At the moment, the joint Russian-Syrian-Iranian offensive in Syria appears to be succeeding. That may change. But if Russian intervention does succeed in doing something at which the U.S. has consistently failed–returning an area lost to 4GW to state control–why might that be the case?
The most important reason is strategic. Russia is supporting an established state, not trying to create a state. The Syrian state retains substantial legitimacy. It is strongly supported by virtually all non-Sunni Moslems in Syria and all non-Moslems. Why? Because if the Syrian state disappears, their choices will be conversion, flight, or death. A “democratic, inclusive, pluralistic” Syria can exist only in the minds of the fools who make America’s foreign policy.
I suspect a growing number of Syrian Sunnis would also at least accept, and perhaps welcome, the return of the Syrian sate, even under its current government. Tyranny is preferable to anarchy, and the Assad family’s tyranny is mild compared to that of ISIS. To enable Sunnis who have rebelled to again accept the state, the Syrian government will need to offer them generous terms, i.e., forgive and forget. I suspect Moscow, run by realists, knows this.
Operationally, the Russians have shown they can still design a campaign. By 1943/44, they were as competent at the operational level as the Germans. The U.S. remains as operationally incompetent as it always has been. Its campaign plans in Iraq and Syria were hopelessly warped by Washington’s insistence on democracy. As one Marine battalion commander, recently returned from Afghanistan, said at a Boyd Conference, “Talking to a 14th century Afghan villager about the government in Kabul is like talking to your cat about the back side of the moon. You don’t know what it’s like and he doesn’t care.”
But even with the politics removed, the U.S. military does operational art at the kindergarten level. After the First Gulf War, the U.S. Army preened and said it had shown the Russians it could now do operational art. It looked that way for a couple years, until it came out that the Republican Guard had gotten out of the Kessel largely unscathed. Frank’s “left hook” attack was classic French methodical battle, meaning it was too slow. Schwarzkopf had just one operational decision to make during the whole campaign, to switch the Schwerpunkt to McCaffrey after Frank’s fatal slowness was evident. He failed to make it. In the end, the Iraqis carried out their operational retreat better than the U.S. carried out its operational advance.
Tactically, Russian tactics are easier to learn and more effective than American tactics. We know that from the Army’s National Training Center; the Soviet-model OPFOR was quite open about it when I visited there.
At this remove it is difficult to determine, but Russian tactical air power may also be more effective than American. The main reason is, again, that Russia is supporting an existing state, which offers an effective (by local standards) army with which Russian aircraft can work. The U.S. lacks that in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, except for the Kurds.
There may be another factor at work: Russia doesn’t care much about civilian casualties. In 4GW that is usually disastrous, but the Russian/Syrian offensives we are now witnessing look largely conventional. Strategically, they may be part of a Hama model approach to 4GW, which can work if it is over fast (and Russian tactics are based on speed). Tactically, Russia traditionally uses firepower massively, without regard for collateral damage, which is what they seem to be doing around Aleppo. U.S. airpower, in contrast, is used “surgically”, which means in a war of pinpricks that goes on forever. At the moral level, that may be more disadvantageous than the Hama model, which is brutal but fast.
International opinion, of course, is howling about Russian aircraft pouring it on. Washington would be paralyzed by such howls. Moscow, run by realists, doesn’t give two kopeks for them. How many divisions has “international opinion”?
If, in the end, Russia does succeed where we have failed, what will be the lessons? The main lesson is an old one. The Russian military, devastated by the dissolution of the Russian Empire (the USSR was merely an overlay), started thinking creatively. They have learned quite a bit. The senior levels of the U.S. military think only about money, not war.