Russia’s policy of bloody deterrence and intimidation is reaping battlefield victories, and exposing US fecklessness in Syria.  President Obama has decided the risk of alienating the Syrian population and providing propaganda fodder for ISIS and other anti-Western organizations outweighs the benefits of a substantive military intervention, but Russian President Vladimir Putin’s s opposite strategy moots the theory.  Syrians afflicted by foreign military intervention and Islamists capitalizing on it are unlikely to parse their anger according to which foreign power actually caused their losses.

Particularly since ISIS bombed a MetroJet airliner on October 31, 2015, killing 224 people, including 219 Russians, the Russian and American campaigns in Syria could not be more different.  Russia now operates four forward operating bases in Syria and claims to have flown more than 4,000 sorties and hit 8,000 targets since September 30, 2015 and to have conducted fifty-nine sorties on December 15 alone, hitting 212 targets, killing 321 ISIS fighters and destroying 100 oil facilities.

After the MetroJet bombing, Russia also deployed ground forces to Syria for the first time.  According to Lt. Colonel James G. Zumwalt, USMC (Ret.):

Comparable to our own elite fighters of Delta Force, Russian special forces have an operational edge ours do not. While battlefield actions by U.S. forces will, appropriately, always be defined by the laws of land warfare, Russian special forces historically have tossed their moral compass aside. By doing so, they convey a clear message—in blood—to adversaries.

After Moscow invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, Russian special forces were tasked to implement “regime change.” Wearing Afghan uniforms, they quickly secured strategic government buildings in Kabul. Storming the presidential palace, they followed through on orders to kill every Afghan in the building. Not only was Afghan President Hafizullah Amin killed along with his mistress and young son, but so too were all witnesses…

In October 1985, a radical Muslim Brotherhood splinter group kidnapped four Soviet diplomats in Beirut. By the time Russian special forces reached the city, one of the diplomats had already been executed…

With the kidnappers’ names in hand, the Russians immediately rounded up their family members, taking them hostage. They then cut off hostages’ body parts, delivering them to the militants along with the threat to continue making deliveries. The militants got the message.

In keeping with past Putin’s previous wars in Chechnya and Georgia, Russian strategy includes destruction of opponents’ real or perceived assets without regard for civilian casualties.

The US effort in Syria is more or less the opposite.  Defense Department figures do not provide the number of sorties flown to date by US forces, but claim 2,878 “strikes” in Syria since November, 2014.  This translates to Russian aircraft hitting roughly three times as many targets in about a fifth of the time, or about fifteen times the rate of US aircraft.

US forces are slowed not only by President Obama’s failure to provide clear goals, but by his imposition of crippling targeting limitations.  75% of US aircraft return without having dropped ordinance, largely because President Obama commanded that there be “zero” civilian casualties.  President Obama also refused to strike the oil fields and tankers that are the source of the bulk of ISIS’s income out of environmental considerations.

On the ground, the US’s troop commitment is a “nominal force of non-combatant advisers.”

The White House’s political resistance is understandable, if inappropriate.  President Obama’s premature withdrawal of troops from Iraq was instrumental in ISIS’s rise and his failure to recognize ISIS’s capabilities allowed it to create a state and a global terrorist threat.  Strenuous US anti-ISIS efforts today just serve to illustrate how wrong he was.

The failure and success of the US and Russian approaches respectively are decisive.  In around fourteen months, the US has located and killed some senior ISIS personnel, including spokesman “Jihadi John” and oil chief Abu Sayyaf, but made little material impact.  In only two-and-a-half months, Putin’s s more aggressive approach has stopped anti-Assad forces’ expansion and begun to push back the front lines.

Russia’s greater influence on the ground is such that Secretary of State Kerry conceded the longstanding Russian position that Assad will remain as Syria’s leader, despite longstanding US demands that he must go.

This is not to say Russia’s unrestrained warfare is good or wise.  A strategy of carpet bombing Syrian cities is preposterous, pointless, self-defeating and arguably criminal.

It is also very likely that Russia has provided fuel for the ISIS propaganda victory.  There is real power in the image of rapacious Russian invaders returning once again to face self-proclaimed Islamic jihadists, after the mujahideen drove them bloodied from Afghanistan twenty-seven years ago.

The current US passivity nevertheless cannot achieve any conceivable positive outcome.  It drains military resources, exhausts men and materiel, and costs enormous amounts of money to no end.

Going forward, President Obama must formulate clear goals and adopt a strategy for achieving them that takes account of Russian aggressiveness.  Foreign powers are imposing their will in Syria, and whether it is Russian or American munitions causing the destruction makes no difference to the Syrians affected or the crop of international recruits flocking to Syria to defend ISIS’s caliphate.


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