Russia Partially Withdraws from Syria -- Now What? Give the SAA and Co the Tools, and They'll Finish the Job

Last September Russia's direct intervention in the Syria conflict stunned the world. Coming on the heels of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin's condemnation of the regional powers and fading superpower that had jointly schemed to overthrow the legitimate Syrian government through a massive jihadist proxy war, the Russian air campaign demonstrated that after two decades of post-Soviet decay, Moscow's military is back and capable of projecting devastating combat power hundreds if not thousands of miles from Russia's shores.

Above: Putin orders his Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu to withdraw the bulk of Russian Aerospace forces and active ground troops in Syria on Monday, March 14, 2016


At the outset of the Russian intervention, Putin said that Moscow's principal objective was to preserve the legitimate government in Syria and thereby defend Russia from the possibility of the Syrian state disintegrating and the country turning into another terrorist haven like Libya only worse. Putin also said that Russia would work to defeat the Islamic State and destroy the terrorists from the former Soviet Union fighting for ISIS and other terror groups in the country. At no point did Putin declare that Russia was capable of accomplishing this ambitious task on her own, without heroic efforts from the Syrians, the Iranians, their Shi'a fighter allies, and ultimately some sort of semblance of sanity in Washington, famously invoked by Putin's question to the United Nations Security Council on September 28, 2015, "Do you now realize what you have done?"

Why the Neocons' Dreams of a Second Afghanistan for Russia in Syria Were Ridiculous

It's worth noting that critics who declare Putin failed to single-handedly destroy ISIS both underestimate how much the group's revenue streams from illegal oil sales have been devastated by Russian airpower AND give the U.S. a pass for the piss poor results of Washington's campaign, which began a full year before the Russian bombing in Syria. This is before we even discuss the critics' ignoring the Syrian Arab Army's defeats of ISIS east of Aleppo, along the Khanesser highway, and seizing the commanding heights around ISIS-held Palmyra as a prelude to encircling the desert oasis city. Syrian Al-Qaeda franchise Jabhat al-Nusra, its Turkish Grey Wolves allies and the neo-Ottoman Turkomen fighters have also been cleared from the rugged terrain along the Latakia region's northern border. None of these Syrian offensives would have been possible without the men of the Russian Air Force.

While the Russia Analyst knew in early October Moscow's enemies particularly the Saudis and Turks would try to create a second Afghanistan for the Russians and bog them down in a quagmire, we also knew the Russians were going in with several advantages, and Putin's determination to never let that happen. After all, Moscow had refused to massively and overtly intervene in Ukraine on its doorstep in August 2014 -- even when its military was more than capable of routing the entire Ukrainian Army in Donbass in less than a week. That in of itself would be a far easier task logistically speaking over a land border than Moscow's far flung operations in Syria, threading as they were the needle and potential choke point of the Bosporus past Istanbul as well as ferrying planes over Iranian and Iraqi territory.

The Anti-Russia Lobby and Neocon Cliques Chess Moves All Failed

The fact is Putin never had any intention of occupying Ukraine, and thereby handing Russia's enemies like Zbigniew Brzezinski their dream of a Slavic Afghanistan that NATO could use to bleed Russian Bear and justify perpetual U.S. dominance over Europe. Putin instead smartly settled for creating a local proxy force in the breakaway Donetsk and Lugansk statelets backed by GRU advisers, money and if need be, occasional cross border firepower or brief incursions.

In Syria, as we noted in our Rogue Money post about the Syrian ceasefire, Putin's model was the creation of an indigenous Chechen force loyal to Moscow that inflicted decisive blows against the foreign supported jihadists in the Caucasus. In pursuing this policy, Putin followed a model of economy of force, whereby one never destroys a village if one can bypass it, encircle it, or persuade its elders to make peace with the Syrian state instead. In doing so, Putin has successfully thrown the various Turkish, Saudi and Qatari funded jihadi groups as well as the CIA's team TOW jihad members into infighting, so that they cannot present a united front at the U.S.-Russian led peace talks in Geneva. The Russians even managed to get one group of U.S. proxies in the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) trained Kurdish YPG fighting with the CIA backed 'Free Syrian Army' fighters!

While the Turks did ambush a Russian SU-24 and kill its pilot, their proxies in northern Syria have been decisively routed, and relations between the increasingly vicious dictatorship of the neo-Ottoman sultan Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and not only Russia, but also Washington have been fractured beyond repair. There are persistent rumors reported by Joseph P. Farrell and Jim Willie alike that Erdoğan's government is not long for this world and a combined color revolution with a military coup is in the works for Ankara. But even if Erdoğan isn't overthrown this summer, he has been effectively boxed in.

