Small Wars Journal

A Tale of Two Interventions: Russia and the U.S. Face Off in Syria

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A Tale of Two Interventions: Russia and the U.S. Face Off in Syria

Erik Grossman

Introduction

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States and its Western allies were able to intervene in regional conflicts around the globe uncontested by major powers, a development which has long distressed the Russian government. With a renewed Russian power able to project a significant force beyond its own borders, this era is in freefall. Russia has demonstrated its willingness and capacity to challenge a U.S.-led intervention in Syria. If the Russian model of intervention is proven able to consistently secure regional objectives despite U.S. opposition, great concerns arise should such a model be exported to countries like China, Iran, or Turkey. This paper will examine the foundations of the "Chechen model" of Russian intervention, briefly recap the much-documented American "Afghan model” and analyze how the Chechen model proved superior in a shared conflict space with competing objectives in Syria.

Origins of “The Chechen Model”

The Chechen model of intervention is a combination of shock and awe, asymmetrical counterinsurgency (COIN) operations, propaganda, and corruption of the existing political apparatus. It constitutes overwhelming and decisive violence in a short amount of time in order to secure an environment from which to consolidate political authority and execute brutal COIN operations which are sustainable and of low-intensity. The Second Chechen War is the namesake of this model which has since been replicated in Georgia and Syria.

Following the humiliating defeat in the First Chechen War (1994-1996) under Boris Yeltsin, Acting President Vladimir Putin made clear his intention to redouble efforts in Chechnya. The Second Chechen War began in earnest in December 1999 with a demonstration of Russian shock and awe by sieging the secessionist capital, Grozny. For weeks, Russian airstrikes and artillery decimated the city. Entire neighborhoods were demolished and when the rebels proved their resilience, the bombardment campaign increased to a level which they could no longer resist. Russian warplanes dropped leaflets reading "You have lost! There will be no more negotiations. Everybody who has not left the city will be destroyed" (Gordon, 1999).  In February of 2000, the rebels fled the city. Many took escape routes purposely left open for them which led directly into minefields (Beehner 2017, 84-85). Russian forces entered the city in early February.

The Siege of Grozny was a cornerstone of the war and central to the Chechen model. Sieges allow an attacker to remain on the offensive while containing an enemy, preventing resupply, and conserving resources and manpower. A siege is especially beneficial if "the advancing army does not possess the human, financial, or military resources to seize and control the city outright" (Beehner 2017, 81). For a cash-strapped Russian military in 1999, the Siege of Grozny was a cost-effective tactic. The siege was also a demonstration of capability. Insurgent rebels can project an incredible level of violence, but they cannot match the resources of a determined nation-state. Through "isolation, air strikes, and overwhelming and unrestrained force", the Russian Federation accomplished in a month what they had been unable to accomplish in two years in the previous war (Beehner 2017, 85).

With the resistance pushed into the mountains, Russia was able to scale back and rely on violent COIN methods to conduct "mop up" operations. Measures included raids, zachistki (ethnic-cleansing), kontr-zakhvatki (systematic kidnappings), torture, rape, okhrana (secret police), and martial law. In time, pro-government militias took these duties from Russian troops (Pohl 2007, 30-32). Russian forces also assassinated Aslan Maskhadov, leader of the Chechen resistance, in 2005. In 2006, Maskhadov's successor Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev was assassinated as was human rights activist Anna Politkovskaya. Nataliya Estemirova, a journalist critical of Putin and the Russian-installed regime in Chechnya, was killed in 2009 (Russell 2011, 513-514). Where the Afghan model seeks to turn spoilers into allies through improved governance and political representation, the Chechen model simply removes their existence.

