During the height of the US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the common buzzword among the US military and the pundits analysing the wars was counterinsurgency.
The much-feted generals, David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, gave briefing after briefing on how to win through unconventional tactics. Their strategy was to think like the insurgents, capture their space and deny them physical and moral support. Yet for more than a decade Iraq and Afghanistan have remained firmly out of the US sphere of influence, with both countries still far from secure and the US military having to rely on regional countries for survival.
In Syria, however, the Russians are now demonstrating Machiavellian skills that are defining what success looks like on the battlefield. For the first time in modern history, a foreign military intervention has triumphed in the Middle East.
As the Syrian army closes in on Daraa, the final chapter in the Russian-led campaign is taking shape. But what is happening in Daraa? Is it the same as in Eastern Ghouta, Homs and Aleppo?
Daraa cannot be looked at in isolation. It is a microcosm of the Syrian war ever since the Russians entered the fray.
US-led military interventions in the Middle East – ranging from Libya to Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan – have all resulted in catastrophic failures. The Americans handed Iraq to Iran after the overthrow of Saddam; in Libya they handed over the desert to brutal terrorist groups and strongmen; and in Yemen their former ally Ali Abdullah Saleh was driven out and killed. Meanwhile, in Egypt and Gaza, democracy was denied with full US support.
It is no surprise then that amid such glaring failures and contradictions in policy, the Russians have stepped in and won an outright victory, making them the ultimate kingmakers not just in Syria but also the wider Middle East.
Leaders such as Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan are now cosying up to Moscow to deliver them from the mess the US created.
Even the US president is lining up a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, where Syria will be a significant talking point. So the Russians have outmanoeuvred not just the Americans but erstwhile opponents, such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
A Repeat Strategy
The Russians stepped in to help the Syrian government and military in 2015 and immediately started cutting deals with various armed groups, irrespective of their backers’ positions. At the same time, they used overwhelming military airpower to pound the rest into submission, and took over the command-and-control structure to make the Syrian military and state infrastructure more efficient and capable.
Analysts who predicted the demise of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were clearly in the wrong. Despite severe setbacks, including the loss of top defence and security officials in a bombing, Syria’s military and intelligence had assets all over the country which were able to penetrate the rebel and extremist groups.