With their Kurdish strategy, Putin and Lavrov have shown that military force is merely the precursor and handmaiden to diplomacy, not the other way around. This is the 19th century Prussian genius (and ally of Russia against Napoleonic France) Carl von Clausewitz's principal of war as a continuation of politics by other means, which a military industrial complex corrupted Empire forgot after 1991 in its pursuit of perpetual war by any means necessary.

The Russian leader also said in September that the active phase of Moscow's intervention would last just six months. At 168 days of heavy bombing and with Syria's springtime sandstorm season which may limit combat air operations approaching in April, Putin was as good as his word. But does this mean that Putin is having a 'Mission Accomplished' moment, like George W. Bush landing on an aircraft carrier after American forces overthrew Saddam Hussein in Iraq? 

The answer to this question, as even harsh critics of the Kremlin acknowledge, is clearly 'no'. As we stated above, Russia's objectives in Syria were always more limited and realistic than anything the U.S. sought to accomplish beyond marching on Baghdad thirteen years ago. In particular, Moscow never had the expectation that Assad's government would able to recover every inch of territory it had lost in five years of war. 

We keep seeing hints from the Russian press about a federalization of Syria, with the Kurds in Rojava receiving full autonomy. In the eastern desert, the Russian-equipped Syrian Arab Armyis slowly  liberating Palmyra from ISIS, while U.S.-led Sunni Arab tribes take the Syraq Sunni border region from Daesh.

In Iraq, the Shi'a led government is under considerable Iranian and popular pressure not to permit American much less Turkish troops to spearhead an operation to take back Mosul from the Daeshbags. Like the Syrians, the Iraqis have demonstrated enough military momentum to think that they may yet defeat Daesh with some help from the Kurds but minimal direct American intervention. Which is the outcome Moscow and its partners in Tehran, Beijing and Hezbollah in Beirut would naturally prefer, so to avoid creating a kind of Mideast Cold War East versus West Germany situation between Assad and his Shi'a allies on one side, and a Saudi/Qatar/Turkish backed Sunnistan on the other.

Southfront news and analysis: Russia wants to demonstrate that it is aiming at a comprehensive alternative to American perpetual war policy in the Mideast, and that it has no intention of 'occupying Syria' or otherwise acting as a colonial power in the region

While there is still much fighting left to be done, the Russian withdraw announced by Putin and his Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu remains a partial one. The SU-34 strike fighters, Russia's more capable counterpart to the USA's F-15E Strike Eagle, rotated back home to their base at Voronezh Malzhevo on Tuesday. As blogger SovietBear says, the Russian pilots have performed superbly but deserve some R&R with their families after six months of around the clock operations. We will probably see a few of them soon, with their faces blurred out, appearing on Russian TV at resorts in Crimea with their faces blurred wives and kids.

As reports, it was not only the men but also their flying machines that needed some down time after a huge number of sorties for such a limited contingent:

...the sortie generation rate was about 4-5 sorties per 1 combat-ready warplane at the active phase of the operation. The Russian Aeropsace Forces were conducting the most intense air raids while the Russian air grouping in Syria consisted of 32 warplanes. Later, it was increased to 40 warplanes. No aircraft has crashed due to a technical fault during the entire operation.

As a comparison, the sortie’s rate of the US-led coalition warplanes involved in the operation in the region is 0,15 per 1 warplane in average, counting all about 180 warplanes of the US-led coalition. Thus, the technical load on the Russian warplanes was many times higher compared to the ones of the US-led coalition. Many experts found it hard to believe that the Russians could conduct this high level of sortie’s rate for a considerable time, but they did.

Meanwhile, the Khmeimim airbase’s facilities allow only a partial aircraft maintenance. An integrated servicing and maintenance could be done at the special air repair yards in Russia.

One way or another, Putin’s decision to withdraw Russian forces from Syria on Mar.14 was synchronized with a common need of the maintenance and integrated servicing.

According to the media reports citing “anonymous sources”, the patrial withdrawal of the Russian air grouping from Syria will be finished till the end of the week.

It’s expected that at least 12 Russian warplanes will remain in the Khmeimim airbase in Syria for everyday strikes against terrorists. These aircraft arrived to Syria about month or two ago and have been less involved in the operation.

Russia's Air Campaign Reality vs. Sour Grapes and Laughable Pentagon Spin

The Russian Ministry of Defense says it has performed 9,000 combat sorties in Syria since the start of operations in late September, while the U.S. led anti-ISIS coalition has mustered just 3,600 in 600 days. That is of course, a higher pace than the U.S. Air Force has been able to muster since the initial surge during Operation Iraqi Freedom if not Desert Storm. U.S. Air Force spokesmen like Col. Steve Warren has of course, stressed that the American air campaign is more discriminate and less destructive to civilian lives and infrastructure than its Russian counterpart.

