Tunnel Vision in Syria?

I am still wondering if Russia even knows what it is doing with ISIS…


I recently finished a great book, The Soviet Afghan War: How a Superpower Fought and Lost by Lester W. Grau and Michael A. Gress. Ok, its only sort of by Grau and Gress: its really an annotated translation of the war report tendered by the Russian General Staff. For the most part it reads about as dry as one would expect a military report too. However, Grau and Gress breathe life into an otherwise monotonous report through brief editorials which tease out some key concepts that you can’t help but noticing in the Russian General Staff report.

One idea in particular stands out: part of the reason why the USSR lost in Afghanistan was because they fundamentally misunderstood the mujahideen.  Marxism may neatly outlines the conflict between Communism and Capitalism, but it leaves no room for other forces. Grau and Gress neatly show how the Soviets, who at the very least still paid lip service to Marxism-Leninism, misread the mujahideen. Rather than viewing them as highly motivated fundamentalists, the Soviets viewed them as counter-revolutionaries (at best) or Western agents (at worst). This would have led them to wholly misinterpret the mujahideen, how much they were devoted to their cause, and how they were organized. This is not unlike how the USA misread North Vietnam. The Russian General Staff assumes a Marxist worldview (although they don’t explicitly discuss this) and analyzing their report carefully confirms the editors’ arguments.

The Soviets lost Afghanistan for a number of reasons, but the false assumptions they carried into the war may have doomed them from the start.

So naturally, with this in mind, I started wondering if the same misunderstanding applies to Russia’s current foray into the Middle East.

Many in the West approve of Putin’s actions against ISIS but are far more skeptical of the whole-hearted support he is giving Assad which includes bombing Syrian rebels unaffiliated with ISIS. The bombing of rebel groups makes sense for a Russian paradigm. Russia loves to emphasize sovereignty and has had plenty of experience with rebel secession movements. For Russia, rebels are terrorists. Of course, the Syrian rebels are not secessionists. They are actively fighting to overthrow the Assad regime and establish a new government (perhaps more democratic? Or so the West would have us believe.) The West has argued for a while now that Assad’s brutality fuels terrorism and rebellion. By targeting Syrian rebels and reinforcing Assad Russia may just be compounding this phenomenon. As the Syrian rebels get put down they may become more desperate in their bid for revolution.

What follows may be even more resentment and instability. Russia assumes that Assad has popular support and that he represents legitimate government. This may be the case but Russia must remember that many, both within and without Syria, don’t share this sentiment. Of course at least Russia has an ally on the ground. This isn’t like Afghanistan where Russia opened operations with a coup. Now that was a transparently imperial act! Assad at the very least grants Russia a shred of legitimacy and a higher degree of continuity. Both of these are valuable assets for an outsider. They indicate that perhaps Russia understands that the solution to Middle East unrest must come from within.

But Russia still is rightly guided in their war against ISIS yes? In this way yes, Russia has shown remarkable improvement from the Soviet precedent. With the lessons of the Soviet-Afghan War in mind, not to mention the two Chechen Wars, Russia likely understands their enemy and won’t repeat mistakes. Russian airstrikes are still killing civilians, although this is being treated as collateral damage rather than an objective. In Afghanistan and Chechnya Russia explicitly targeted civilians. While this spread terror and achieved results, it only intensified anti-Russian sentiment and added fuel to the conflicts. Wayward bombs hurt the Russian cause, but as long as Russia focuses on strictly strategic targets they should retain the upper hand. News reports never really detail civilian costs though, so who knows? Even if Russia focuses strictly on ISIS’ infrastructure and kills no civilians they are still creating misery, and therefore anti-Russian sentiments, among citizens of the Islamic State (lets call them what they are).

With all this in mind we see that Russia’s approach is a mixed bag. The only sound judgment we can make is that Russia’s activity is, decidedly, Russian. Given the political climate, international relations, and past experience we can say that Russia’s acts are consistent and, more importantly, predictable. While Russia’s approach may be orthodox it would take a wizard to predict the possible outcomes of said approach on the conflict currently underway.

It would be impossible for any state to avoid tunnel vision in applying foreign policy, but at least we can say Russia is less clueless and imperious than the USSR ever was