The conflict in Syria started in early 2011 as part of the Arab Spring. This blog started writing about events there in March that year. The situation was simple, a brutal dictator who was Alawite (a branch of Shia Islam) was ruling over and suppressing a population that was largely Sunni. This has been the core of the conflict to this day, a religious Shia Vs Sunni war. Alongside the other such wars in Iraq and Yemen.
Eventually Assad, who was losing, got support from the Lebanese Shia militia known as Hezbollah and from Iran, so the Sunnis retaliated with Qatar and Saudia Arabia giving billions of dollars to the CIA to ship weapons from Libya to the rebels. Assad retaliated by dropping thousands of barrel bombs from helicopters onto civilians in the rebel cities, killing possibly as many as two hundred thousands Sunnis and creating 9 million refugees, many of whom are now coming to Europe.
In August 2013 the British and USA governments were planning to bomb and unseat Assad, thus hoping to bring an end to the conflict. This was scuppered by the actions of Ed Miliband and the Labour party.
In the midst of all the chaos, in 2014 there emerged ISIS, ISIL, IS, Islamic State who sought to create a Sunni Salafist state (much like Saudi Arabia is) in the middle of the power vacuum. If you use Google you will find much evidence that IS is the creation of Mossad and the CIA. Certainly they have acted very strangely, attacking the Sunni rebel groups and not attacking Assad very much. Also they imported large numbers of foreign fighters.
Eventually IS became too successful in creating their new country so we started attacking them in Iraq and then in Syria. This was spectacularly stupid, they were no threat to us. It is gratifying to see the new Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, removing his armed forces from the conflict as one of his first acts on being elected.
Within the conflict there are two very important weapon technologies that have shaped the whole war. The first is the Anti Tank Guided Missile (ATGM), these are lightweight, man portable, missiles in a tube that can take out enemy armor and fortifications. Largely a defensive weapon they have prevented Assad’s professional army, with their heavy armor, from having any success. There are many videos on YouTube of his tanks being blown up by ATGMs. The second is the Man Portable Air Defence (MANPAD), another lightweight, man portable, missile that can take out attack aircraft and helicopters. We don’t like giving these to rebels anywhere in case they end up with terrorists and are used to bring down airliners at Western airports. Nevertheless in the past the rebels have got their hands on a limited supply of these, though not enough to stop the barrel bombs.
Russia has long been a supporter of Assad, but not because he is a Shia! Syria provides Putin with a warm water Mediterranean port and the Russia/Syria alliance provides a regional counterbalance to the immense USA influence in Turkey and Israel. Also Russia are very close to Iran, who are fighting on Assad’s side. So when Assad started looking like he was in real trouble Putin intervened, most visibly starting about a month ago. This is what he brought to the party:
- Lots and lots of brand new, high quality equipment for the Syrian military
- Air defence fighters to dominate the airspace over Syria and to deny it to others
- S-300 (maybe S-400) air defence systems. Immensely powerful these can control a large area of the Middle East’s skies.
- Cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea. This was just showing off.
- Ground attack aircraft.
- Attack helicopters.
- Intelligence gathering aircraft.
- Drones. Both for intelligence gathering and for attack.
- “Mercenaries” of ex Russian an Soviet State origin. To augment the Syrian army on the ground.
To understand events it is incredibly important to realise what Putin is doing militarily. He is fighting against Assad’s enemies in those places where Assad is under attack. He might say he is attacking IS or “terrorists” but this is a lie, he will only attack IS where they are threatening Assad. Which makes this map very important:
Compare what Putin is doing with what the US led alliance is doing and you can see that they have completely different aims and are going after completely different targets. More than that their tactics are different. The rebels (including IS) in Syria are embedded in the local population, so are difficult to strike from the air. The alliance is using 100% smart weapons and their aircraft often return without using them. Putin is far less squeamish about collateral damage and is using mainly dumb weapons, especially cluster bombs, that are indiscriminately killing everyone, including the civilians (once again he is lying about it). This is leading to a huge new surge in refugees and even more migrants coming to Europe.
So now we have a very complex war. Sunni Vs Shia, IS Vs everyone, Iran Vs Saudi Arabia, Russia Vs Assad’s enemies, Kurds Vs Turkey + Assad + IS and so on. And every side has escalated in response to Russia’s actions. Saudi Arabia sent one shipment of 500 TOW ATGMs to the rebels and there are now many videos of these being used with great enthusiasm against Assad’s military, blunting any gains they might have had from the Russian presence. The Americans have been air dropping ammunition to the rebels. But the big one will be if and when MANPADs arrive. Then we will see Putin losing aircraft and Assad’s barrel bomb threat being removed.
Putin’s involvement in the conflict has not brought him the gains he might have expected. The conflict has intensified, the Syrian military and the rebels are both taking more casualties. But Putin cannot and will not beat the rebels, they represent the majority Sunni population. Just as the alliance cannot possibly beat IS, even smart bombs don’t work against ideas. What we are seeing is Vietnam or Afghanistan all over again. An insurgency with asymmetrical warfare. Totally unwinnable. Putin has committed himself to the evil Assad and in doing so has fallen into a trap. This is going to cost him dear. The Russian economy is in very big trouble and he cannot afford a highly expensive military adventure that could drag on for years and years. But he will lose immense credibility with just about everyone if he tries to extricate himself.
The only viable solution to the Syria situation is to partition it into maybe four new states. To do that we need to be talking to all the parties. Including IS.