Can Russia prevail in Syria and Iraq with ‘boots off the ground’?
BEIRUT - “Boots off the ground” has been the US military strategy in various world conflicts with the aim of winning battles without committing ground forces.
The doctrine suggests that using superior air power and long-range missile attacks allow moderately equipped local forces to advance and defeat superior adversaries. Victory can be largely claimed as locally attained rather than externally imposed. Libya presented a successful model in which a NATO air campaign against dictator Muammar Qaddafi helped secure a quick victory for the local opposition.
But that strategy against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq has been anything but a success. Since August 2014, more than 22 countries, led by the United States, have joined the air campaign against ISIS. According to a New York Times report, the year-long campaign has involved the dropping of more than 5,600 bombs on ISIS positions with a running cost that exceeds $3.21 billion.
Realities on the ground, however, have hardly changed. ISIS continues to advance on various fronts, capturing Ramadi in Iraq and the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra. Strategic adjustments evident in the reinforcement and equipping of local ground forces — Syrian, Iraqi and Kurdish — have failed to stop ISIS. On occasions, embarrassing strategic blunders have seen US-supplied weapons handed over to ISIS and al-Qaeda-affiliated groups.
In the midst of Western military setbacks and amid the near collapse of the Iraqi and Syrian states, accompanied by mounting fears of massive refugee exodus and sectarian pogroms, Russia has stepped in. This time, and in order to win the war, it has offered its own version of “boots off the ground”.
Russian President Vladimir Putin seems confident of the success of his strategy. His bid appears to be vested in commanding ground forces that are much more committed and eager for his leadership. Iranian, Iraqi and Syrian armies and their accompanying anti-Sunni militias find in Russia a trusted and uncompromising ally.
In addition, and contrary to the Americans and Europeans, Russian resolve is apparent in taking a clear side on the sectarian battlefield. It requires no diplomacy or approval of Sunni majority states such as Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
In fact, Russia’s recent engagement appears to be a desperate move to preserve vital regional interests. Russia’s gas supplies to Europe have been challenged by a proposed natural gas pipeline from Qatar to Turkey via Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria, a joint venture that would significantly curtail Russian powers and undermine its economy. Russian enmity towards Saudi Arabia has become more evident following sliding oil prices largely blamed on the kingdom.
There are, of course, other religious aspects of this “off the ground” campaign. The Russian Orthodox Church has given its blessing to Russian soldiers joining the battlefield in what has come to resemble a call for a “holy war” to counter that which was ordered by ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The restoration of a “lost” Christian state in Iraq and Syria is sure to charge the morals of the Russian fighters.
To win the battle, Putin’s first mission appears to be centred on removing immediate threats to the Syrian government by protecting the Alawite regime’s eastern coast where Russian airbases and Mediterranean fleet are stationed. His second priority is to provide effective air support to the advancing Syrian and Iranian ground troops and Shia militias confronting Sunni militants.
For that purpose, Russia is wasting no time in establishing an information centre to coordinate air and ground operations among Iranian, Syrian and Iraqi militaries.
For Russia’s “boots off the ground” campaign to achieve a decisive victory, several prerequisites are required. First, the international opposition to Russian intervention should not materialise in the form of asymmetric warfare though proxies. Second, the international anti-Assad alliance should gradually be weakened and removed. Third, the international and regional stakes in stability should overcome priorities for regime change.
Russia is optimistic about achieving these requirements. It finds little urgency among the anti-Assad alliance to arm radical Syrian Islamist groups. Europeans, Americans and Russians are equally fearful of the “Talibanisation” of Syria.
This is contributing to growing divisions among the anti-Assad coalition. Egypt, for instance, has expressed greater convergence with and support for the Russian position in the region to curb Sunni fundamentalism. Europe, on the other hand, has grown increasingly aware of the rising influx of refugees flooding Western borders, largely perceived as a looming threat against European unity and domestic security. European enthusiasm for regime change is losing steam in favour of stability, even if achieved in partnership with Syria’s President Bashar Assad.
Looking at the battle from the air, Putin may appear to be winning the ground. More territories may soon be captured by the Syrian Army supported by Iranian and Shia ground troops. Syrian opposition groups along with ISIS forces may retreat from various areas. Entire Sunni populated towns may fall into the hands of the Syrian regime and Shia allies. Maps may soon be redrawn to reveal new fault lines.
On the ground, however, observers will note that following Russian intervention the battle is no longer solely about winning or losing Syrian territories. The Russian warplanes may have only introduced new factors that would infuriate sectarian grievances and implicate Sunni Islam everywhere.
Such a situation is sure to confirm suspicions of a new crusade and bring the confrontation closer to what political scientist Samuel Huntington described as the “Clash of Civilisations”. In such a struggle, Russians’ boots will be destined to touch much wider and unanticipated grounds.