Given the Kremlin's obsession with domestic stability, the Chechen model relies on tangible military victories (capturing cities over rural areas) and media domination. In the First Chechen War, an independent media had been critical of Russian tactics and political rationale. They relayed military setbacks and drove down public support to such an extent that Boris Yeltsin, concerned with electoral fallout, initiated a ceasefire in 1996. Taking lessons learned, the Kremlin "exercised a greater degree of control on the media's coverage" and "learned the value of conducting a propaganda war on the airwaves to help sustain a military offensive on the ground" (Russia's 2000 Presidential Elections, 2000). Throughout the campaign, public support remained steady at 60% despite increasing Russian casualties, and the media reported positively on military developments and Putin's leadership. After Grozny was captured, Putin took to the state-owned ORT news channel on February 6. He declared the battle over and, harkening back to the famous photograph of the Soviet flag perched over the ruined Reichstag in 1945, proudly announced that "The Russian flag has been hoisted over an administrative building in the district" (The Kremlin, 2000). One month later, Putin won the Russian presidential election.

The Chechen model demands overwhelming violence to beat the region into submission and open up avenues for the corruption of existing political systems, sometimes in a process referred to as "Chechenization" where there was a "devolution of power to pro-Russian Chechens in order to counter the local insurgency" (Russell 2011, 510). Following the siege, Putin named Akhmad Kadyrov as the interim President of the Chechen Republic. Kadyrov had been a prominent independence militia commander in the First Chechen War. Now, he was the chosen puppet of Moscow and it allowed Putin to avoid international mediation efforts while normalizing Chechnya's place in the Russian Federation (Russell 2011, 511). Kadyrov created a force to root out remaining terrorists and cash payments were made to end the insurgency. After Kadyrov's assassination in 2004, his pro-Moscow successor Alu Alkhanov appointed rebel brigade generals as heads of administrations and former rebel soldiers were folded into a federal regiment of Chechen forces - these soldiers carried out operations against insurgents in the same mountainous regions they had once been occupying (Alkhanov 2005). Alkhanov was dismissed in 2007 once Ramzan Kadyrov (Akhmad's son and former independence militia commander) became old enough to take the presidency. Rather than establishing a new government, the Chechen model filled the existing political structure with pro-Kremlin puppets. It bribed rebel leaders with positions in government and employed former rebel soldiers in the security forces.

The most significant downside of the Chechen model is that it creates fiercely embittered enemies. In the aftermath of Grozny, many Chechens declared a blood feud on Russian Federation troops and even joined up with well-funded jihadis who "had come from the Middle East to assist the outgunned Chechen Muslims in their uneven struggle against the mighty Russian [infidels]" (Williams 2004, 197). In this way, the Chechen model led to the Dubrovka Theater hostage crisis which killed 133 civilians and the Beslan school siege which killed another 334. The enemies the Chechen model creates serves a purpose for the Kremlin, however. The rebels once fighting for a cause that could be argued as just could now be framed as terrorists and spoilers of Russian-created security and stability. After the War on Terror was declared, Russian and Western media alike began closely linking the Chechen rebels to Al Qaeda. Before long, Germany, Italy, and the U.S. were seeing the Russian intervention as a theater in the greater fight against extremism (Williams 2004, 200, 202). Russia had legitimized the targets of their operation ex post facto. This too is an instrument of the Chechen model. It's been used in Georgia when the Kremlin justified the intervention as "force protection and self-defense... to defend the Russian peacekeeping contingent under attack"; Putin further likened Georgian aggression to genocide (Allison 2008, 1151-1152). By legitimizing targets publicly with standards used by Western powers, the Chechen model helps to nullify international criticism in media and diplomatic circles.

Two days before his February 6th interview with ORT where Putin declared victory in Grozny, Putin addressed his Security Council to endorse the drafting of a new military doctrine and reiterated in a phone interview that "the structure of the army, its status and expenditure – all this calls for a different approach" (Putin, "Opening Address", 2000; Putin, "Transcript of a Telephone Conversation", 2000). The capture of Grozny and its political and strategic effectiveness had birthed the Chechen model of Russian intervention. The model would be expanded on in Georgia in 2008 and again in Syria in 2015.

