Streetwise Professor

September 5, 2015

Amateurs Talk Tactics. Professionals Talk Logistics. And Idiots Talk BS.

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 5:46 pm

The last couple of days have seen a frenzy of excitement about the possibility of an imminent Russian intervention in Syria. The hive buzzed very loudly when the Pentagon said it had seen reports of increased Russian activity in Syria. This means only that they read the linked article and other stories appearing in places like Ynet, not that they are providing confirmation based on US intelligence.

Yet, connecting a few dots, the journalist behind the story claims to have discovered a heretofore unknown Rembrandt.


I have no doubt that Russia has an interest in propping up Assad. That it has, and may be reinforcing, regime protection, intelligence, and advisory elements on the ground in Syria. That perhaps even a few Russian pilots are reprising the role of their “Honcho” forebears in the Korean War. But as for a major Russian ground intervention in Syria, not even Putin is that crazy. An expedition to Syria would make the Soviet Afghanistan adventure look like Napoleonic or Alexandrine genius.

Put aside for a moment the bloodletting the Russians would put themselves in for. Let’s just look at the logistics, and remember that while amateurs talk tactics, professionals talk logistics.

  • Operations outside of bases would require the deployment of thousands, and perhaps tens of thousands, of troops just to defend the lines of communications of those operating at the pointy end of the spear.
  • A major expeditionary effort would require massive supply, and the Russians would have to operate at the end of a very long logistical tether.
  • The most direct supply line would run through the Bosporus and Dardanelles, that is, through Turkish waters. Turkey is Assad’s inveterate enemy. Would you run an operation which would require you to place your logistic jugular under your ally’s mortal enemy’s knife?
  • The alternative, through the Baltic, North Sea, Atlantic, and Mediterranean, is very long, and also requires passage through narrow straits.
  • Russia’s navy is craptastic. It has extremely little sealift capability, and use of civilian vessels is problematic. This is what you need to support overseas expeditions. Russia has nothing even close.
  • Port capacity in Syria is limited, and it would be extremely vulnerable to sabotage and direct attack from the myriad anti-Assad forces. Again, large numbers of men and materiel would be required just to defend the ports. Tartus has four piers (and then only if floating piers are operational), and it can only handle four medium-sized ships: it is too small to handle even a Russian frigate or destroyer. You can’t support major ground operations through that soda straw.

Then there are other considerations, such as:

  • Russia is already militarily committed in Donbas, and has precious little additional capacity to deploy in Syria.
  • Russia has never, ever, engaged in a major overseas expedition, analogous to what the US has done routinely for the past 75 years. Syria is not Donbas, Abkhazia, or Transnistria.
  • The Russian economy is already in dire straits, and cannot afford to commit to a bleeding ulcer campaign in a peripheral region.
  • Another well-known military adage is: Don’t reinforce failure. Assad is failing.

Other than that, it makes total sense for Russia to go large in Syria to bail out a tottering client. Total sense!

The US should actually hope that Putin is this stupid. But he’s not.

To put things in perspective, one of the things that got the hive buzzing was the transit of a couple of Ropucha class amphibious ships, each with a cargo capacity of a whopping 450 tons (8-10 tanks), and an Alligator class gator, with a cargo capacity of 1000 tons. Hardly enough to support a major operation, which requires capabilities such as this. (And by the way, I saw Russian amphibious ships-sides streaked with rust-transiting the Bosporus on my visits to Istanbul in 2013 and 2014. This is like a shuttle run.)

And let’s consider the source, shall we? The story is being flogged by Michael Weiss. Based in large part on geolocators operating in mom’s basement, Weiss has predicted six out of the last zero times that Putin has mounted an invasion of Ukraine. (Full disclosure: I thought Putin was likely to invade last fall. I was wrong. I confess to having little confidence in my ability to predict his next steps there. But Weiss never betrays any contrition at his previous failed predictions.)

And the other things I could tell you, relating to Weiss’s The Interpreter’s mysterious funding (including its relationship with Khodorkovsky), and its use of anonymous sources and unverifiable sources that it translates. And there are some other things that are even more bizarre. But you’ll have to take my word for it.

So yes, Russia will provide materiel support to Assad. It will do what it can to facilitate Iranian and Hezbollah resources flowing to Syria. But a major intervention? We should be so lucky.


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  1. Nevertheless, some stuff from social networks is making rounds:

    This does not support the theory of massive invasion. But something more than just material supply of Assad is going on.

    Comment by LL — September 5, 2015 @ 9:07 pm

  2. Is the idea of a grand bargain “Ukraine for Assad” too crazy to contemplate? Something like this:
    1. Russia drops all the support for Donbass insurgency; Donbass returns under Ukrainian control.
    2. Russia and Ukraine come to agreement regarding purchasing Crimea. Not cheap.
    3. US and West lift the sanctions and recognize Crimea as part of Russia.
    4. US and West drop their insistence on removal of Assad.
    5. The coalition, including Russian troops in Syria, begins coordinated ground campaign against ISIS with Western help to Russia with air support and logistics.

    Comment by LL — September 6, 2015 @ 3:49 pm

  3. Hi Craig, greetings from Beirut…. Media and talk here support what LL says above in comment 1. Soldiers speaking Russian have been seen at checkpoints in Syria, and new Russian fighting vehicles are operating there not yet seen before in Syria. And for some families, a motive to flee is not to have young men (and I presume men even into their 30s and 40s) conscripted by Assad forces. Just the other day I was talking to a young man from Syria in that situation…. The Syrian armed forces are really depleted after 4 years of the fighting while ISIS and other jihadists get fresh recruits from abroad, in the tens of thousands. I appreciate the logistical analysis, and I agree that Syria could be the Vietnam of Iran and Russia, but Russia and Iran are making a strong push to hold the line ahead of peace talks which will probably come sooner or later. The refugee crisis in Europe may push the Europeans to get involved more seriously in efforts to end the war. Without Russia and Iran’s involvement the Assad govt would go in a matter of weeks or months at most.

    Comment by Steve — September 9, 2015 @ 4:07 am

  4. […] hyperventilating (but I repeat myself) about Russian intervention in Syria, I quoted the old adage: Amateurs talk tactics, professionals talk logistics.  I noted that logistics severely constrained Russia’s military capacity in Russia. Look no […]

    Pingback by Streetwise Professor » Russia’s Shambolic Logistics in Syria — December 16, 2015 @ 9:39 am

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