Maskirovka, Geopolitical Chess, and Judo

March 15, 2016

In a surprise move, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the instant withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria. 

Col.-Gen. Viktor Bondarev, the head of Russia’s Air Force, already welcomed the first contingent of returning warplanes in a ceremony near Voronezh, 500 kilometers south of Moscow and Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Pankov took part in a ceremony at Syria’s Hmeimim air base, honoring the departing Russian pilots.

The head of the defense committee in Russia’s upper house of parliament estimates that about 1,000 Russian military personnel will remain in Syria at Russia’s two bases.

The unexpected decision is surely about to be discussed and analyzed in chancelleries, government offices, and military headquarters the world over.

My personal take:

Turkey and Saudi Arabia will try their utmost to keep peace an elusive proposition. Turkish Premier Ahmet Davutoglu just met with HNC (High Negotiations Committee) general coordinator Riyad Hijab in Ankara. Riyad Hijab is the highest-profile Syrian defector (traitor) and probably also received the highest payout by Qatar. The HNC was formed following a Saudi-sponsored meeting in Riyadh of opposition political and military representatives, including hardline jihadists Ahrar al-Sham.

FSA (Free Syrian Army) chief-of-staff Ahmed al-Berri told journalists that 36 rebel officials representing groups across Syria. including Jaysh al-Islam, Faylaq al-Sham, and Ahrar al-Sham would meet in Ankara to form a supreme military command and a unified operation room to coordinate between the FSA General Staff in Turkey and all opposition factions on the ground.

According to al-Berri, the rebel representatives will reiterate their full support to the HNC.

These people are not ready to compromise, and yet, despite all hurdles and stumbling blocks, despite constant obstruction, the position of the war party has been weakened and some sane minds at the negotiating table will grasp the straw, take the opportunity to offer compromises and advance workable solutions.

There are still people in this world who yearn for peace, though they for sure don’t include weapons producers, war lords, mercenaries, and religious fanatics.

Putin Judo 2

I’m not an unconditional supporter of Russia and appalled by environmental crimes (especially in connection with oil and gas extraction), ruthless promotion of nuclear energy, exaggerated nationalism, cronyism, and social intolerance.

But I admire the caution, foresight, and common sense of President Vladimir Putin.

The Russian move to recall troops is the logical sequel of the ceasefire agreement (cessation of hostilities), perfectly timed and terrific in its optics, highlighting the desire for peace and for a political solution, while at the same time keeping all options open if the other side chooses to betray the expressed goodwill by foul play and by restarting hostilities.

Putin of course knows that the troop withdrawal will not be accepted as a goodwill gesture and will be not honored by a similar move of his Western opponents, but he has again foiled their war plans. Western strategists hate Putin because they have constantly to rewrite their plots.

Western propagandists hate Putin for the same reason, as they need to constantly change the storyline.

At the start of the Russian air campaign I predicted that the operation will be limited to four month and I’m surprised that it lasted five and a half month.

The Russian intervention was a stunning success, because is turned the tide of the war and secured the survival of the Syrian government in only a few month with a comparatively small military force. Russian air strikes enabled the Syrian army to regain lost ground, sever jihadist supply lines to Turkey, and drive rebels from hundreds of towns and cities.

With the Syrian air campaign Russia has reasserted itself as a major player on the world stage that has to be taken seriously and cannot be pushed around and humiliated.

But Russia’s Western opponents are massing forces, looking for ways to hurt Russia and achieve the goal of regime change in Syria and beyond. There is a constant stream of supplies to rebel groups via Turkey, Jordan, and to a lesser extent Israel.

Saudi Arabia delivered at least 600 Raytheon TOW (tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided) anti-tank missiles to rebels and there are more to come (Saudi Arabia has stockpiled more than 14,000 TOWs). These TOWs have not been used against IS (Islamic State) or Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda), but to strike Russian-made tanks of the Syrian army as it fights against Jabhat al-Nusra and IS.

