‘What is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy’s strategy’, wrote Sun Tzu. ‘Next best is to disrupt his alliances. The next best is to attack his army.’ Sun Tzu urged generals to avoid direct confrontation with their enemies as much as possible, as well as to avoid the obvious. ‘March by an indirect route’, Sun Tzu wrote, ‘War is based on deception … He who knows the art of the direct and indirect approach will be victorious’. Judging by a report it issued this week entitled ‘Distract, Deceive, Destroy: Putin’s War in Syria’, the Atlantic Council, a fiercely anti-Russian think tank, appears to be no big fan of Sun Tzu.
The Atlantic Council’s report was written with the support of the ‘citizen investigative journalists’ organization Bellingcat. It analyzes the targets struck by the Russian airforce during its six-month long bombing campaign in Syria. The Russian government has accused Bellingcat of fabricating data for the report. For simplicity’s sake, however, I will assume that the document is accurate in its claims concerning whom and what the Russians bombed and judge it purely on its own terms. The information in the report raises significant questions about the accuracy and competency of the Russians, and about the ethics and legality of their targeting decisions but although the Council hints at such matters it doesn’t seem desperately interested in them. Instead, its primary complaint is that Russia has been practising deception in Syria (Sun Tzu would approve!), and has not been attacking ISIS but rather the ‘moderate rebels’. Consequently, the report says, ‘The Russian bombing had minimal effect on ISIS’ and ‘it weakened the US-backed opposition significantly more than it did ISIS’.
This does not appear to be true. In the past two weeks, the Syrian Army has won a couple of major victories against ISIS, recapturing the towns of Palmyra and al-Qaryatain. It seems possible that the army may now advance still further into ISIS territory. The Atlantic Council’s report seems to provide a clue as to why these recent victories were possible.
‘In the early summer of 2015’, the report says, ‘Assad’s forces suffered a series of major defeats at the hands of ISIS, the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra front and US-backed armed opposition groups. Many of these defeats were close to Assad’s heartland on the western coastline.’ This suggests that ISIS, the Nusra front and the ‘US-backed armed opposition groups’ were in effect allied against the Syrian government. The Syrian Army lost ground to ISIS because it was under threat close to its centre of gravity from the other groups. Only by first neutralizing those others could the army have any hope of striking back against ISIS. This is what Russia did by striking the Nusra front and US-supported ‘moderate opposition’. The result was that the Russians were able to force the ‘moderates’ to agree to a ceasefire. This then freed the Syrian Army to attack ISIS. In short, the Russians followed Sun Tzu, taking the indirect approach by attacking ISIS’s allies rather than ISIS itself. The result was a military success.
The authors of the Atlantic Council’s report think that the Russians should have gone directly after ISIS, and that they somehow behaved badly by failing to do so. It seems to me that all the authors actually prove is that the Russian general staff are better strategists than them.