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Furious Russian military blames U.S. ‘humanitarian pause’ for fall of Palmyra

Russian Armed Forces General Staff Chief Gen. Yury Baluyevsky conducts a meeting with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Gen. Peter Pace at the Defense Ministry in Moscow, Russia, Oct. 30, 2006. Pace is in Moscow to enhance the military-to-military relationship between the United States and Russia. DoD photo by Staff Sgt. D. Myles Cullen, U.S. Air Force. (Released)

The fall of Palmyra is causing angry recriminations in Russia.

Officially the Russian military is blaming the US.  

In comments today General Igor Konashenkov, the Russian military’s chief spokesman, blamed the fall of Palmyra on the US failure to apply pressure on ISIS in Raqqa, which enabled ISIS to send its fighters from Raqqa to attack Palmyra.

“Over the past two days militants of the terrorist organization Islamic State (outlawed in Russia) launched several attacks on the positions of Syrian troops in the area of Palmyra. The terrorists were pushing ahead from the North, the East and the South. The attackers numbered more than 5,000.  Apparently, the IS militants had gathered around Palmyra, being very certain that combat operations in Raqqa would not resume.”

I made the identical point yesterday

“There is in fact no sign of a serious US led offensive against Raqqa, whilst the offensive against Mosul has stalled.  I said this some weeks ago on 19th November 2016, and recent reports in the Western media have confirmed it.

Obviously if ISIS really were under serious pressure in Raqqa it would not be able to send fighters from there to attack Palmyra.  ISIS’s latest offensive against Palmyra is therefore proof that the US led offensive against Raqqa is a fiction, whilst the fact ISIS has sent fighters from Iraq to Palmyra shows it is still a formidable force in Iraq as well.”

Whilst this is no doubt true, the Russian and Syrian militaries could hardly have been unaware before ISIS attacked Palmyra that the US led offensive against Raqqa was a fiction.  Saying that the US led offensive against Raqqa is a fiction does not therefore explain why the Russians and the Syrians failed to take adequate precautions to ensure Palmyra’s defence.

The Russian military has in fact made perfectly clear that it places the major blame for the fall of Palmyra on something quite different: the prolongation of the siege of Aleppo as a result of the repeated ‘humanitarian pauses’, which left the Syrian army defending Palmyra dangerously short of troops, and with those who were there of lesser quality.

Since the ‘humanitarian pauses’ in Aleppo were imposed on the Syrian and Russian militaries as a result of Russia’s diplomatic strategy, blaming them for the fall of Palmyra is an implicit criticism by the Russian military of the political strategy of Russia’s political leadership.

General Konashenkov all but said as much, though as a serving officer he chose his words very carefully when he did so

“This attack has once again demonstrated that terrorists should not have the smallest chance to take a break, for they always take advantage of such respites to regroup and then carry out a sudden attack.”

(bold italics added)

Konashenkov of course knows that ISIS has never been given a “break’, whether by the Russians or by the Syrians or indeed by the US.  His words about “terrorists not being given the smallest chance to take a break” – though supposedly referring to the failure of the US to press home its offensive against Raqqa – therefore look to be intended to refer to the repeated ‘humanitarian pauses’ in the fighting in Aleppo.

Where Konashenkov as a serving soldier has been forced to be diplomatic, General Yury Baluyevsky, a former Chief of Staff who is now retired, and who is by all accounts someone who is very much a soldiers’ soldier, was a great deal more forthright

“I understand it is necessary to ensure the safety of the population… But when these pauses last three weeks, and these militants – who are up to their elbows in blood – can restore their strength and are allowed to keep their personal weapons – well, that I don’t understand.”

(bold italics added)

This obviously refers to the ‘humanitarian pauses’ which have repeatedly taken place in Aleppo, and specifically the very prolonged one that took place in October and November.

