...Or, Russia In Syria Versus The US In Iraq
Almost as soon as Russia deployed ground and air forces to conduct active combat operations in Syria on September 30, 2015, comparisons to Soviet involvement in Afghanistan were raised, as well as comparisons to the United States' invasion of Iraq, in 2003. However, comparing these operations are very difficult, if not completely dissimilar, in almost every way.
Where the Soviets in Afghanistan began that campaign by deposing and killing the very person, a nominal ally - who had asked them to intervene in Afghanistan, in the first place - the Soviets emulated the Kennedy Administration, with its own acquiescence, if not outright involvement, in the coup against, and assassination of, South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963...arguably, with predictable results for the Soviet Union, given the subsequent outcome of events in Indochina.
In Syria, by contrast, this has not happened. Russian forces arrived on the ground, and - reminiscent of the initial phase of the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 - closely integrated with the loyalist military forces of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, immediately launching a decisive air campaign that produced immediate results in attriting ISIL combat forces on the ground...in addition to driving back the so-called "moderate" rebel forces backed by the West, forces that had been encouraged and supplied by Western powers at least as early as 2012. Indeed, the United States admitted defeat in its US$500million effort to train Syrian opposition groups on 9 October, 2015, although its insistence that Russian forces were bombing "moderate" rebels fell very flat throughout the region.
In fact, these initial combat forays by the Russian Air Force demonstrated the tried and true rule that a combat air campaign is only as effective as its coordination with ground units. Indeed, the US-led air campaign in Syria, begun almost exactly a year before the Russian, had produced only the most desultory of results by the time of Russia's intervention -- but the results were dramatically different, precisely because of the current US administration's aversion to "boots on the ground" involvement.
The Russian intervention has to date, four months on, followed the nominal three-step process of any intervention in a conflict in favor of one side over another:
* The first phase, stabilization, steadied the battered Syrian Armed Forces, by vigorously and accurately attacking the enemy forces. Aside from the practical effects of tearing down enemy numbers, this phase had the salutary "soft" effects of boosting flagging morale among Assad-loyalist forces, and giving those forces a much-needed rest, leading into,
* The second phase, consolidation. In this phase, Russian air units continued to hound ISIL and al-Nusra forces, among others, while a supply pipeline - largely ignored by the popular media - flooded Syria with ammunition, spare parts, supplies and new weapons, further demonstrating to the Syrian forces that "someone" cared about them enough, to risk the third phase,
* Counterattack. In this current phase, rested and resupplied Syrian forces - with minimal Russian assistance - have swung over and returned to offensive operations, slowing destroying ISIL and allied forces in a war of attrition that ISIL & Company cannot win, and slowly retaking territory.
In this regard, the Russians are demonstrating that they seem to have learned the lessons from both their own failed war in Afghanistan, as well as the successful phases of the US and Coalition wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq, in that they are doing most of the "right" things, while doing few, if any of the "wrong" things.
In this, Russia is undoubtedly aided by the fact that it is supporting a recognized governmental authority in Syria, the weak (and frankly, ludicrously snide) protestations of the Assad regime's supposed "illegitimacy" - given the West's previous ten years of acceptance of him succeeding to the leadership of Syria following the death of his father, Hafez Assad, in 2000 - falling on deaf ears throughout the region. In contrast, in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States and it's allies entered into situations where there was either no governmental authority remaining, or where that very structure was the stated target of operations.'
While the difference may seem to be a simple nuance, it is most certainly not. In actuality, this fact is of signal importance to the ongoing success of Russia in its version of intervention: without a resident government that at least appears "legitimate", the Russian intervention would require far more "boots on the ground" than it currently has, to both conduct offensive operations and to focus on a titanic rebuilding effort. Likewise, the Russians have no need to raise the spectre of "installing" a new government, as the US and Coalition allies faced in both Afghanistan and Iraq. For the region, this is hideously bad PR, as no one likes what they perceive to be a "foreign invader". With their light footprint, the Russians are not committing themselves to "nation building" or "national reconstruction"; in contrast, the US obligated itself to that course with both of its interventions, and in both, singularly failed to deliver, in some cases actively - if unintentionally - causing the very insurgencies they sought to avoid.
Russian combat operations are continuing, even as the largely-unreported unrest in Turkey's Kurdish regions grows worse on a daily basis, and Libya continues to implode from the lack of an effective Allied ground intervention to destroy the actual enemy, for fear of the effect yet more casualties - inevitable in this type of conflict - will have on domestic street opinion.
It remains to be seen whether Western powers will remember that it was they who paid the original price to learn the rules that the Russians are now using to drive their way to local victory.