Russian Military Success in Syria

Russian and American military action assessed according to the criteria of “operational art”

Today the armed forces use “operational art”, a concept developed in the 1930s by the Alexandre Svechine. This Russian general, inspired by Clausewitz and Sigmund von Schlichting, had an illustrious career under both the Tsarist and Soviet regimes. He was executed under Stalin’s orders in 1938. Although it was only in 1970 that he was officially pardoned, he had influenced the victorious Russian generals of the Second World War.

Svechine’s achievement is to have understood and demonstrated that a military victory on the ground does not always allow the achievement of a political and strategic aim. We had the sad demonstration of this in Algeria.

Despite his brilliant victories at Austerlitz, Jena and Wagram, Napoleon did not fulfil his strategic objective: the destruction of England. He had badly chosen his course of action. The question today is: is it sufficient to pound Iraq and Syria with bombs in order eliminate the Islamic State (ISIL)?

“Operational art” allows military action on the ground to be tailored to the political and strategic aim. It aims to bridge a gap between these two levels of thought. It allows us to choose the plan of action best suited to the desired aims. When it produces no results, it should lead one to reconsider the political objectives.

The Americans discovered Alexander Svechin in the 1980s. They adopted the term “operational art” and based their military doctrine around his ideas. NATO’s Comprehensive Operations Planning Directive (COPD), the bible of our general staff and our military colleges, draws inspiration from his ideas. This in turn was adopted by the French armed forces in the form of the Methodological Guide to Operational Planning. If the term is new, the concept is not. Our military colleges and general staff have long practised operational art. They unintentionally practise operational art, much in the same way that Molière’s Mr Jourdain unwittingly wrote prose.

Marshal Foch’s question “What does this mean?” was the first step in a process of operational art.

What we termed “The Method” kept the following criteria to assess the effectiveness of military action:

Is it suitable?

Is it feasible?

Is it satisfactory?

We again find the same terms in the NATO COPD, but the Americans have made the procedure more complicated, perhaps to the detriment of reaction times in the command chain:

“Suitable”, that is to say does it allow the achievement of the goals fixed by the mission?

“Feasible”, that is to say compatible with available means, external support and the restrictions of time and space

“Satisfactory”, that is to say are the results acceptable when compared to the desired results?

The answer to these questions allows us to verify that the objective and the proposed action are coherent. We thought it was an interesting idea to ask these questions in order to assess Russian and American military action in Syria.

Of course, this is purely an academic exercise. While we know something about their tactics by observing what’s happening on the ground, we do not know the real political objectives. By confining ourselves to just these three questions, we are making only partial use of the operational art method.

The American course of action

The Americans, along with the French who are supporting them, clearly state their desire to destroy the Islamic State.

They claim to be engaged in a “battle of annihilation” (Clausewtiz’s Niederwerfung) against the Islamic State.

The first stage of their course of action consists of a small number of air strikes, using high-tech weapons. These air strikes are made from remote air-bases or from carriers and target military targets only. The second stage consists of the use of allied ground troops.

Is this action suitable ?

It would seem not because, even if this leads to heavy losses for the Islamic State, it has failed to stop their advance in Syria and Iraq. It doesn’t put their existence in any doubt. Rather it corresponds to a war of attrition (Clausewitz’s Ermattung).

In a conventional conflict, an army considers that a unit, having lost a quarter of its soldiers, is no longer viable. The same reasoning doesn’t apply to the Islamic State’s fanatical troops, who will continue jihad regardless of the losses inflicted by the air-strikes.

The Euphrates Valley, an essential route for the Islamic State’s economic survival and the central pillar for the group, has not been cut-off, despites the air –strikes on Racca.

The United States claims to be waging a total war against the Islamic State. But are they really? Given their course of action, we are entitled to have doubts.

The systematic destruction of oil facilities, cotton fields and the main roads would be an task for the American and allied air forces. This would deprive the Islamic State of its economic resources. The closure of the Turkish border would deprive the group of its lifeblood but this has not been done. The telecommunications networks are not being attacked.

The American course of action and the associated French course of action are not suitable.

Is this course of action feasible?

Yes, for the first phase of action, it would appear so: the bombs regularly hit their targets.

On the other hand, the second phase of the action plan is not feasible. Diplomatic efforts will not convince the so-called allies to deploy ground troops. The ideological symapthy between the Islamic State and the Saudis, as well as with President Erdogan of Turkey, runs too deep. Saudi Arabia is what the Islamic State would look like if it succeeded. Only the Kurds are playing the game, but they do not need to be convinced.

Is the American course of action satisfactory ?

The American army is rich. Nonetheless, the cost of air-strikes against the Islamic State seems to be high when compared to the results. If we add to the hourly flight cost the price of weapons, the logistic costs incurred by the deployment of units, we come to a staggering total: hundreds of thousands of dollars for each air-strike. Not far from a million, perhaps. It is too high to be published. The course of action is not satisfactory for the US, and even less so for France.

The Russian course of action

The Russians threw themselves into action in Syria with intermediate objectives which were precise and limited. As a first step, they want to restore the sovereignty to the part of the state that still functions, secure their naval base in Tartous in order to then be able to destroy the Islamic State group in Syria.

Is the Russian course of action suitable ?

Their action plan, like that of the Americans, is based on air-strikes and military action, carried out on the ground by their allies.

But the tempo of their attacks is more intense. The chief of the Russian armed forces, general Valeri Guerassimov, announced in early November that ever since the Russian military campaign in Syria was launched, the airforce has carried out 2,300 operations and destroyed 4,100 targets. Approximately 70 missions per day, often in support of Syrian government forces in order to allow them to gradually recover their national territory.

The Russian plan of military action is therefore suitable.

Is the Russian course of action feasible ?

Yes, each day the Russian course of action is proved to be feasible ex-post. The main road linking Damascus, Hama and Aleppo has been secured; pressure is increasing on the jihadi soldiers occupying the Al-Bab province; in the eastern region of the country loyalist forces are tightening their grip on Palmyra, and are preparing to end the closure of the main road from Damascus to Deir-Ez-Zor; in the north of the country, the Syrian army has lifted the siege of the Kuweires airbase, which was occupied for 35 months.

Is the Russian course of action satisfactory ?

It is difficult to precisely estimate the cost of Russian military operations. But we can see that: the Russians use old military equipment, paid for long ago, such as the Sukhoi 24, which dates from the 1970s; that they use low-tech munitions, of which they have a large stock; and that their airbase is located in Latakia, which reduces flight times as it is close to their targets.

It is best we do not know the difference in cost between a mission completed by a Rafale, taking off from the carrier Charles de Gaulle, and a mission carried out by a Russian Sukhoi 24, flying from the airbase in Latakia!

Suitable, feasible, satisfactory ?

It would seem that the Russians have better understood “operational art” than the Americans and the French.

Translated from French

The original author was Jean du Verdier, a general officer in the French air-force and author.

Source : ASAF – Association de Soutien à l’Armée Française

See also: Xavier Moreau, a geopolitical analyst at Stratpol (, explains how the Russian military intervention in Syria has been a success. We have provided English subtitles for this video.



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