Jabhat al-Nuslra just raided the weapons depots of CIA-supported FSA group Division 13, acquiring an unknown number of TOWs. Division 13 is after Harakat Hazzm and Division 30 already the third FSA group to act as a conduit of Western weapons flows to al-Qaeda.

The Ukrainian crisis is also heating up as Kiev prepares a new offensive against Donetsk and Luhansk, raining shells and missiles on Gorlovka and occupying villages in the buffer zone, while OSCE observers are looking the other way, waiting for the moment, when Novorussian self defense or retaliation can be decried as breach of Minsk II.

One has to keep in mind that NATO is confronting Russia in Europe, constantly increasing pressure by deploying additional troops and equipment on Russian borders.

Putin plays piano

Putin is not a high risk gambler who makes one big bet, he makes cautious and well reasoned moves, he tries to hedge his bets.

Maybe the Russian air force was running low on ammunition and the wear on airplanes gave rise to concerns. Russia cannot risk to expose weaknesses, it has to scale back military operations before the depots are empty and before planes fall from the sky.

The withdrawal evidently coincided with the regular rotation of aircraft at the Hmeimim base. This rotation is necessary because of the high number of flight hours. It can be that some of the recalled fighter jets will need a general overhaul and others will be retired to serve as replacement part depots.

Russia has cut its 2016 defense budget by five percent and the overstretched weapons plants in 2015 failed to deliver some of the ordered equipment. Orders for 15 warplanes, eight navy ships, 240 armored vehicles, and various other weapons systems were unfulfilled.

Russia cannot risk that the Western allies use their numerical superiority to grind down the Russian military in a war of attrition, it has to evade direct confrontation, it needs to move constantly, thereby avoiding being pinned down.

If the negotiations fail, the Russian military has at least got some breathing space to fill up depots and refurbish equipment.

SU-25 frogfoot

The Russian military doctrine is called Maskirovka, also known as strategic pivoting.

Maskirovka means unexpected maneuvers all the time, making probing attacks in various locations or feigning to amass forces to deceive the enemy and make it appear that an attack is imminent. If the enemy commits reserves to that location, manpower is removed from the truly intended attack point.

This can be done on a tactical level, or in a larger theater even at a strategic level. If done correctly it successfully thins out enemy defenses and it has the added bonus of exposing enemy troop movements to ambushes or air strikes as units travel from one location to the other.

Consequently applied, one can even thin out enemy lines to the point where they are unable to defend anywhere effectively, giving the attacker complete flexibility of where to strike while making things extremely frustrating for the defenders.

One could also view it as judo on a military strategic level. Which brings us back to “sly and devious Putin,” or to the eternal wisdom that intellect trumps muscle strength any time.

Various comments

Jabhat al-Nusra announced that it will renew its assault on the Syrian government and claimed the defeat of Russian forces after Moscow’s partial pullout. A spokesman told journalists:

It is clear that Russia has suffered defeat, and within the next 48 hours Nusra will launch an offensive in Syria. The Russians withdrew for one reason, and it is because while they were backing the regime, the regime was unable to hold onto the territories that it took over.”

The spokesman further said: “Had it not been for the Russian warplanes, we would have been in Latakia….The army let down the Russians. It is a cowardly army… Russia will not make any more sacrifices for a regime that has basically collapsed.”

Leading war hawk US Senator John McCain released the following statement: “The announcement that Russia will begin withdrawing some military forces from Syria signals Vladimir Putin’s belief that he has bombed and killed enough of the opponents of the murderous Assad regime to ensure its survival.”

In BloombergView cold warrior Leonid Bershidsky wrote: “President Vladimir Putin’s unexpected announcement that Russian troops would pull back from Syria shouldn’t be taken at face value: He’s made similar announcements in the past to show Western negotiating partners how constructive he can be. He always has a hidden agenda.”

