War and Peace, Syrian-style

January 31, 2017

The Russian government apparently has no intention of leaving Syria…

Russian marines in Aleppo

Sergei Orlov

These two newspapers can be found lying side by side in your average Moscow supermarket. Both their front pages are about Syria. Penning an article in the Military-Industrial Courier, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu took it upon himself to sum up the Kremlin’s Middle Eastern adventure as follows: “The primary objectives facing us prior to the start of operations in Syria have been realised.” Novaya Gazeta, meanwhile, has published an investigation claiming that Russian military officials aren’t so much as considering the possibility of winding the Syrian campaign down: “There is documentary evidence to suggest that Russian troops are preparing to engage in a ground operation in Syria.”

Shoigu’s article, needless to say, makes so mention whatsoever of any civilian casualties: “Since the start of the operation,” he writes, “18,800 sorties and 71,000 airstrikes on terrorist infrastructure have been carried out by the Russian Air Force, eliminating 725 militant training camps, 405 arms factories and workshops, 1500 units of hardware, and 35,000 militants, including 204 field commanders.”

Novaya Gazeta, for its part, reveals that pamphlets serving as incontestable proof of Moscow’s plans to launch a ground operation in Syria have been distributed among the soldiers of the Akhmad Kadyrov Special-Purpose Regiment (now part of the National Guard). For example, the abundantly illustrated Visual Interpreter is designed to help Russian troops pick up at least a modicum of (rather specialised) Arabic:

“Stop!”

“Back!”

“I’ll shoot!”

“Drop your weapons!”

“Grenade!”

“Mines!”

“Chlorine!”

And so on. The cover of this publication bears the emblem of the Ministry of Defence.

A second pamphlet seen by Novaya Gazeta is entitled “Recommendations to Military Personnel Engaged in Missions in the Syrian Arab Republic,” and its cover is emblazoned with the following inscription: “The Federal National Guard Troops Service of the Russian Federation.” Although the brochure also features information about the geography, climate, language and customs of Syria, it’s certainly no hat-tip to Lonely Planet: “The content of the brochure being distributed to Russian servicemen raises a crucial important question,” declares Novaya Gazeta. “What missions have our troops in Syria actually been charged with executing if it’s necessary for them to determine who’s a combatant, who a mercenary, who a spy, and who a reconnaissance scout? What’s particularly interesting is that the brochure in question doesn’t say a word about terrorism – and this despite the fact that the principal alleged purpose of Russia’s military presence in Syria is precisely to counter international terrorism.”

It must be noted, too, that, under current Russian law, deploying National Guard troops to Syria is a definite no-no. However, a Novaya Gazeta reader with the handle Voland Xo is in no doubt that any interdiction of this ilk can easily be circumvented in Russia: “Those servile Duma hypocrites will retroactively enact any law pandering to the caprices of the autocratic vandal, including one enabling him to deploy ‘Chechen Battalions’ […] to Syria. And this wouldn’t be the first time, either – the Duma ratified the illegal annexation of Crimea after the fact as well.”

It is certain, incidentally, that a Chechen infantry presence already exists in Syria – this was confirmed in mid-January by General Mustafa AlSheikh, former head of the Free Syrian Army and the head of a Syrian opposition delegation visiting Moscow: “Chechen units were involved in the Syrian operation,” he said. “I saw Chechen troops in Aleppo, but I don’t have any numbers.” At the same time, Mustafa al-Sheikh has no objection against a broader Russian ground operation either: “Russian forces can enter Syria, any nook and cranny of Syria – we’re prepared to let them enter as long as they come with the intention of establishing peace in our country.”

Since Kremlin propaganda never forgets to trumpet the fact that Russia intervened in Syria following a request to do so by Bashar al-Assad, a new request (this time from the opposition) could represent the strongest of temptations for the Russian regime. “A Syrian assault operation is pretty much the only thing that Putin can offer Trump in exchange for the easing of sanctions,” writes a Novaya Gazeta reader with the handle Leonid. “Trump understands that such an operation would require several months to prepare. Which is Putin’s cue to tell him, ‘We can start next week if need be.’ That’s the sort of businesslike attitude that Trump would appreciate.”

Yet many moderate Syrian oppositionists are far harsher than Mustafa al-Sheikh in their assessments of Moscow’s role in the conflict. Here’s what Abdul Ilah Fahd, the secretary general of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, has to say on the matter: “We currently regard Russia as an occupier country: it invaded Syria on the side of the Assad regime and sent over warplanes that are now bombing us… But this doesn’t mean we’re not prepared to sit down at the same negotiating table as Moscow.” Meanwhile, Haitham Maleh, Haitham al-Maleh, chairman of the legal committee of Syria’s opposition coalition, knows exactly what sort of negotiating position will make the right impression on Moscow: “Given that Russia is an occupier country, we’re planning to take legal action against the Russians at the International Court [of Justice]”.

That’s as may be, but if, despite proclaiming on more than one occasion that Russian forces in Syria are to be reduced, Moscow goes ahead and launches a ground operation, it would merely be continuing down a long-since embarked-upon path. After all, when President Putin bestowed state awards on service personnel and defence industry specialists for their feats in Syria back in March 2016, he honoured not only pilots but tank gunners and artillerymen as well. And the presence in Syria of Russian ground troops was confirmed by Colonel-General Aleksandr Dvornikov that same month: I won’t deny that our Special Operations Forces are deployed in Syria,” he said. They conduct ground reconnaissance of pre-selected targets for Russian warplanes, assist in targeting warplanes in remote areas, and are engaged in other special missions.”

In addition to the Special Operations Forces presence, Russian military police personnel have also certainly been deployed to Syria (according to a report in Izvestiya,  the “Chechen”  “Vostok” and “Zapad” battalions have been transformed  into military police units), as have officers from the so-called Centre for Reconciliation. Official figures state that a mere 50 officers were attached to the Centre when it was established in early 2016, but, according to Valery Gerasimov, the Chief of the General Staff, each of them is worth a whole army: “During the liberation of Aleppo, the Russian Reconciliation Centre ensured safe passage out of the city for over 136,000 civilians.” Furthermore, experts from the International Anti-Mine Centre of the Russian Armed Forces are also active in Syrian cities. Once again, commanders’ reports could help us estimate how numerous these experts might be. According to Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, “66,000 tons of explosives” were found and disarmed “by Anti-Mine Centre specialists in Aleppo alone.”

But the story of Russia’s involvement in Syria does not, by any means, end there. The Syrian conflict has also attracted thousands of Russian mercenaries who are secretly being overseen by the GRU. These people – the majority of them former servicemen – have been recruited by a private military company (PMC) known as “Wagner,” and it is their involvement in the war (and the casualties they have suffered in it) that allows the Kremlin to minimise official losses. A former PMC officer describes the mechanics of the Kremlin’s hybrid war as follows:  “First the Wagner guys go in, followed by Russian ground forces, and, finally, by the Arabs and the cameras.”

It is unclear when the pamphlets designed to bring Russian infantrymen up to speed on Syrian life were printed. It could well be that they came into being before the current truce, and are being distributed now simply out of inertia. Yet there’s another possibility, too: with the ink barely dry on the pages of the brochures, the Kremlin, which is playing the “Syrian Game” on several chessboards simultaneously, is using one of these boards to prepare a full-scale ground operation. Which of these scenarios – the peaceful one, or the military one – will eventually be implemented by Moscow in what is, lest we forget, a pre-election year? This question can, as always, be answered by one man alone.

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