The Afghan Model

With case studies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Niger, Libya, and Syria, the Afghan model limits American boots on the ground which lessens media attention. It encourages multilateral cooperation to limit international scrutiny. Local forces are trained and equipped and, with assistance from Western special forces and SOF-directed air strikes, conduct operations to accomplish a stated political objective. Once successful, the country is then occupied and policed by indigenous forces often beholden to newly-established democratic institutions (Andres et. al. 2005, 124-125). COIN methods resist the Russian kind of brutality in favor of building governance, capacity, and infrastructure. This model is considered cheaper and more effective than conventional invasion. The Afghan model's "lead from behind" method was largely successful in Syria until it was forced to compete with the Chechen model.

The Chechen Model Turns the Tide in Syria

The Syrian conflict is complicated and should be pared down for analysis. First, there is the ISIS/Al-Nusra versus "everyone" conflict. There has been cooperation between U.S. and Russian forces since these groups have no international legitimacy and thus there can only be one outcome. Then there is the Syrian Civil War proper between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Syrian rebels, notably the Free Syrian Army which the U.S. saw as able to administer Syria as a democratic state. Russia and the U.S. thus had competing and at the same time overlapping objectives. Whereas the U.S. was focused on the first conflict as part of the War on Terror, Russia was dedicated to the second. Putin fears another collapsed state brought on by a revolution and he doesn't trust the U.S. to create stability after witnessing the fallout of Western intervention in Libya (Hill 2013). Although focused on the fight against ISIS, the U.S. poured significant resources into supporting the Syrian Free Army in its fight to topple Assad. It is this second conflict that is the center of competition between the Afghan and Chechen models.

A focal point of this conflict was the Battle of Aleppo, which started in early 2012. Aleppo is Syria's largest city and a cultural and economic hub, it is the symbolic kind of target preferred by the Chechen model. By 2015, U.S.-supported rebels had captured the eastern half of the city. News outlets and academics had determined that Assad was on the ropes. He was suffering "severe manpower shortages" and allied militias were in retreat (Lister 2015). Then on September 30, 2015, the first Russian airstrikes began which targeted rebels and civilians alike. By November 2016, the city was surrounded, sieged, and mostly destroyed. On December 22 the Syrian government took control what remained. Russia and Syria achieved local ceasefires with rebels through overwhelming violence and by offering "food, water, electricity and military forbearance in exchange for acquiescence to regime dominion" (Strategic Comments 2017, 2).

In 2017, Western forces ceased their support of the Free Syrian Army effectively ceding this theater of the war to Russia. Due to humanitarian concerns and a lack of commitment to strike Syrian government forces directly, the Afghan model was unable to project the force necessary to secure rebel victory, leaving room for the Chechen model to overpower them. In two years, Russia conducted 34,420 sorties largely concentrated in rebel-controlled territory in and around Aleppo, Idlib, and Homs (Shoigu 2017; Casagrande). Over four years, coalition forces conducted double the number of sorties (68,568), but these have been spread throughout Iraq and Syria (AFCENT 2017, 3). Demonstrating the effectiveness of the Russian campaign, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that in 2015 Assad controlled just 22% of Syrian territory, but after two years of Russian intervention his control jumped to 56% in 2018 (SOHR 2018). The Chechen model had achieved Russia's geopolitical objectives the same way it had in Chechnya: through concentrated and overwhelming violence. With the alternatives to Assad's rule defeated, both Assad and Putin are seeking a political end to the war. This has proven difficult since the brutality of the Chechen model has isolated Putin in diplomatic circles (Baev 2017, 5). Still, the Trump administration has been forced to accept that Assad will stay in power which "reflects the Administration's limited options [and] the military reality on the ground" (Wright 2017).

In a space with greater international scrutiny such as Syria, and one far beyond the geographic proximity of Chechnya, COIN measures had to be scaled back to reduce Russian military strain and political exposure, relying on airstrikes in a crowded airspace which could be denied and an asymmetric ground force in lieu of a uniformed one. In the air, Russia has used cluster and incendiary munitions on civilians. On the ground, Russia has deployed spetsnaz, employed private military contractors (PMCs), and Ramzan Kadyrov has sent soldiers to Syria. These units cut their teeth in counterinsurgency in the Chechen mountains and have been likened to "death squads" (Nemtsova 2016). PMCs have been Russia's greatest ground effort, the highest profile of which has been Wagner PMC which sent 2,500 soldiers. Wagner PMC is owned by a former Russian GRU operative and funded by a Putin ally. Using PMCs allows Putin to maintain a highly capable ground force while having plausible deniability and being able to downplay any casualties or accusations of war crimes (BBC 2018).

