What did the Russians learn from the Syrian Experience? Brutality Works

Syria had become extolled as the Russian bridge to world status once again after the upheaval of the Soviet Union dissolving to the Russian Federation and military debacles or  poorly conducted  military operations in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Georgia, and in  South Asian republics. The alleged  successes were both in political and  military spheres.

Ann Borshchevskaya ( Putin’s War in Syria) a noted scholar on all things Russian  has,  in a number of articles, depicted the Russian successes in using Syria as a test bed for new weapons, new  military doctrine, and criticized the American leadership for standing aside and letting the Russians  control Syria with their military and  influence over President Assad. Writing in 2018 she wrote,

“As of this writing, Putin has obtained most of what he wanted in Syria: Assad is in a strong negotiating position; his traditional foes are increasingly coming to accept Moscow’s view, and Russia’s presence and influence in Syria are assured. As Putin gears up for a presidential election in March 2018, in which he is all but assured another six-year term, he is not bogged down in Syria. He can tout his peacemaking ability and cooperation with the West even as he is mocking it. Moscow’s cooperation with Tehran shows no signs of abating, a relationship that holds great implications for U.S. regional policy.”

Umer Khan of the University of Buckingham an astute observer of Russian activities in Syria wrote,

“Syria turned out to become a transformative conflict for the Russian military. It became the primary theatre for the Russian forces to attain operational combat experience. It provided the Russian general officers, the staff officers, and the other ranks valuable lessons on modern warfare and an opportunity to develop innovative tactics for the future conflicts. The Russian president Vladimir Putin said, ‘the use of our armed forces in combat conditions is a unique experience and a unique tool to improve our armed forces’, he also commented that ‘no exercises can compare with using the armed forces in combat conditions’. According to Kremlin the conflict provides an opportunity to the Russian Forces to refine its newly developed precision-guided strike capability. As Putin said, ‘Syria is not a shooting range for Russian weapons, but we are still using our new weapons there and it has led to the improvement of modern strike systems, including missile systems. It is one thing to have them, and quite another thing to see how they perform in combat’. The Russian Premier also acknowledged that Syria is important for the Russian defence industry promotion, marketing and growth. ”

Chechens enjoying war in Ukraine

But I have a bit of a totally different view, at least in the military arena. I think not only did the Russians learn very little from their use of Syria as a test bed for weapons and training officers, but actually became immersed in a tar baby of  Syrian incompetence, corruption, brutality, and military leaders prevarication. It is true that the Russians wisely avoided any semblance  of “nation building”  but their exposure to Syrian malfeasance in military affairs rubbed off on the Russian  military personnel  rotated through Syria. The inhibiting  cultural aspects of the Arab military described by me (“Why Arabs Lose Wars.” Middle East Quarterly, December 1999.https://www.meforum.org/441/why-arabs-lose-wars, and Ken Pollock ( Armies of Sand: Past, Present and Future of Arab Military Effectiveness have hampered their military effectiveness for decades. It has never been a product of a lack of intelligence  or bravery, but rather engrained cultural traits which have  acted as an anchor on the best efforts of Arab military reformers to up their level of competence in conventional warfare. As I have written, this does not apply to insurgency at which then Arabs have done very well for reasons I surfaced in my chapter of Barry Rubin’s book Conflict and Insurgency in the Contemporary Middle East,  “ The Arab as Insurgent and Counterinsurgent.”

Syrian city after Russian and  Syrian army shelling

However the successes  of  western training of an Arab military  are near non -existent for reasons I elucidated in https://www.academia.edu/9494672/Western_Training_Arab_armies.  In some cases the military trainer in the Arab world rather than applying his skills to the training program gradually absorbs the Arab way.

When one spends a considerable amount of time with a foreign military, as I have, I can vouch for the two way learning process that occurs  being with Arabs, who are very congenial hosts.  As Lawrence of Arabia, in one of his  axioms wrote,  “Better the Arabs do it tolerably than you do it  perfectly.” Being immersed for a year of two in this milieu gradually shapes an advisor’s viewpoint especially in terms of urgency and most importantly the officers role as a leader and trainer and treatment of soldiers.

