CPT Jake Miraldi: This is the podcast of The Modern War Institute at West Point, an integrative look at war, policy and leadership. I’m Captain Jake Miraldi of The Modern War Institute. Please follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and on the War Council blog at http://www.ModernWarInstitute.org.
Today on the podcast, we’ll be talking to Rodger Shanahan, a research fellow at the Lowy Institute. Dr. Shanahan is a former Australian Army officer, who serves as a director of the Army’s Land Warfare Center. Dr. Shanahan has also served in multiple Australian embassies in the Middle East.
Today, we’ll be looking at the city of Aleppo as a case study and how elements of the fight around the city of Aleppo in recent weeks apply to the larger war in Syria.
Well, welcome to the podcast, Dr. Shanahan. I appreciate you taking the time to sit down with us. Syria is a topic that’s kind of a big thing to take on. So I thought it might be useful to take a case especially with Aleppo being in the news recently of Aleppo as a way to talk about the larger conflict. What is sort of the situation going on in Aleppo right now?
Rodger Shanahan: The Syrian government and its allies both on the ground and in concert with Russian air support have really been trying to cut off the northern supply lines into Aleppo city.
They’d started prior to that in securing southern Aleppo Province, so to the south of Aleppo city. They had taken Kweiris or broken the siege in the Kweiris airfield prior to Christmas and that was both, at the time, seen as a positive aspect of what many thought might have just been an operation to restore morale, but it appears they’ve used that as a firm base to push further north and then poke around north of Aleppo city and make for the two main supply routes coming from Turkey.
At the same time, the Russian air campaign has increased in intensity and reports are that a large part of the focus or the bombing around Aleppo was in support of operations to cut off those two main supply routes.
So people are not exactly sure what the strategic game is. Whether it’s to cut off Aleppo looking at Aleppo itself and to strangle Aleppo or to weaken a broader coalition of Islamist groups and, perhaps, take with the intent not just to lay siege to Aleppo, but, actually to take Aleppo and that would mean that both flanks of really the non-Islamic State rebel groups that are concentrated in and around Idlib Province are to all intents and purposes encircled and the only exit route they have is really north through Turkey.
So really Aleppo has become the focus of the fighting now, not necessarily Aleppo city, but the areas around Aleppo and particularly the main supply routes that have strategic purpose in putting the focus on Aleppo at the same time as they’re doing negotiations, but it’s also putting pressure on regional states and painting them in or cornering some instances because it’s cutting off Turkish access to pro-Turkish rebel groups outside of Idlib. So it’s serving multiple purposes for the Syrian regime at the moment.
CPT Jake Miraldi: Aside from the strategic importance of Aleppo, what significance does Aleppo have to the narrative of the Assad regime and the rebels that are fighting the regime right now?
Rodger Shanahan: Well, Aleppo has always been a commercial center of Syria. And it’s always had a very close relationship with Turkey, because it’s so close to the Turkish border. There’s been long-standing economic relationships between Aleppans and the Turks. And the Turks themselves have seen Aleppo along with Idlib as the two large population centers that they’re able to influence from Turkish territory.
If Aleppo was to either fall or be encircled by the Syrian regime and the Turks be unable to relieve it, that is not only a tactical victory for the Syrian government, but it’s also yet another blow to the Turks.
The Turks themselves are feeling on some level the squeeze from the west by the Syrian regime, because they’ve now taken Lattakia and sealed off some of the border areas in the far west. In the east, we’re seeing the Kurdish forces clearing areas on the Syrian side of the border.
So we’re looking at an area that the Turkish government is at or an area that the Turks are themselves or through their regional partners, the area that they’re able to resupply pro-region from other states’ opposition forces is getting squeezed from both east and west. If they can cut off areas to the north of Aleppo, while you can never completely seal off the borders, those are the main supply routes – just make it all the more difficult to get large quantities of logistics or large quantities of weapons kind of in a timely fashion to support them.
So, again, we keep on coming back to the fact that Aleppo has got some symbolic importance for the regime, but it’s also got a great deal of practical importance and the symbology of what it means to regional states sending a very strong message to Turkey in particular.
CPT Jake Miraldi: And as you’ve been talking about it, aside from the actual on the ground fighting between rebel groups and Assad’s forces, there’s the background conflict and maybe not so much a background conflict between Turkey and Russia and Russian-backed Syrian forces and U.S.-backed rebel forces, how does the multiplicity of those groups and their various elements supporting them affect the way that the eventual fight to take Aleppo ends up playing out?
Rodger Shanahan: Yeah. I mean this has always been one of the most difficult issues. And, certainly, I was in the region in late December. And, certainly, the one thing when I spoke to people both through going to Syria regularly on the government side and also regional states, who had always favored the Russians quite regularly, they genuinely felt that both themselves and people in the region were genuinely taken by surprise by the size of the Russian intervention. They didn’t think it would happen as quickly and as decisively as it did. So it’s really had a shock effect for people on the ground.