This is not the first time that the Russian military has made know its disagreement with the political and diplomatic strategy President Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov have been following in Aleppo.  Back at the end of October there was a curious public spat between the Russian military and Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov, during which it emerged that President Putin had refused the Russian military’s public request to resume bombing in Aleppo, which he had put on hold in order to allow for a ‘humanitarian pause’.

Here is what I wrote about it then

“….this episode clearly shows one thing: the persistent Western claim that Putin is a dictator and an autocrat and that he is Russia’s hardliner is a myth.

On the contrary it is clear that Putin is now coming under intense pressure from the Russian military to call off the bombing halt in Aleppo, and that the military feel sufficiently strongly about this to go public, to the point where they made public a “request” to Putin to allow them to resume bombing in a way that clearly showed that this is what they want to do. 

The fact that Putin is resisting the military’s public request is a clear sign that he did not prompt it, and that the request was not welcome to him, and was made to him by the military as a form of pressure.

What that of course shows is that the military is becoming increasingly impatient with Putin’s Aleppo strategy, which they obviously interpret as foot-dragging, and that they are no longer bothering to conceal the fact.”

(bold italics added)

Baluyevsky’s reference to “pauses lasting three weeks” clearly refers to this episode, and shows how angry about this pause the military were.

To my knowledge The Duran was the only news site to report this episode in October correctly as a “furious row”, in which the military by going public sought to pressure Putin to end the ‘humanitarian pause’ to allow the bombing to resume.  

Every other media and news site I know of claimed instead that it was all a public relations show intended to make Putin seem reasonable and moderate.  

The reality is that no government – and certainly not the Russian government – publicises its disagreements for such a purpose.  

The Western media’s inability to report this incident properly shows again its poor understanding of Russia based on its complete misconception that President Putin is Russia’s absolute ruler, and that whatever happens in Russia is determined solely by him.  

The reality on the contrary is that though the Russian government is indeed in most respects highly disciplined, angry disagreements do take place, and sometimes as on this occasion they spill over and become public.

Putting all this aside, is it really true that it was the prolongation of the siege of Aleppo which resulted in the fall of Palmyra?

Undoubtedly if eastern Aleppo had fallen sooner, the Syrian military would have had more and better troops available to defend Palmyra.  However it is not certain it would have sent them there. 

The Syrian army’s priority is not to save Palmyra.  It is to win the war.  The war is not being won in Palmyra, which is far from the core areas of western Syria where most of the Syrian population lives. 

In view of this it is more likely that if the Syrian army had been able to end the siege of Aleppo more quickly, it would have redeployed its troops to retake Idlib or possibly Al-Bab in north western Syria,  or to consolidate the Syrian army’s recent gains in the countryside near Damascus.  It is far less likely that the Syrian army would have sent many of its best troops to garrison Palmyra, where they would have been idle with nothing obviously useful to do.

This episode in fact highlights the different approaches to the war between the Russians and the Syrians.

For the Russians retaining Palmyra, which is a critically important cultural monument, is a fundamental objective, so that its loss to ISIS was – as General Baluyevsky has said – a blow to their “prestige”. 

For the Syrians, the very existence of whose state is at stake, Palmyra is a sideshow, and a distraction from the real war, in which they are fighting for their lives and for their country in western Syria.

This is why the Syrians left only 1,000 second line troops to guard Palmyra, who quickly withdrew from the city apparently in a state of some confusion as shown by the large amount of expensive equipment they left behind when they were attacked by an ISIS force which outnumbered them five to one.

Notwithstanding these differences, it is undoubtedly the Russian view about Palmyra which is now going to prevail.  Though the very latest reports confirm that ISIS is still gaining ground near Palmyra, and though the number of reinforcements which the Syrian army has so far sent to Palmyra is small, there is no doubt that a major counter-offensive to recapture the city will be organised in the next few weeks.

Though the Russians continue to rule out sending ground troops to Syria, they have pointedly made known that they do not consider their Special Forces (“Spetsnaz”) to be ground troops.  Undoubtedly some of them are heading to Palmyra now.

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