Of course what Col. Warren leaves out of his now subdued bashing of the Russian Air Force is that the RuAF did a hell of a lot more damage to ISIS tanker fuel trucks and other economically vital resources than the U.S. ever did before Russia embarrassed the Pentagon with the theretofore untouched convoys of stolen crude oil, so large that as Putin said they could be seen from the edge of outer space. The Russians never used the laughable excuse that they were afraid of environmental damage from leaked oil if they hit the Daesh crude lifeline too hard or gave the (mostly Turkish national) truckers 30 minutes warning via dropped leaflets before bombing them to kingdom come.

However, a report produced by NATO staff on the Russian air campaign leaked to Germany's FOCUS media and picked up by RT says the Russians actually bombed with "a high degree of accuracy" (without mentioning Russia's SVP-24 GLONASS aided 'dumb bomb' dropping guidance system), and acknowledges that Russia's human intelligence on the ground was superior to whatever NATO was able to obtain about the Islamic State, despite only 20% of Russian strikes reportedly hitting ISIS as opposed to other targets.

Such a high operations tempo has not been seen in the USAF since the 2003 invasion of Iraq if not Desert Storm. Judging by the sober language in the parts of the report the Russian press chose to excerpt, it appears it was written by German officers or members of some other NATO member military (Greek, Hungarian?) that is less than enthusiastic about Washington's confrontational policy towards Moscow.

The War Against ISIS Grinds On, with Daesh Showing More Signs of Falling Apart

Critics are pointing out that the Islamic State has not been destroyed but only pushed back, yet there are no signs yet that Moscow's air superiority SU-35 fighters or the older generation SU-24 bombers have been withdrawn from the Khmeimim airbase outside Latakia city. Nor are the S400 or Pantsir surface to air missile batteries which provide overlapping protection for northern Syria from Turkish or Saudi air attacks going anywhere.

According to the pro-Assad news source Al-Masdar news the Russians are still hitting Daesh targets around Palmyra, and the Russian Ministry of Defense issued a statement Tuesday saying strikes against the UN-designated terrorist organizations Islamic State and Al-Nusra Front would continue. It is likely the Soviet workhorse SU-24s then that are pounding ISIS as part of the Syrian Arab Army and Hezbollah's expanding offensive against the highly symbolic city.

Although one Syrian Air Force MiG-21 was shot down by an alleged Stinger missile in the past week, the Russians continue to bomb from above MANPAD range making the introduction of such weapons on the battlefield a too little, too late affair. The only thing the Saudis providing MANPADs to their jihadis may accomplish at this point is annoy the Syrians, Iranians and Russians to the point that they start providing similar weapons to the Houthis and make much of Yemen and southwestern Saudi Arabia a death trap for the Saudi-led coalition's helicopters. Ditto for the burgeoning number of late Soviet and early Nineties vintage anti-tank missiles such as the Konkurs and even the more modern Kornets from Hezbollah which keep finding their way into the hands of the Houthis to devastate Saudi armor.

Back in Syria, the once confident CIA supplied TOW jihadis have suffered a growing death toll from both improved Syrian active defense infrared jamming systems installed on trucks and T-72 tanks, but also from SAA and Hezbollah Kornet ATGM teams killing their guys before they can open fire. The SAA has also become more adept at using massed firepower like this BM-21 GRAD and the related family of 'Smerch' MLRS systems to fry ISIS and Al-Nusra strongpoints:

While Russia's air support has been reduced there is no let up in the amount of equipment pouring into Tartus and Latakia port from the 'Syria Express', including modernized T-72B3 main battle tanks capable of surviving direct TOW hits thanks to their reactive armor, T90s with the Shtora active protection system (that Syrian tankers apparently need more training on how to use properly), plus GRADs, Smerches, BMPs with heavy cannons, Kornets ATGMs, howizters and heavy mortars.

Over the next several weeks and months, death may not come as often from Russian bombs for ISIS and Al Nusra it's still coming in a rain of steel from the sky or through the trigger sites of a well-trained and well-equipped Syrian or Hezbollah sniper. For more on this, see the article from VoltaireNet "The Rebirth of the Syrian Army" or the video posted above from Southfront about the 'polite people' who trained the SAA to re-emerge from the ashes as a fighting phoenix.

Another Sign of a U.S.-Russia 'Deal' Being Struck in Syria:
Obama Throws the Saudis and Qataris Under the Bus Again

Back in Washington, Putin's announcement came like a bolt from the blue and distracted the Establishment from their most pressing war, that against the candidacy of Donald J. Trump. Even neoconservatives like Max Boot who wanted the U.S. to unilaterally and illegally declare a no fly zone over Syria to stop the Russians six month ago from bombing the jihadists now acknowledge that Moscow's intervention has decisively turned the tide of war in favor of Damascus and its allies. In a sign of the President's lame duck status, mainstream media outlets like Politico that a few years ago would have pushed the Obama Administration's spin that its 'smart diplomacy' and economic sanctions 'forced the cash-strapped and isolated Russians to pull out'...are understandably skeptical of the BS emanating from the State Department and the White House on this subject.