And unlike the U.S. and unlike the regional states, the Russians have always viewed Syria as a binary issue. So, for them, it’s quite straightforward. There’s the Assad regime, which they’re supporting. Everybody opposed to the Assad regime is their enemy and they’ll be targeted.
So this whole notion that we’re there to target the Islamic State, I mean that was just for the media. Certainly, they do target the Islamic State, but I mean so far as it’s just their operational needs. If they believe that any other opposition group, the pro-Syrian army aligned organization, the Jabhat Al Nursa organization or any of the other plethora of Islamic State rebel groups, if they were in the way of an operation objective, they would be targeted. If it happened to be Islamic State, then all well and good, we can achieve two aims. But they’ve very rarely gone out of their way to target Islamic State simply because they’re Islamic State. They really target rebel groups in order to strengthen the hand of the Assad regime.
That serves the operational purpose on the ground and it also serves a political purpose, because the longer you drag this out the more degraded all of the opposition groups are. So when you get to the negotiating table, it becomes less of a negotiation because we’re not at stasis as to say military momentum has shifted very much to the side of the regime and its allies. And that momentum is translated in negotiations. So there’s no real urgency on the side the Russians, Iranians and the Syrians to negotiate. They’re more about giving demands. And if you want to take the demands now, that’s fine, but we’ll have another of month of bombing and you’ll be in even a weaker position so demands will be – what the deal that we give you will be less than the one we have now.
And I think the British are now saying they’ve done some research into the why do the air campaign and it accelerated over the time immediately leading up to and during the time of the talks in Geneva. So the Russians were very much using military momentum as part of their political momentum.
On the U.S. side, the U.S. has always had a really difficult issue to deal with in Syria for a variety of reasons, but the difficulty has always been trying to find the right partner on the ground. And, more recently, I think they have decided that the Syrian Kurds are that kind of partner and we’re seeing momentum shifting to the Syrian Kurds as well.
That has caused dilemmas for the Turks in particular, but I think the U.S., the Europeans and most of the West are pretty sick of the duplicitousness of Erdoğan and the Turkish government. And this has really painted the Turks into a corner.
So, in some sense, I think the Americans while publicly have to say that I’m happy with the turn of events, because of the way the Assad regime is being – the momentum has shifted to them. I think there’s a lot of upside for the Americans. Upside might be the wrong way to describe it. But it’s putting a great deal of pressure back on the Turks, political pressure. They’re losing their ability to influence events in Syria. And the Americans can now tell the Turks that unless they play nicely that they might have a lot more Kurds on their southern border than they would actually like.
So, in terms of the negotiation power that the U.S. has with regional states, I think that’s a bit stronger. In terms of its negotiation power with the Assad regime, it’s less strong.
So, but back to your original question, how is that all playing out, very, very confused situation. Certainly, Russian air support has been decisive in some areas. It seems the Syrian military has been taking more of a backseat in the ground operations that you would think they had nearly culminated previously and that was what pushed the Russians to intervene, because they thought they were unlikely to be able to reinforce and reequip themselves.
They hadn’t really been doing much by the way of maneuver operations whether it was because they were not capable or their maneuver 4th Brigade, 4th Armored Brigade, had been exhausted, because it was continually being deployed and redeployed. We don’t know that.
But it seems that the Iranians have been doing a combination of providing planning assistance, specialist forces. In some instances, perhaps, maneuver forces, but the maneuver forces appear much more to be sheer militia groups, so Iraqi militia groups who had left to go back to Iraq. Some of whom have filtered back now.
Hezbollah has, but a lot of – certainly, when I’m there, I’m advised that their preference now is to do operations closer to Lebanon, so the Kalamoon area. They’re very happy to do that. They have been out much further afield, but they’re less inclined to do that for domestic Lebanese political purposes. And we are seeing the casualty rates of Iranians have been increasing, which means they must be closer to the contact battle. So they’re either advise-and-assist missions or they may be in maneuver units, subunits. We don’t quite know. But there are also other reports that probably less well trained Shia militias, Afghans, Pakistanis are also being used.
So I think it’s an amalgam of organizations that are being used on the Syrian side.
And in and around Aleppo in southern Aleppo Province, there had been a fair concentration of Islamic State. In Aleppo city itself, it seems to be a combination of a range of Islamist, some Free Syrian Army groups, some Jabhat Al Nursa, and there have been calls for them to unify in defense of Aleppo, but the Assad regime and everybody else knows that a critical weakness of the opposition is their disunity has been from the start and continues to be that way. It has stopped them from getting any political traction, because they’ve always been disunified. And I think the Assad regime is using this military pressure and the presence of the Russians who are far less discriminatory in their use of fire power to try and split them militarily.
