The Attack on Russia’s Air Base in Syria

The Russian press continues to discuss the surprise attack on the Russian air base in Syria at Hmeimim that occurred on New Year’s Eve. When Kommersant, on the basis of authoritative sources, originally reported the event as not only entirely unanticipated but also highly destructive of men and machines, a vigorous rebuttal as to the scale of the incident issued forth from an indignant Russian government. The national press then adjusted its accounts to accommodate these fierce denials. Now Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie has, however, and not for the first time under its deputy editor, moved decisively out of line. It has returned to the original account in Kommersant, tacitly deferring to it as authoritative (A. Sharkovskii, “Grom gryanul nad Khmeimimom, pora krestit’sya: Pochemu stal vozmozhnym minimetrnyi obstrel bazy VKS v Sirii”, Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, 12 January 2018.)

Sharkovskii homes in on the sheer incompetence in play which meant that the base was inadequately reinforced in terms of engineering and poorly protected in terms of patrols, accepting that the Syrian allies could not be counted on for anything. Yet, although the deputy editor presents in fine detail everything that went wrong, Sharkovskii does not take in the larger picture.

President Putin, his eyes fixed on local and global geopolitics, does not appear to have thought through the potential consequences of sustaining air and naval bases in a country that is still in violent disarray and from which he is withdrawing forces that he introduced not so long ago. His own military were none too sanguine about going in and this was reflected in press coverage by former officers. Doubting Thomases were evidently over-ruled. Apparently other sceptics have now been over-ruled over the retreat in haste. Politically this is entirely understandable. Re-election is imminent and Putin does not want anything going wrong. He has had to demonstrate that the Syrian adventure was not going to turn into Vietnam, Afghanistan or, indeed, Iraq, with all the damaging long term consequences of fighting an unwinnable and costly war. But those despatched by the Ministry of Defence have to face the risks in the field and Sharkovskii says they are making a mess of it.

But surely Putin received sound advice that hanging on to base areas in Syria while simultaneously pulling out ground forces that could protect them was unwise, to say the least. Or did his notoriously triumphalist Chief of the General Staff deliberately understate the potential hazards that could arise from enemies still armed on the ground while Russian forces withdrew? The pressure to tell an authoritarian President what he wants to hear – the war is won in Syria – never mind the consequences, has its precedents in Moscow; and, indeed, it is certainly not unknown elsewhere (please stand up George Bush junior).