It will be all but impossible to say exactly which troops and equipment will be withdrawn, because Russia has never made it fully transparent what or whom it sent to Syria.As in Ukraine in 2014 and 2015, Putin is signaling that he is open to a deal, but on his terms. In Ukraine, these terms include a pro-Russian local government and militia in the east. In Syria, he is demanding a seat at the negotiating table for Assad and a role for the strongman or a designated successor in the country’s future.”

Russia and the US have a shared interest in uniting Syrian forces in the fight against Islamic State. Yet they have conflicting visions of Syria’s future. The Russian pullback may have caused the Russian ruble’s exchange rate against the US dollar to spike, but Putin is probably not done with this war yet.”

Hussam Abu Saad, a member of the FSA Southern Front’s General Command: “It could be that the statements carry multiple meanings, and are intended to return the regime to a state of obedience to the Russians after [Syrian Foreign Minister] al-Muallem’s provocative statements deviated from the political path that Russia imposed on it.”

US Middle East expert Joshua Landis, who was deadly wrong many times before but is nevertheless more authoritative than the rest of the US pundit crowd: “… he’s [Putin] sending, in a sense, three messages, it seems to me. One, he’s establishing that he’s a statesman. He wants peace. He’s willing to meet America halfway. He’s also letting the people know at Russia – at home, mission accomplished. I’m decisive. I’m a leader. I’ve come. I’ve done what I got, and I need to go. I’m not going to get stuck in a quagmire.”

“Secondly, it’s a shot across Assad’s bow, in a sense. Assad’s people were very confident only a week ago that Russia was going to take them all the way, help them reconquer all of Syria. In a sense, Russia’s saying, we don’t have to do that; we’re not necessarily going to do that. Russia is not abandoning Assad in any way. They – Putin has made much too big an investment in Syria. But he’s letting Assad know.”

“And third, it’s a shot across America’s bow. America does not want to work with Russia and Assad. That was one of the things, I think, that Putin wanted to get done in Syria – is to establish some form of cooperation. And just yesterday, Putin announced that he wanted to work with Russia to take Raqqah back, the capital of ISIS. And I don’t think he’s gotten an answer from the United States. The United States does not want to work with him and Assad. So in a sense, it’s saying, you know, if we leave, you’re going to be left holding the bag in Syria.

There are heated discussions in internet forums about the Russian withdrawal, about the war fortunes in general, about culpability and righteousness, but in the end all these discussions are moot because “war does not determine who is right; only who is left.”

From comment sections and headlines on various internet sites:

It is a message to the USA to get serious: “Don’t take our help in fighting IS for granted. We can simply secure Assad and leave. Then you alone will have to clean up the Jihadi mess you created.”

Turkey and Saudi Arabia will feel emboldened now to step up their interference to regain lost ground and embark on direct intervention.

Russians and Americans have already agreed to re-build the map of the Middle East, which will include a sovereign Kurdish state. This explains Erdogan’s anxiety, he acts under pressure and makes things worse, as he understands that he has been left out of the game.

Russian withdrawal could set the stage for Assad’s exit.

Syria is now de-facto partitioned, with all the ingredients for an even bigger disaster in the future.

Surprise move by Putin against the plans of the Westerners to trap him into a dead end war.

Mission un-accomplished.

Syria map 03 2016

At the end some (probably already outdated) news from the war zone:

US cargo aircraft loaded with weapons and ammunition arrived while the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) brought in tanks and cannons to the Tishrin area. The Kurdish YPG is planning an incoming offensive to capture Manbij from IS in Aleppo province and received loads of arms for it by the USA.

US officers and soldiers arrived at Tishrin Dam to form an operations room with the SDF. With this move the USA also serves notice to Erdogan that shelling any SDF advance is a bad idea.

In Syria and Iraq a 72 hour dust and sand storm was forecast.

The sandstorm has been ongoing in Deir Ezzor since yesterday and the Syrian army has advanced along the freeway toward Mayadeen while IS has increased its shelling of the city and assaults near the industrial district. This will be a front to watch.

Syrian troops are slowly advancing against IS around Palmyra, with heavy casualties on both sides.


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