CPT Jake Miraldi: So, despite the Iranian presence physically on the ground or the presence of Shia militias, it seems like the Russian air campaign has really been what’s allowed the Syrian army to make the gains that it’s made recently in Idlib and in Lattakia and all those places. How are they using the Russian air campaign? Is it a case of close air support? Or is it more a strategic softening of targets before the Syrian army goes into an area?
Rodger Shanahan: Yeah. I think it’s the latter rather than the former, although it’s very difficult to find out about exactly what’s happening. I mean the one question I’ve been from a tactical level, how are Jetex or the equivalent of Jetex employed given you’ve got Russian pilots with Russian aircraft and Russian communication systems supporting, perhaps, Syrian formations, perhaps, Iranian formations, perhaps, militias of different ethnic groups with different languages. I can’t see – there have been some claims that there are some Spetsnaz out further. So I think one of the models that the West has used, the coalitions is Jetex back in battlegroup headquarters or the like. And that’s where you have to do the translating and the target selection.
But I just think with the complexity of ethnic groups, with the complexity of the level of training of the people, or the complexity of the ethnic groups and the complexity of the actual capabilities of the maneuver forces, I don’t think they’re maneuvering that quickly. So I think it’d be more a strategic bombing campaign to soften up an area. And the Russians, as you know, they like the concept of maneuver by fire so you use firepower as your maneuver arm.
So I’d say that would be the preponderance of it, but I wouldn’t discount there’s some close air support. My only concern is I don’t know exactly how that would be coordinated, but it wouldn’t be coordinated at the very tactical level, probably battlegroup headquarters, which means it’d have to be preplanned to a reasonable degree in front of any advance. That’s kind of what I would posit without knowing it for certain.
CPT Jake Miraldi: Aleppo before the war started was the largest city in Syria. Once the actual fighting begins in the city, I know this is speculative, but what does the character of that fighting become? Does it become a house-to-house street-to-street sort of fight? Or is it a little bit more fluid than that where rebels are giving more ground than they’re holding?
Rodger Shanahan: Yeah. Well, I mean you would assume that with Aleppo – Aleppo is still partially held by the regime. You would think what the regime has tended to do in the past, because, as you know, urban warfare just sucks up people very, very quickly. And I think the last thing the regime would want to do would be to get into a major urban battle whether or not regardless of the fact that they’d probably win. It’s going to take the focus away from – it may reduce the momentum that they have won at the moment. So I don’t necessarily think that they’ll go in and do that.
What we’ve seen in the past is the Syrian regime has been very keen to do piecemeal negotiated settlements. So they call them cease fires, but they’re negotiated settlements where they strangle the city through a siege. They unleash airpower. They put pressure on the ground so that the people can’t export trade. And remember some of these got their families in there, so they’re unlocked with each other, ex-filtrate on their own.
And then in the great Arab tradition, we’ll have a negotiated settlement where it might be that as you’ve seen in Homs previously and further south in Kalamoon, fighters were allowed to leave and, in some cases, take their small arms with them, so honor is being salved and both sides avoided a very bloody attritional warfare where the results was gonna be the same in the end.
So I would be surprised if they went into Aleppo other than to cut it off piecemeal and to make escape out of Aleppo virtually impossible.
And, again, with the Russians, as we we’ve seen that they’ll happily do a kind of attritional air campaign against selected parts of Aleppo as a demonstrator of this and we’ve got the place surrounded. We’re putting pressure on you. Here’s a suburb that we’ll treat with airpower. And we can do that every day for the next 30 days if you want or we can have a negotiated settlement.
So I think they’ve got more options at their disposal. They’ve shown a willingness to try and negotiate their way out of the situation previously. Yeah. And you would think militarily, you’ve got momentum now. You appear to have learned some lessons about the use of maneuver, so you’ll be able to outmaneuver your enemies. Why get stuck into an attritional battle when you don’t necessarily need to just at the time where you kind of worked your way out of doing attritional warfare? So I think I’d be surprised if we see that, put it that way.
CPT Jake Miraldi: So the fighting in Syria recently has sort of taken on a more high intensity character than at least for junior officers in the U.S. Army than we’ve seen in a long time that we have experience with. What are some lessons that current junior officers in the Army or cadets who are gonna be in the Army soon can glean from the way that the fighting has happened, especially the more high intensity fighting that’s gone on involving the Syrian army recently?
Rodger Shanahan: Yeah. So I think one of the key elements that often times separates Western militaries from non-Western militaries is just the ability to maneuver and think in maneuverous terms. It’s really been a combination of steady defensive operations or kind of attritional warfare on the part of the Syrian army, which they’ve been in many places defeated in detail by much more maneuverable opposition forces.
