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Syria: Does Russia have it all its own way? What can go wrong for Russia?

October 20, 2015

Summary: The West should be cautious not to overstate the effectiveness of Russian military actions in and around Syria. A lot of things can go wrong in anti-terror operations as the US can testify…

Russia is certainly benefitting from the seizing of strategic initiative and its media is making much of its highly pro-active role. Russia is inserting itself into the US-shaped hole in the Middle East and the West is being made to look and feel wrong-footed. But the focus is perhaps too much on the powerful impact that Russia is having at the moment and less aboout the mid- and long-term problems that can emerge.

Russian airstrikes in SyriaThis colonial flag (and fast-jet) waving Russian venture has many weaknesses that will likely emerge with time. Russia is enjoying the same form of “honeymoon”period that US forces enjoyed in Afghanistan – and, yes, even in Iraq – with initial military engagement and some swift superficial success.

But Russia will drop bombs in the wrong place. Russian aircraft will crash. Russian military personnel will suffer casualties. If Russians fall into the hands of ISIS, they can expect a highly public and unpleasant death that even Russia Today will not be able to conceal or spin. Surface to Air Missiles and anti-tank weapons will emerge in the hands of terrorist groups. A collection of asymmetric attacks from ill-defined militia/terrorist/fundamentalist groups will inevitably land rockets, mortars, IEDs and suicide bombs on Russian political, military and economic targets – and not just those Russian targets inside Syria. It is happening already:

13 October 2015: Two shells hit the Russian embassy Tuesday in the Syrian capital of Damascus as hundreds took part in a rally to thank Moscow for its intervention in the civil war. A report by the Associated Press (AP) said that it was not clear if there were any casualties, but another report by Agence France-Presse (AFP) confirmed that there were no casualties.

There can be no clever use of “Little Green Men” here – no close cultural, linguistic and popular ties to help special forces to operate and gather intelligence or to enable friendly and obedient militia groups to spring up. Russia will likely experience the same insurgency frustrations that the US has done since 2001 – trying to shoot mosquitos with a cannon, or eat soup with a knife. Whichever metaphor we choose, there is little evidence that Russia has the skills for this.

While Mr Putin congratulates himself for his vigorous new venture, he might consider that there are very good reasons why the US has struggled here and backed away. Just a matter of time?

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