We all know that Afghanistan didn’t go well for the Soviet Union when they invaded in 1979. Indeed, it hasn’t gone all that well for us since we invaded in the aftermath of 9/11. Certainly, there are lots of lessons we could have learned from the Soviet experience that I’m guessing we didn’t, and there are even more lessons that the Russia of today could have learned from our experiences there.
So now Russia is sending aircraft, tanks, troops, and materiel into Syria to help their old friend Bashar al-Assad. And I have to wonder if they have taken any lessons from our shared experiences in Afghanistan. Because whatever they have learned, it certainly doesn’t seem to have dissuaded them from taking this on.
If news reports are to be believed, Russia is setting up a substantial base near Latakia, Syria’s port city on the Mediterranean – and sufficiently distant from Syria’s threatened borders to be defensible. Reports are saying that supplies are being airlifted in, and ships are or will be arriving with presumably heavier equipment. Russia looks to be getting into this for the long haul.
This, all while the USA, Canada, Britain, and more are flying drones and fighters on attack missions over Syrian soil and perhaps not too far from Russia’s newly fortified presence.
Somewhat ironic in this is that we (the West) are against Assad (though not attacking his interests) and against Islamic State and the rest, while Russia is for Assad and still against Islamic State (IS) and the rest. Just about everyone is against IS and the rest, for that matter, just as those groups are mostly against everyone else. So the West and Russia are basically attacking the same enemy in IS but opposed in how they want the overall conflict to turn out.
Of course, the situation on the ground in Syria is complicated by how many different groups are fighting for a piece of it. IS might be the one that most people on this side of the pond know about, but there’s the Al-Nusra Front, Jabhat Ansar al-Din, Fatah al-Islam, the Kurdish Peshmerga, Kurdistan Worker’s Party, and lots more…and most of these don’t get along with each other. I understand only what I’ve read about it, but it sure looks like chaos to me.
Russia is wading into this, hopefully having learned some lessons. But do you know who has learned the most lessons? The jihadis. Taking the experience of fighting the Soviets, Americans, Canadians, Brits, etc. in Afghanistan, they have shown increasing resilience to attack by – quite literally – the best we’ve got (or at least the best we’re willing to commit.)
We (the ‘coalition’) have been aerially bombarding IS for months and their territory has only expanded. As we drop bombs, sometimes on the wrong people, they seemingly operate with impunity.
Which brings me the basic law of warfare, and that is that you cannot take or hold territory without troops.
So if Russia is to assist in keeping Syria intact and Bashar al-Assad in power, they must at some point put troops on the ground and in harms’ way. And once that happens they are in for the full pound, essentially turning Syria into a proxy state representing a serious foothold for Russia in the Middle East and on the Mediterranean.
The question is: Did they learn enough from Afghanistan, and have they learned enough from our experiences there, to be effective in Syria? Once they get involved deeply, they’re going to come up against the same guerrilla tactics that have cost dearly in the past.
I suppose the final question would be whether it matters to Putin or not. He might have already calculated that the cost in blood and treasure is worth his objectives.