The other issue is, as we all know, very difficult to master the combined arms tactics and it requires lots and lots of training by professional soldiers to do it just because of the number of moving parts.
And all professional junior military officers will understand how difficult it is to be a concert master of infantry armor, artillery, close air support. I mean that is a difficult thing to master that requires constant training before you employ it on operations.
That’s been virtually completely absent from the Syrian military. The one element that does maneuver has been overused and therefore becomes ineffective. There doesn’t appear to have been any coordination between the use of air support. The use of artillery seems to be not in support of any ground maneuver forces. It seems to be used as an arm in its own right. So none of what we think of senior officers training their junior officers in thinking in maneuverous terms and thinking in combined use of fire power has been really absent from the Syrian military, which is one of the reasons why –
Certainly, there have been some tenacious fighters in the rebel groups. Some of them have, with the use of the civilian SUVs that they’ve got, in their own way, they’ve been maneuverous. But while we would look at it as kind of amateur hour maneuver, it’s good enough to outmaneuver the Syrian military, because they’ve been so aesthetic in their mindset.
Part of that is also a reflection of the fact that a large part of the Syrian military were out of conscripts. So they’re just doing their 18 months to 2 years just doing static guard duty. So a unit, it might have looked like a unit and it can appear on a program as a unit, but in terms of its operational effectiveness, it wasn’t particularly effective.
I think now we’re seeing the introduction of – oh, sorry, I’ll just go back a step. One of the earlier times around Kalamoon and Kasir, which is probably the first time that we saw some territory that had been lost by the Syrian government, the first time we saw it regained, it was informative to see that it was really Hezbollah who did the ground maneuver and that was light infantry ground maneuver, but it was still the imported. Shia militia is very professional, who carried it out. It wasn’t the Syrian military, because it’s felt that they weren’t capable and that was a medium-sized town. And it was difficult enough for Hezbollah to do it, but it was deemed as beyond the capabilities of the Syrian military.
So I think for junior officers at West Point, it just reinforces the kind of training that you do is invaluable. And I don’t think you should ever assume that the kind of combined arms maneuver that we’re all taught about as a junior military officer is second nature to anybody else. And you should never assume that it’s easy for other people to do. The kind of guerilla tactics and insurgent tactics that the opposition have been using, certainly, they perfected that, but you could say if they were facing a first-rate military from the earliest days would they have been able to do that? First-rate military in the early days would have conducted maneuver warfare and cut off the main supply routes really early on.
It’s not until we’ve seen the introduction of Russian airpower, large-scale Iranian advisors who then allow them to do maneuver. And now you can see where they’ve concentrated on. They’re concentrated on the main supply routes. It appears in the south. But now on the southern front, they’ve now had success where they didn’t have success before. And the Russians also shifted a weight of their operational effort down there to support the ground campaign.
So wherever they’ve integrated the air campaign with ground maneuver forces and then targeted exactly what they should have been targeting like the main supply routes rather than trying to retake towns and villages first without worrying about the supply routes, they’ve been successful.
So the Russians and the Iranians understand how to do a scale of maneuver and understand how to do a campaign plan. And I think that all comes down to military training and understanding the technical level of how to integrate assets, and at the operational level what the campaign plan should be. And it’s always when you’re facing an enemy that’s got safe haven on the other side of a border, do everything you can do to cut off those borders.
And, unlike in a place like eastern Afghanistan, in northern Syria, except for the western part, a lot of it is relatively open. So you’ll never be able to cut it all off even if you wanted to. But the consistency of the import of heavy weapons and large amounts of logistics supply, you should be able to cut them off and so it’ll make it all the harder for the opposition to resupply.
So I think it’s those kind of issues that junior officers should understand, look at a problem not as a battering ram, look at the enemy’s key weaknesses and plan to attack those key weaknesses, but also you can’t do that unless you’ve got the assets yourself to do them and integrating all of the assets to come up with an integrated campaign plan to do that.
And it’s not until we’ve seen Russians and Iranians come in that we’ve seen the shift in momentum as well as the kind of assets that they’ve brought to the table. They’ve obviously brought operational planning capabilities that have been lacking previously.
CPT Jake Miraldi: Great. Well, I think that’s a good point to leave off. I want to thank you for taking the time to talk to me and hope to talk to you again soon.
Rodger Shanahan: No problems, mate. Thanks.
CPT Jake Miraldi: If you’d like to find additional research, op-eds and other original ideas from The Modern War Institute, please visit the War Council blog at http://www.ModernWarInstitute.org or follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. You can find new episodes of the Modern War Institute podcasts on iTunes and Stitcher.
The views expressed in this podcast are those of the respective participants and do not reflect the official position of the United States government.
For The Modern War Institute, I’m Captain Jake Miraldi. And I hope you’ll join us next time for more in-depth conversations on war, policy and leadership.