From Kabul to Damascus

by Paul Iddon.

Not long after a small contingent of Russian troops and warplanes touched on Syrian soil did articles appear talking about the prospect of “Putin’s Afghanistan“, “another Afghanistan” for Moscow, which sought to explain why the Kremlin’s intervention in Syria could prove very costly.

Islamist rebels fighting the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad have also invoked the 1980s Soviet war in Afghanistan which saw a large inflow of foreign fighters into that war-wrecked country. More foreign fighters have, however, already traveled to fight in Syria in the last four-and-a-half-years than to Afghanistan throughout the duration of that near-decade long war.

Russian Air Force Su-25 attack planes based in Syria's coastal Latakia Province (Photo via mil.ru).

Russian Air Force Su-25 attack planes based in Syria’s coastal Latakia Province (Photo via mil.ru).

Some of the historical comparisons made between a possible Russian experience in Syria today with the Soviet experience in Afghanistan are worth considering. Most revolve around the “unifying” effect a foreign power in a Middle Eastern country has on various Islamist groups across the world.

However, Syria has already proven to be a magnet for such fighters. The instability and chaos of the ongoing war there has created a fertile environment for groups like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra to try and erect repressive Islamist societies. That said, the Soviet war in Afghanistan as a possible historical precedent is worth evaluating. It will almost certainly be the case that rolling back Syria’s rebels will be an enormously costly operation with no guarantees of success.

Russia’s deployment in Syria may be, and I’d wager is more likely to be, much more tactical, limited and ad-hoc than the Soviet deployment to Afghanistan. If it is limited to bases in Syria’s Latakia governorate and primarily fixated around enabling al-Assad to cling to Damascus and most of the western parts of Syria he still controls, the Afghan comparison may not be so apt.

It might well be an apt analogy, however, if the Russians do try to help al-Assad restore control over all of Syria. If, in the coming weeks and months, al-Assad’s forces secure all the major roads and provincial capitals, that would only be the beginning. Even if every single member of ISIS is killed or captured — without a concerted effort to win over the majority of Syria’s Sunni-majority population — the grounds will simply be laid for another violent insurgency. And it is certainly not clear whether Damascus or Moscow have an effective strategy to rout out the terrorists and insurgents that would arise in their midst.

During the Iraq War, Sunni Arabs in Baghdad, for a time, looked the other way when al-Qaeda members set up shop in their neighborhoods — as they perceived the greater threat coming from Shia militias. That saw to al-Qaeda terrorizing those same Sunnis into submission and then ruling over them in ways not unlike how ISIS rigorously rules in the areas it has captured in Syria. Only by working with the Sunnis were the Americans successfully able to stop al-Qaeda from getting a foothold in Sunni communities.

Soviet soldier in Afghanistan, 1988 (Photo by Mikhail Evstafiev).

Soviet soldier in Afghanistan, 1988 (Photo by Mikhail Evstafiev).

In Iraq, the Shia are the largest community, and many know that cooperating closely with the Sunnis and giving them guarantees is the most effective way to oust ISIS from their country. In Syria, however, the opposite is the case. The Sunnis are the clear majority and the Alawites behind al-Assad are a clear minority. As was the case in Iraq, many destitute Sunnis have put up with ISIS for reasons pertaining to stability. Not out of any love for the organization, its ideology or methods. With many ragtag rebel groups failing to hold onto any territory free from the regime for any period of time, ISIS has distinguished itself by being able to seize and retain control over large swaths of land. If al-Assad is to re-establish his authority and rule over all of Syria ever again, cooperating closely with and giving guarantees to the Sunni-majority population will be essential. It may already be too late for that.

In Afghanistan, the Soviets sought to forcibly prop-up their client regime in Kabul and give it control over all of Afghanistan. In Syria today, Russia is clearly seeking to shore up al-Assad’s rump state which was evident from where it chose to bomb first and foremost. Namely positions of anti-Assad groups in Hama and Idlib governorates as well as Aleppo. It has also flown air strikes against Raqqa, the so-called “capital” of the ISIS caliphate and the only provincial capital in Syria to be completely dominated by a group fighting the al-Assad regime.

How long the Russians will be in Syria is anyone’s guess. If they surge their forces and send in as many as the Soviets did in Afghanistan (around 115,000) it’s doubtful they could achieve much more than tactical victories. Retaking and retaining control over all the major cities and infrastructure as was done in Afghanistan won’t guarantee victory unless there is an aforementioned effort from large swaths of the Syrian population. Which would mean nation-building done in tandem with counter-terrorism operations. An endeavor like that would cost billions, most of which would likely be footed by al-Assad’s closest ally, Tehran. Which has already poured in billions to keep his regime propped-up since this war has brought the Syrian economy to a grinding halt. Both Iran and Russia have economic problems of their own so that would be a costly endeavor for them to undertake.

What we will likely see unfold in the coming months is a shoring-up effort of al-Assad. Probably to enable him to secure and survive in the rump part of Syria he retains control over while afflicting deadly blows to his enemies. Something which will, and indeed already is, further destroying the Syrian state and most likely turn more people against the regime as opposed to empowering them to effectively rout out ISIS from their communities. Such a policy is destined to fail. Which brings one to another apt Afghan analogy which may develop.

Kabul after the fall of the former Soviet client regime, circa 1993 (Photo by rawa.org).

Kabul after the fall of the former Soviet client regime, circa 1993 (Photo by rawa.org).

After the Soviets withdrew, and shortly thereafter became history, the client they left in Kabul struggled to retain its hold over power. Having being left with Soviet armaments such as Scud missiles and helicopter gunships, they proved unable to even hold onto the capital against well-organized guerrillas wielding only small arms. By 1992, those guerrillas destroyed that regime. Afghanistan was subsequently plunged into anarchy soon thereafter, a chaotic state of affairs which finally led to the rise of the iron-fisted rule of the Taliban.

The analogy isn’t perfect however. The salient distinction is that after the fall of the Soviet Union, the newly independent Russian Federation did not continue providing support to its former client in Kabul. Continued Iranian/Russian support of al-Assad coupled with the support he receives from minority groups in Syria (who are terrified of the regime falling and Islamists filling the vacuum) may see a different outcome in Syria, perhaps even a partition.

So while, as with all historical comparisons, the Afghan analogy may not be the most apt one to apply to the present Russian deployment in today’s Syria, it cannot be completely discounted neither.

This entry was posted in Afghanistan, English, History, Paul Iddon, Russia, Syria.

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