Martin Zeis, 09.10.2015
The Syrian War and Russia’s Diplomatic Play
By Alexander MERCOURIS
Transcript* of meeting between Putin and Defence Minister Shoigu shows how Russia is holding on to the diplomatic initiative to support its military campaign
E x c e r p t
… The transcript does nonetheless provide us with much information.
Firstly, the transcript gives an insight into the sort of targets the Russians have been attacking.
The primary target is the infrastructure the Islamic State and the other jihadi groups have created to support their military campaign against the Syrian government. In Shoigu’s words “command posts, ammunition depots, military hardware, and training camps for their fighters.”
It is the Islamic State and the jihadi rebels’ resources to conduct the war, rather than their fighters, who are the primary target.
The Russians are not out to kill lots of jihadis. They are focused on destroying the Islamic State’s and the jihadis’ ability to wage war, so that the Russians and their allies can win it.
This is in keeping with the aim of the operation: to support an offensive by the Syrian army. The Syrians say it has now begun. Doubtless now that it has begun, the Russians will also provide close air support. The transcript says that Putin has already been informed of plans involving the conduct of the Syrian offensive – showing that it is being carefully coordinated with the Russians.
The main emphasis of the discussion between Putin and Shoigu was however the political and diplomatic effort underway to support the military campaign.
Westerners may be surprised to find Putin discussing political and diplomatic questions with his Defence Minister – as opposed to say his Foreign Minister or his intelligence chiefs.
However this is consistent with the way the Russians conduct war.
They see war as an all-encompassing activity in which every instrument available to the state – diplomatic, military or economic – is used to achieve victory. Reducing war to its purely military aspects – as Western leaders too often do – is not the Russian way.
This means that when the Russians decide to wage war, they prepare carefully, and work hard to support their military with intense diplomatic activity. (…)
What comes over clearly from Putin’s discussion with Shoigu is the range of diplomatic contacts the Russians are engaging in.
They are talking to everybody, not just their allies but also to those who might be considered their adversaries: the US, the Turks, the Israelis and the Saudis and they are doing so moreover all the time. Dr. Gilbert Doctorow has described Moscow as a “hive of activity”, and he is right.
Doing so enables the Russians to know what is in their potential adversaries’ minds and – ideally – to keep them divided and off-balance, preventing an anti-Russian coalition such as the one they faced in Afghanistan in the 1980s from being formed.
Thus instead of the Russians engaging publicly in a row with the Turks over airspace violations – which might cause Turkish opposition to the Russian campaign to harden – the Turks are placated with an apology, and an offer – which they have accepted – of a direct link to the Russian command to reduce the risk of more violations.
Hollande’s fantasy of an anti-Islamic State alliance between the Syrian army and the rebel Free Syrian Army is treated seriously, though Putin cannot resist a dig (“True, we do not know yet where this army is and who heads it”).
The Russians know perfectly well that Hollande’s proposal is a fantasy. However, by going through the motions of considering it – and making the fact public – they save Hollande’s face, and make themselves look reasonable.
US complaints that the Russians are not striking the Islamic State but are striking “moderate” rebels are countered with the request – made with all the appearance of a straight face – that the US tell them where the “real terrorists” are – though here again Putin cannot resist a dig (“It is fair enough if they say they know the situation better because they have been conducting operations in this territory (on an unlawful basis, as I have said) for more than a year now”).
Again the Russians know perfectly well the US will not share intelligence with them. They have said their discussions with the US are at a purely “technical” level. However by making the request they keep the US on the back foot, and again make themselves look reasonable.
The Russian tactics are working. Despite the anger in Western capitals, there is no sign of an anti-Russian coalition coming together.
Meanwhile, the really important discussions, those the Russians are having with the Iranians, the Iraqis, the Syrians and – above all – the Chinese, are being kept secret. Putin and Shoigu tell us nothing about them – which proves that they are the ones that really matter.
— emphasis, m.z. —