iraq’s performed reasonably well against the Islamic State (ISIS) with both US and Iranian support, but it is not clear whether it can act independently. Of all the nations involved in this war, only the Turks have forces that could immediately engage the war with the capabilities of combined arms, large numbers, and coherence in logistics and training.

For Iran, Russia, and the United States, this is more of a proxy war than a war.  Each of these powers is pursuing their own ends via the support of different coalitions of native forces.  Iran took an early lead here via its support to regional Shi’a militias across Mesopotamia and the Levant.  These forces are irregular but numerous and widespread.  Some of them are also well-established and well-provisioned with arms, especially Lebanese Hezbollah and those Iraqi militias that the Iranians supported against the United States during the Iraq War.

The Russians came late, backing a Syrian regime that has already had its formal forces shattered by the civil war.  The Syrian forces that the Russians and Iranians are propping up are not powerful.  That is why the Syrian government continues to use chemical weapons:  their traditional forces are too weak to bring the conflict to a close.  On the other hand, Russia’s geostrategic opponent — the United States — has chosen to engage the war with quite limited military assets, backing a coalition led by Kurdish fighters that are chiefly talented irregulars.  The Kurds are also politically divided, and geographically strung out.  The Russians believe they can contest the US-backed irregulars.  In addition to their own operators and direct proxies, the Russians count on bringing to bear Syria’s limited forces and Iranian-backed proxies including Shi’a militias.

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