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Henry M. Robert

The general body count

Why the Russian government is in no hurry to deny reports of senior officers’ deaths
10 February, 2016 - 18:39
“RUSSIA KILLS US” – THIS IS HOW SYRIANS CHARACTERIZE RUSSIAN INTERFERENCE INTO THE CONFLICT, IN FACT ASSAD’S YEARS-LONG WAR AGAINST HIS OWN PEOPLE / REUTERS photo

Generals have started to die in droves in Syria lately. Well, deaths of Syrian generals should come as no surprise. After all, they are at war, and people get shot dead in wars. Iranian generals’ deaths are to be expected, too.

As reported by the Fars news agency, the Iranian high command has confirmed the death of Brigadier General Mohsen Ghajarian, killed in Syria fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorists. “Brigadier General Mohsen Ghajarian, of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, was in Syria as a military adviser to the Syrian army that is fighting against terrorist groups.” According to the agency, six more Iranians were killed with him, who “fought in Syria against Daesh [Arabic acronym for ISIS. – Author] as volunteers.” The last bit comes as a matter of course. The Fars also reminded its clients that Iranian General Reza Khavari died in Syria in October past year, while General Hossein Fadayee was killed in mid-December.

The Iranian government not only fails to conceal the deaths of its high-ranking officers, but goes further to highlight them, and the information is widely distributed within the country and abroad. The Russian government approaches the issue in exactly the opposite way.

Few people still remember that deputy head of the Chief Intelligence Directorate of the Russian General Staff Major-General Yuri Ivanov died in Syria in August 2010 under mysterious circumstances. He was reported to have drowned on holiday in Latakia on August 6, but the body was found off the coast of Turkey on August 8 at a distance of at least 90 kilometers from the alleged resort. It had to float with really high speed to get so far so fast. What happened to the senior Russian intelligence officer is now of historical significance only. However, this death started the general body count in Syria.

The latest reports about the deaths of several Russian generals in Syria are much more important. This information was released by the Turkish Anatolia News Agency. The death of one general was confirmed in Moscow as well. He was one out of four or five victims, the precise figure is not yet clear. According to Russian sources, he was hit by shelling in the city of Homs. Significantly, it was a case of accurate artillery fire hitting command posts of the government army, now actively attacking in the country’s north. The shellings began on arrival of senior Syrian and Russian soldiers at headquarters and command posts. Russian officials accuse the Turkish Armed Forces of aiding the Syrian opposition.

Of course, blindly trusting the news spread by the Syrian opposition is unadvisable. Wars’ participants tend to greatly exaggerate enemy losses and play down their own. Alexander Suvorov famously instructed his staff officers to falsify enemy losses, asking them: “Do you think we have to be soft on the adversary?” However, some indirect evidence suggests two important circumstances.

First. Russian troops are involved not only in air attacks on opponents of Bashar al-Assad’s army, but ground actions as well. It could not be otherwise. They need to protect their airbases, while the opposition forces, ISIS militants, Turkmen militiamen, and others hold positions very close to the Khmeimim airbase that hosts Russian planes. We had numerous reports of attacks and shellings targeting the airbase. No matter what the Russians do, losses cannot be avoided.

Second. The Syrian operation is similar to the Donbas invasion in some ways, but differs in other. The generals’ stays in Latakia and in the north of Syria are admitted by Russia. They are serving officers seconded to Syria. At the same time, mercenaries from the Donbas are coming to Syria looking for high salaries. They get a tenth of sums paid to the “wild goose” from Western countries, but it is still 10 times as much as their salaries in the east of Ukraine. Russia has no shortage of willing mercenaries as well. According to Fontanka.Ru, mass recruitment for the war in Syria is going on in St. Petersburg.

It follows that manpower losses will definitely grow. The air campaign will not be the end of it all, no matter how strongly the Russian government wishes for it to be true. They will have to send more generals in as well, as the scale of intervention will inevitably increase.

Politically, as in the Donbas, the Kremlin has hit an inextricable diplomatic deadlock.

Apparently, the territory controlled by the ISIS is shrinking by the day. This happens in Iraq, thus undermining logistics of the terrorists’ Syrian operations. They have to retreat, although that does not help al-Assad. Areas left by the ISIS get taken over by the Kurds or other opposition groups.

It is clear already that continuing the ongoing large-scale offensive is beyond al-Assad’s army’s capability. The entirety of the operation saw about one percent of the nation’s territory retaken. Moreover, government forces cannot fully control it. Once they go away, the space is recaptured by opponents of al-Assad.

The high concentration of Russian generals shows that preparations are under way for broader participation of Russian troops in ground operations, no matter how they will be labeled.

This diplomatic front opposing the Moscow-Tehran becomes denser by the day. Saudi Arabia has said it is ready to send troops to Syria to fight the ISIS within the international coalition’s framework. After all, if Iran and Russia may do it, why should Saudi Arabia refrain from it?

These developments resulted in the failure of the Geneva talks. The Kremlin saw nothing good coming from them, so it increased bombings of positions held by the opposition, primarily Turkmen in the north. It would have been strange to expect that it would remain unanswered. The generals’ deaths were part of that answer.

Russia’s Syrian and Donbas gambles are connected like communicating vessels. The failure in Geneva prompted the intensification of military operations in the Middle East. In preparation for the meeting on the Donbas, the Kremlin is intensifying military confrontation in Ukraine, so as to put pressure not only on its government, but also on Ukraine’s Western partners. The message is very simple: either you accept the Russian terms, or the war will be intensified and prolonged. If some generals would die because of it, let it be so. The Russian military is still well supplied with them.

However, unlike Iran, Russia will try to hide the deaths of fellow citizens, all the more so if they are senior officers. Any admission will only come if they are publicized in the world press. The war in Syria is unpopular, and the Russian people, suffering from the difficult economic situation, will not approve of such losses. The Crimean annexation was met with public approval, but the Syrian intervention has issues getting supported. That is why the Russian government is in no hurry to deny reports of senior officers’ deaths. They pretend that nothing happened. According to the Soviet tradition, it was done when the fact was there, but the authorities did not want to admit it.

The second circumstance. Army losses are secret in Russia now. People do not need to know anything. The government believes it to be calmer that way. Most probably, this situation will last till the State Duma election, scheduled for September.

It is after it that the screws will be tightened all the way. No one will remember the generals then. Even though the general body count has started.

By Yurii RAIKHEL
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