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Putin's Goals Went Beyond Saving Assad

Putin's Goals Went Beyond Saving Assad

Monday, 8 January, 2018 - 09:00

The Russian Defense Ministry is denying a report by a leading Moscow newspaper that seven Russian warplanes were destroyed in a New Year's Eve attack on the Khmeimim air base in Syria. Two Russian servicemen died in the attack, according to the ministry. Clearly, fighting in Syria isn't over for Russia yet, despite President Vladimir Putin's self-congratulatory conversations with Syrian ally Bashar al-Assad.

Recently, however, General Valery Gerasimov, head of Russia's General Staff, made public his post-mortem of the Syrian operation, revealing Russia's military priorities in Syria and its persistent conviction that every conflict in which it is involved is a proxy war against the US. That war won't be over even once Syrian violence subsides.

In the interview with pro-Kremlin daily Komsomolskaya Pravda, Gerasimov provides the basis for Putin's claims that Russia has defeated ISIS. These claims, of course, compete with those of US President Donald Trump, who has said the victory was his, and those of former US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, who claims in a recent memoirthat Russia was merely a "spoiler" of a winning strategy Carter had devised.

Though neither Russia nor the US can credibly claim a full victory, the current map of Syria leans toward the Russian version: The Assad regime controls most of the country's territory, an amazing achievement after barely holding on to 10 percent of it in the summer of 2015.

Both great military powers used similar strategies, refusing to put boots on the ground in a major way and relying instead on local forces to do the fighting. "'Lasting defeat required enabling local forces to reclaim territory from ISIS and hold it rather than attempting to substitute for them," Carter wrote. "That meant focusing US forces on training, equipping, enabling, and often accompanying them." It worked only partially for the US -- mainly to the extent that it helped Kurdish fighters, who now control Syria's northern and northeastern areas. 

Gerasimov, for his part, said Russia focused on assisting the demoralized, fatigued Syrian regime army: "We helped them, repaired their equipment right there on the ground. Today, the Syrian army is ready to defend its territory."

Both Russia and the US claim they fought ISIS rather than pursued political goals. But US officials have long claimed that Russian bombing raids targeted anti-Assad rebel groups rather than ISIS terrorists. In his interview, Gerasimov counters that claim by comparing airstrike numbers:

Look, all this time the international coalition delivered eight to 10 airstrikes a day. Our aviation, with a rather insignificant force, delivered 60 to 70 airstrikes a day on militants, on infrastructure, on their bases. At times of the highest tension it was 120 to 140 strikes per day. That was the only way to break international terrorism's back in Syria. As for eight to 10 strikes a day... Well, perhaps the coalition's goals were different.

Russia also managed to test more than 200 types of weapons that the Russian military had recently adopted or was about to adopt. The designers of the weapons systems were sent to Syria to oversee how their products worked. Among other things, the Syrian conflict provided Russia with its greatest opportunity so far to deploy drones -- up to 60 of them a day were in the air, Gerasimov boasted.

"Today, an absolute majority of the glitches have been fixed," Gerasimov said. "That we have tested equipment and weapons under combat conditions is huge. Now, we're confident in our weapons."

There's a second reason the testing aspect of the campaign was so important for Russia: In their minds, its soldiers are pitting themselves against the West.

Gerasimov accuses the US of maintaining bases in Syria now to "repurpose" former ISIS fighters as anti-Assad ones to "destabilize the situation." One reason Russia is maintaining a military presence in Syria despite Putin's repeated claims of withdrawal is to counter this "destabilization." Any military decisions Russia makes these days are made with an eye to a barely concealed conflict with the US. That's how the Kremlin and the Russian generals see the eastern Ukraine conflict, in which US weaponry may soon be used, and, to a large extent, the Syrian one.

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