The war against Islamic State affords the opportunity to thoroughly examine and compare the strategies used by the US and Russia, something that reveals dangerous patterns reminiscent of the Cold War.
Let us first review the two countries’ stated goals.
Those defined by US President Barack Obama, are complex: there is the goal of “defeating the ISIS organization and the Islamic caliphate,” as well as replacing Syrian President Bashar Assad “for carrying out war crimes against his people.” Here, there is structural contradiction as the Assad regime is a central component in the war against ISIS.
The goals of the war in Syria set by Russian President Vladimir Putin, by contrast, are less complex: “Ensuring the rule of President Assad in Syria and safeguarding the vital interests of Russia in the region.” Here we see that Russia is not involved in the war against ISIS in Iraq, but rather prefers to restrict itself to the war in Syria.
Furthermore, due to the “war-weariness” from which the US may be suffering, America is searching for a way to manage the campaign without placing US “boots on the ground,” hoping that a remote, technological war will lead to victory without requiring a commitment of US ground troops. In contrast, free of military and domestic fatigue, Russia is searching for global recognition for itself as a power, and has built military bases in Syria, intending to remain there indefinitely.
Now we must consider the challenges inherent to coalitions. Despite the appearance of an international coalition fighting ISIS under US and Russian leadership, the gaps between the two countries are significant. In reality, the US and Russia are actually fighting in two separate coalitions.
The American-led coalition, supported by Western European states fighting against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, includes Britain and Arab Sunni states led by Saudi Arabia.
The Russian coalition includes the Assad regime, Iran and Hezbollah. This coalition is mainly fighting against Syrian opposition groups that threaten the Assad regime.
Tension exists between these coalitions, not only between the US and Russia, but also between Saudi Arabia and Iran. As a result, their ability to cooperate effectively is very low. This is highly significant, due to the post 1991 Gulf War US desire to fight at the head of an international coalition, something that lends international legitimacy to a campaign.
The Russian military prefers to fight alone, unilaterally.
It also has technological difficulties in coordinating with other militaries. This means that the Russian air force acts without coordination in areas that threaten the rule of President Assad. The Russian military’s coordination with President Assad’s forces is carried out through the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, who are, in effect, managing the war in Syria.
Then comes the divergent military strategies of the US and Russia, something that is particularly fascinating as it encompasses different aerial campaign doctrines.
The doctrine of the US Military Central Command speaks of a modern war, based on precise intelligence, the use of planes and armed drones and precision-guided weaponry to strike targets. This stems from a desire to cause minimal harm to civilian noncombatants.
One can identify good intelligence capabilities within the US Air Force air strikes on ISIS leaders. These cause significant damage to the organization’s chain of command, and convert ISIS leaders into hunted prey rather than predators. The coordinated campaign against sources of funding and the striking of oil wells in ISIS-controlled territory in Iraq has sunk the organization into bankruptcy, while dramatically decreasing its wages and ability to recruit new volunteers.
We must understand that in wars such as this, much time will pass before victory is achieved. There is also a need for a ground maneuver comprised of local fighters from Iraq and Peshmerga, Kurdish army forces, coordinating to destroy ISIS and retake areas within historical Iraq.
In contrast, the Russian doctrine talks of “scorched earth,” or carpet bombing, using inaccurate munitions with no regard to the civilian population, with the aim of creating a situation in which the population and guerrilla rebel forces fighting Assad become unable to remain in the targeted area, and must retreat.
As with the US though, the Russian activities will not lead to victory in the absence of a coordinated ground maneuver to liberate Syrian territory. This would be led by the Syrian army and Hezbollah forces. So while the Russian aerial campaign may decrease the immediate threat to the stability of Assad’s rule, a Russian presence in Syria will continue for a lengthy period, without a decisive outcome.
THIS WAR is being waged in order to defeat ISIS and to create a new situation in the Middle East but it is also a war for hegemony and control of the area.
Regionally, the struggle for dominance is between the Sunni axis, led by the Saudis and Egypt, and the Shi’ite axis, led by Iran. We are reverting to patterns that are over a thousand years old; repeated wars within Islam between Sunnis and Shi’ites. The well publicized struggle over oil production, and the decrease in global oil prices, is a part of this pattern.
In global terms, however, it is reasonable to speak in terms of a Cold War; with the US and NATO on one side and Russia under the leadership of President Putin on the other. Russia is again attempting to establish its standing as a superpower.
The war in Syria enables President Putin to unite his people for war and, in so doing, to divert their focus from the collapsing Russian economy. The conflict in the Middle East is part of the global Russian struggle to revive global dominance. These efforts began in Georgia, spread to Ukraine, and now, to Syria.
These struggles for hegemony, both regional and global, are what prevent better coordination between the forces fighting against ISIS. That, in turn, all but guarantees a war that will be both protracted and that may eventually succeed in destroying ISIS, but will not solve the regional instability.
The next article in this series will examine efforts by ISIS to broaden the war to new fronts – first and foremost, to Western Europe, North Africa and Asia.
The author, a retired IDF major-general, is senior policy and security adviser to Our Soldiers Speak (www.oursoldiersspeak.org). The views expressed above do not represent the views of the IDF, the Foreign Ministry or the organization Our Soldiers Speak. They are reflective solely of the views of the author.