Special forces employed by the Afghan model have been limited in number with their primary mission being to train, advise, and assist local forces fighting ISIS. U.S. "advisors" have only recently engaged Russian forces when the latter launched an attack on the former on February 7th, 2018. The circumstances of the "Battle of Khasham" are still hotly debated, but it left anywhere between five and one hundred Wagner soldiers dead (Trevithick 2018). The engagement shows that due to political concerns, Afghan model efforts have only been able to combat Chechen model efforts when directly attacked. By contrast, the Chechen model is unrestrained and able to operate more freely to accomplish its objectives.

Propaganda has played its part in Syria, too. The Russian media portrays anti-government groups as spoilers disrupting a popular regime which had provided order and claimed the initial protests which started the civil war were principled on Islamic radicalism (Brown 2014, 51-52). Further, the press continues to frame the intervention as one of protecting national interests which plays to Russian nationalists and is viewed as a restoration of Moscow's influence in world affairs (Kozhanov 2016, 91-92). Reminiscent of the radicalization of the Chechen independence movement, political and secular militias have been corrupted by radical extremists. This has given legitimacy to Russian political targets after the fact, as they continue to be referred to as "terrorists" by the Kremlin.

"Chechenization" is likely to have its place in Syria. Shortly after the start of the intervention, Moscow acknowledged moderate rebel groups who were willing to deal in a peace process which, by its very nature, requires Assad to stay in power. It's therefore likely former rebels will find themselves bribed into pacification through administrative posts or cash payments. Putin has also corrupted the existing political system in Syria. With the announced permanent presence of Russian forces, Putin has been granted a prolonged hand in Syrian affairs and security. In a speech at the Khmeimim Air Base, Putin stated that "The two bases, in Tartous and Khmeimim, will continue to operate on a permanent basis. If the terrorists raise their heads again, we will deal unprecedented strikes unlike anything they have seen" (The Kremlin 2017, "Khmeimim Air Base in Syria"). The Khmeimim Air Base was also leased to Russia for an additional 49 years. Diplomatically, Putin has made Syria somewhat of a subject. In December 2017, Putin informed Assad that he would be meeting with the Presidents of Turkey and Egypt to discuss the preparation of the Syrian National Congress. Putin added that, "We will contact you following these talks, and I will inform you in detail about our common plans for achieving a final settlement". This strongly implies that for Assad to deal with regional powers, he will have to do so through Russia (The Kremlin 2017, "Meeting with President of Syria Bashar al-Assad"). For its part, the Afghan model had denounced the existing regime and was therefore stuck supporting the development of a new political environment for Syria which is driven by a group increasingly corrupted by Islamic radicals. These movements are not reliably democratic and are likely to fall victim to internal conflict as they had in Libya.

Conclusion

Neither the Chechen nor the Afghan model should be seen as strategy set in stone. Each has contrasting foundations which allow flexibility and adaptability, and their specific use is determined by variables of the conflict environment. Whereas the Chechen model is a unilateral subjugation of society, the Afghan model is a multilateral rehabilitation of society in the Western image. The Chechen model seeks direct Russian influence in the long-term, while the Afghan model seeks the restoration of a sovereign government aligned with the liberal world order. But the greatest difference between the Afghan and Chechen models is the level of violence willing to be committed. The security of a space relies on the monopolization of violence and the Chechen model is much more adept at doing so by using violence as the primary tool of power. This may not be ethical or just, but it is productive when order is the order of the day. So long as the Chechen model can out-monopolize the Afghan model, the U.S. will consistently find its interventions stymied and reversed by adversaries employing it. In a future challenge, it will be necessary for the Afghan model to adapt into something more aggressive, more "Chechen model-esque", or be abandoned entirely.

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About the Author(s)

Erik Grossman is an M.A. Candidate at the George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs. His focus is on National Security Policy Planning and Transnational Security Issues.