Perhaps because the Obama White House's ability to reward various reporters with access or punish them by denying such has diminished, or because Obama himself has demonstrated a certain smug weariness in his most recent foreign policy centered interview. In his sit down with The Atlantic magazine's former Iraq invasion promoter Jeffrey Goldberg, the most eye opening parts of the article where what Obama and Goldberg's White House sources implied rather than directly stated.

For example, Goldberg's piece admits, contrary to the fanatical assertions of neocon Atlantic Council and 'moderate' Syrian rebel shills like Eliot Higgins aka @Bellingcat, that the intelligence regarding the sarin gas attack in East Ghouta was not a 'slam dunk' -- the first hint that perhaps crazy old Seymour Hersh's sources inside the intelligence community who suspected the whole thing was a joint Saudi-Turkish false flag to drag the U.S. into war weren't so crazy after all. Goldberg even bluntly writes:

A widely held sentiment inside the White House is that many of the most prominent foreign-policy think tanks in Washington are doing the bidding of their Arab and pro-Israel funders. I’ve heard one administration official refer to Massachusetts Avenue, the home of many of these think tanks, as “Arab-occupied territory.”

which again, is significant because it's one of the first acknowledgements in a major 'mainstream' publication that the Saudi, Qatari and Turkish Sunni tail tried to wag the big American dog. Note too, that the piece puts the emphasis on the Sunni Gulf Arab lobbies rather than The Lobby that usually shall not be named. 

When one considers the timing of a New York Times article coming out within the same week as Goldberg's piece discussing misgivings in Washington about the Obama Administration's alleged reluctant support for the vicious Saudi air campaign against Yemen, one gets the distinct feeling that Riyadh is being thrown under the bus. And even if this is just a Saudi perception rather than hard fact, it makes the prospects of a sudden turnabout in Saudi policy in Syria, almost as stunning as the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between sworn enemies in 1939,  not all that surprising. Because what in the end is the alternative for the Saudis, besides continuing to hemorrhage cash and lose soldiers and jihadists alike on Syrian and Yemeni battlefields?

The Neocons Failed to Realize the Russian Bear Can Chew Up the Turkish Grey Wolf, and the Saudi Arabian Strong Horse is Actually a Glue Horse

Faced with defeat on all fronts and collapse from cheap oil before this decade, the only surprising thing in retrospect is that the Saudis led by their arrogant young hot headed Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman stubbornly refused to abandon of their hopelessly fanatical goal of regime change in Damascus sooner, rather than wait for the near encirclement of Aleppo to see the writing on the wall. As Putin and his Persian friends shrewdly recognized weeks ago, the Saudis and their Turkish friends were becoming more desperate with each passing day for a some sort of face-saving deal.

Like the big bad Grey Wolves the Turks huffed, they puffed, they bluffed, complete with the Vice President of the United States Joe Biden threatening a 'military solution to ISIS' (meaning a joint U.S.-Turkish occupation zone inside Syria) -- but that bluff was called. Putin was clearly prepared for the worse a few weeks ago -- an outright Turkish invasion of northern Syria to carve out Erdogan's totally illegal under international law 'humanitarian buffer zone'. Now the most urgent concern for Erdogan and bin Salman alike is saving their own skin from those who would gladly trade their hides to Putin and the Chinese for a real rapprochement, and a New Silk Road deal which is the only thing that may save the tottering Kingdom or Turkey from partition.

Make no mistake, Putin and his team understood that a powerful globalist faction was even more interested in the old dream of an independent or at least cross-border federated Kurdistan as an oil rich ally to Israel and the West than they were in fighting Russia to the last Turk. The Russians took advantage of this, used their numerically inferior but international law in the right forces, and put an end to the Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi Wahhabis neo-Ottoman dreams of permanently crushing the Shi'a Crescent under the bodies of Syria's victims.

Ultimately, when historians look back on this moment, they may observe that Obama's hidden backers, particularly in the City of London, struck a deal with a former KGB officer in the Kremlin and Putin's partners in Beijing to do what Obama alone could never do -- sidestep and ultimately humiliate the die hard neocons, to finally allow at least some semblance of peace and sanity to break out in the Mideast. Despite horrific acts of terror, numerous war scares and serious efforts by various players to turn Syria into the birthplace of a Third World War, the worst case scenario didn't happen. For that, the world owes Mr. Putin and even some of the visible (like Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn) and unsung heroes of the American Deep State who in August 2013 refused to let American boys die in Damascus for Doha and Riyadh a profound debt of gratitude.