Syrian troops

There are a number of  factors within the military culture of the Russians that mesh nicely with Arab military  culture.  First, and perhaps foremost, is that both cultures emphasize officer training at the denigration of non- commissioned officer training. and the acceptance  and need of an authoritarian type leadership in lieu of  leadership at the bottomLeadership at small unit levels was missing even during World War II as evidenced by many German memoirs after the war (with some room for exaggeration).  In fact the Arab and Russian dependence on officers, especially junior officers was,  and is, not a remedy because the junior officers were ( and are not) well trained either. Thirdly is the small value put on human life by commanders, especially by the Russians, who often made up for inadequate leadership and tactics with brute  overwhelming force in which massive  casualties were considered the price of victory.

mass grave for civilians from Grozny

Often there was a lack off trust between the units based on ethnicity as is the case with Arabs in which ethnicity and tribal affiliations remain the source of overall loyalties. Despite the fact that the Ukrainians fought loyally for the Soviet Union in World War II, there has always been deep animosity  between the two nationalities, even in the Gulag as noted by  Solzhenitsyn. The lack of concern for enlisted men in both the Arab and Russian armies are a well established observer. My experience  with Arab militaries, as well as that of many other observers and trainers  on the ground, convinced me of the disconnect between officer and enlisted. My reading of the available information of the Russian performance in Chechen and Afghanistan wars is  ineluctably convincing of the same problem in the Russian military. See Arkady Babchenko, One Soldiers War or Svetlana Alexievich, Zinky Boys, or Roderic Braithwaite , Afgantsy.  Or as a counterweight read Alexander Werth’s hagiographic Russia at War balanced by Stalins Reluctant Soldiers by Roger Reese. Best of all read Ivans War by Catherine Merridale. The last three books are on the struggle of the Russian and Ukrainian troops to stop the Germans and destroy their war machine, and a glorious fight it was,  but the problems of today were there as well, but muted by the united war against the Nazis.

Dr Bashar the esteemed president of Syria teaching strategy

So what we have here is is not a learning process but a mutual congruence of military culture engraining mutual bad  habits in which both sides are losers. So despite the fact that by the end of 2017, 48,000 Russian troops had rotated through 3-month tours in Syria, and commanders had acquired experience in combined arms warfare, inter – service cooperation, and “complex employment of intelligence, C2 and fire destruction means,”..The quote is by according to Dmitry Adamsky, IFRIRussia /NIS Center, July 2018, . He goes on to write that that the “General Staff  (GS) turned Syria into an incubator learning, training, and innovation.”  Many writers, including me, before the the Ukraine invasion thought so, but the bottom line is always the same….. however many alphabet soup labels one wishes to use e.g., Information Technology Revolution in  Military Affairs, (IT-RMA), etc etc. the basics of discipline, hard tactical training, tough leadership, and imaginative competent generals  are the path to victory, not withstanding the fact that “military intellectuals'” make big bucks spinning old threads  into new  tapestries  constantly coming up with new acronyms and terms  for old lessons.It seems thew Syrians did more of the teaching than the Russians.

Perhaps the most salient lesson learned from the Russian-Syrian  symbiotic relationship is the use of brutality, transforming  conventional war into  terror, as demonstrated by the Syrian and Russians over the past century. The penchant for brutality goes back a long way in their histories.  For example;  The Russian  looting and rapine of eastern Germany at the close of world war II( somewhat understandable however, given the methodical German atrocities while  occupying Russian cities). The mass execution of soldiers and civilians perpetrated by both sides of the Russian civil war following on the heels of WWI is one other example. In more recent history the total destruction off Grozny in Chechnya in both wars.In the final battle only 20,oo0 of the original 400,000 inhabitants remained in the city which was leveled by ceaseless bombing and artillery. In another war, the Russians systematically destroyed Afghan villages after a single shot was fired in their direction. There was no hearts and minds campaign!

The Syrians under Hafez Assad replicated the destruction off Grozny in the reduction of the  1982 Muslim Brotherhood rebellion in the city of Hama.Twenty to thirty thousand people, mostly civilians were killed by airstrikes and area type artillery bombardment. When I was in Syria in the mid 1990’s the scars of war were still evident in the patched up apartment buildings and the sour demeanor of the people.The Russian  provided the lesson for Syria in total destruction of Afghan villages in the  Afghan Russian war  as well as Grozny in the two wars on Chechnya.

another day…. picking up bodies in Syria

This type of warfare is inordinately simple. Position your missile launchers and artillery within range of the city and keep shelling and bombing until the body and mind of the defenders give way. Atrocities are calculated to instill terror using quasi military units  like Shabiba in Syria and the Chechens in Ukraine.

A Lesson for the Western “military intellectuals”…. Terror works.


About Tex

Retired artillery colonel, many years in a number of positions in the Arab world. Graduate of the US Military Academy and the American University of Beirut. MA in Arab studies from the American University in Beirut along with 18 years as Middle East Seminar Director at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School, Served in Vietnam with 1st Inf Division, Assignments in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, plus service with Trucial Oman Scouts in the Persian Gulf. Traveled to every Arab country on the map including Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
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3 Responses to What did the Russians learn from the Syrian Experience? Brutality Works

  1. Chris Rollins says:

    Enjoyed your article, Tex.

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