Ever get a flash of a thought and you think “hey, maybe I should write about that,” and then you find out some really well-respected analyst like Paul Pillar already did? Welcome to my Friday:
Whatever other motives Russian president Vladimir Putin has in doing what he is doing today in Syria, shoring up a beleaguered regime that has been a friend and client of Russia is clearly one of the immediate objectives. In that respect the action is very similar to what the Soviet Union did when it threw its forces into Afghanistan in 1979, in an effort to shore up a similarly beleaguered client regime in Kabul. Another similarity in the two conflicts is that the opposition to each regime comprised a variety of armed groups in a predominantly Sunni Muslim country, with the groups ranging from mostly secular to militant Islamist. And in each case opposition groups received material support from Arab states and, later, from the United States.
So far the Russian military operation in Syria is much smaller than the Soviet expedition in Afghanistan, which at its peak involved 115,000 troops. No Russian ground troops have yet been committed to combat in Syria, although hints from Moscow and the facts on the ground will make it unsurprising if Russian “volunteers” start participating directly in the fight. Regardless of the discrepancy in size of the two operations, the prospects for quagmire that have faced the Soviets and Russians in each place are comparable. Bashar Assad is no more secure today than Afghan president Babrak Karmal was in 1979. The insecurity in each case has been due not to any direct countervailing military intervention by outside powers—the United States and the USSR/Russia have not used their forces in Afghanistan at the same time as the other did—but to the deep unpopularity of each incumbent regime and the unlikelihood that it ever could form the basis of lasting stability in its country, in the face of persistent and in large part religiously inspired opposition.
Believe me, I understand the limits of historical analogy, but it’s actually getting hard to follow the news from Russia’s Syrian campaign and not start to think about this point. The Russian-Iranian-Assad forces (I’m not sure there’s much point to distinguishing them at the moment) are now engaged on a whopping five different fronts: in Hama, Idlib, Homs, Aleppo, and Latakia. This shows that Russian aid has certainly increased Assad’s ability to go on offense, but so far it’s not clear how successful those efforts have actually been (though it is clear that there have been successes). The heaviest Russian-Assad bombing activity has been in Idlib and around Latakia, but analysts are having a hard time finding any impact in those places in terms of shifts in territory, but the regime (along with Iranian reinforcements) does seem to be losing a significant amount of manpower and materiel on the ground. It’s not just whether or not the campaign is succeeding, but how costly its successes are going to be for Assad’s already weakened military.
Back in the 1980s, the Afghan rebels learned that they could wage a war of attrition against the Soviets, where they didn’t need to defeat the larger and better armed Soviet-Afghan army, they just needed to not be defeated by it and to inflict a steady stream of casualties on it until the Soviets got tired of bleeding men and money on foreign soil and finally gave up. We may be seeing something similar happening here, and there’s evidence that it’s taking a toll. Iran, for example, has lost three senior Revolutionary Guard generals in Syria just in the past week. And this may not even be that surprising; Russia’s primary contribution so far has been via its influx of air power, where it’s conducting vastly more air sorties against all anti-Assad forces than the US has been conducting against ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, but Assad already had total air superiority in his theater of the war before Russia got there, and it wasn’t enough to keep him in the fight.
Other similarities are hard to miss. Russia’s intervention in Syria has spurred jihadist calls for “holy war” against Russia, which may spur the migration of even more foreign fighters into Syria just as it did in Afghanistan. As in Afghanistan, the Gulf states are taking a leading role in organizing resistance to Russian involvement. They’re reportedly increasing the flow of arms to Syrian rebel groups, a category that apparently doesn’t include ISIS but does include Nusra and other extreme Islamist forces. The Saudi religious establishment is amplifying Syrian calls for jihad against the Russians, which they’re publicly condemning in terms previously used to describe the Iraq War. The Syrian rebel scene even has its own batshit crazy, Taliban-esque religio-military leader in the person of Nusra Emir Abu Muhammad al-Julani, who has apparently decided to stop pretending to be a moderate and is now calling for attacks on Syria’s Alawite population.
Meanwhile, ISIS, which if you recall was supposed to be the target of all this Russian activity, is actually taking advantage of the fact that Moscow is mostly targeting Syrian rebel groups to launch a new offensive against those same groups in Aleppo. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, I guess. There’s also one big difference between Syria and Afghanistan: Afghanistan doesn’t have a NATO member on the other side of its northern border. Speaking of which, Turkish forces shot down an unidentified drone aircraft that had entered Turkish airspace earlier today. Again, it’s unidentified, but it reportedly looks a lot like a Russian drone minus any clear Russian markings. Russia denies that it lost a drone, but that’s kind of what you’d do regardless of whether or not you’d actually lost one, right? This ongoing issue around Turkey’s airspace, plus the potential for US and Russian aircraft to come to cross purposes inside Syrian airspace, remains the gravest risk created by this whole enterprise.
Anyway, those are all the similarities I’ve noticed between Syria in 2015 and Afghanistan in the 1980s. Dr. Pillar warns of the potential of another, which is the risk that the US gets sucked into some Great Game-esque program in Syria that causes it to focus entirely on seeing Assad and Russia (and presumably ISIS) beaten and to ignore the very real problems that could arise if an extremist group like Nusra, or Ahrar al-Sham, ultimately takes over the country the way the Taliban eventually did in Afghanistan:
One of the principal lessons from Afghanistan is that defeat of a despised regime does not usher in peace, let alone anything resembling democracy. When the Afghan regime of Najibullah—whom the Soviets installed after Karmal demonstrated his inability to get control of the situation—fell three years after the last Soviet troops left, civil war continued unabated, with different militias that had received U.S. aid battling among themselves. This led to the Taliban sweeping to power over most (but not all) of the country, to the Taliban playing host to the Arabs of al-Qaeda, and the rest is history. And in a later phase of Afghan history, U.S. ouster of the Taliban again failed to bring anything resembling peace to Afghanistan.
The role of extremists and of terrorists who have struck against the United States and the West ought to be of high concern to Americans reflecting on history of the Afghan conflict, and on how earlier American policymakers may have focused too narrowly and shortsightedly on defeating the Soviets. The comparison with Syria ought to be too obvious to need much reflection, given the current reality of the radical group ISIS, as well as an al-Qaeda affiliate, forming a major part of the alternative to the Assad regime.
We’re not living in a Cold War world, and Russia ain’t the Soviet Union (even the actual Soviet Union wasn’t THE SOVIET UNION by the 1980s), so there’s no reason why Washington should ignore the Syrian forest to focus on the Russian trees, but on the other hand you wouldn’t know that to listen to a considerable number of DC politicians.
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