Last week, Reuters reported a development which should have surprised precisely nobody: while the Kremlin announced one month ago that it would begin withdrawing military forces from Syria at once, Putin was doing the opposite.
As Reuters explained “when Vladimir Putin announced the withdrawal of most of Russia’s military contingent from Syria there was an expectation that the Yauza, a Russian naval icebreaker and one of the mission’s main supply vessels, would return home to its Arctic Ocean port. Instead, three days after Putin’s March 14 declaration, the Yauza, part of the “Syrian Express”, the nickname given to the ships that have kept Russian forces supplied, left the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk for Tartous, Russia’s naval facility in Syria. Whatever it was carrying was heavy; it sat so low in the water that its load line was barely visible.”
Its movements and those of other Russian ships in the two weeks since Putin’s announcement of a partial withdrawal suggest Moscow has in fact shipped more equipment and supplies to Syria than it has brought back in the same period, a Reuters analysis shows. It is not known what the ships were carrying or how much equipment has been flown out in giant cargo planes accompanying returning war planes.
But the movements – while only a partial snapshot – suggest Russia is working intensively to maintain its military infrastructure in Syria and to supply the Syrian army so that it can scale up again swiftly if need be. Putin has not detailed what would prompt such a move, but any perceived threat to Russia’s bases in Syria or any sign that President Bashar al-Assad, Moscow’s closest Middle East ally, was in peril would be likely to trigger a powerful return.
As part of our rhetorical conclusion to an article which suggested a Russian Iskander ballistic missile may have been spotted in Syria for the first time, we asked “how will John Kerry, the state department, and allied forces react once it becomes clear that not only did Putin not withdraw forces from Syria but may have added nuclear-capable ballistic missiles to the Russian arsenal in Syria?”
We now have the answer: according to a follow up report by Reuters, the U.S. administration is considering a plan to greatly increase the number of American special operations forces deployed to Syria “as it looks to accelerate recent gains against Islamic State.”
According to Reuters, this troop expansion would leave the U.S. special operations contingent many times larger than the around 50 troops currently in Syria, where they operate largely as advisors away from the front lines.
In other words, while Russia has been hinting at de-escalation while in reality it was building up a military presence, now it is the US’ turn.
The proposal is among the military options being prepared for President Barack Obama, who is also weighing an increase in the number of American troops in Iraq. A White House spokeswoman declined comment.
The proposal appears to be the latest sign of growing confidence in the ability of U.S.-backed forces inside Syria and Iraq to claw back territory from the hardline Sunni Islamist group.
As documented before, ISIS, which still controls the cities of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria has been rapidly losing momentum in Iraq and Syria, where the tide of war has shifted against Islamic State. U.S. officials say the group is losing a battle to forces arrayed against it from many sides in the vast region it controls. In Iraq, the group has been pulling back since December when it lost Ramadi, the capital of the western province of Anbar. In Syria, the jihadist fighters have been pushed out of the strategic city of Palmyra by Russian-backed Syrian government forces.
U.S. forces have also had increased success in eliminating top ISIS leaders. Air strikes in recent weeks killed a top official called Abd al-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli, and an Islamic State commander described as the group’s “minister of war” — Abu Omar al-Shishani, or Omar the Chechen.
To be sure, now that the world is far more focused on ISIS’ Turkish source of funds, while Russian air strikes have decimated ISIS oil supply routes to Turkey, suddenly the money feeding the ISIS state has slowed to a crawl.
Nonetheless, the ISIS-controlled cities remain potent threat abroad, claiming credit for major attacks in Paris in November and Brussels in March.
As such, as we have written on previous occasions, there appears to be a scramble between Russia and US forces to be the first to gain control over these two cities. Here Reuters notes that the dozens of U.S. special operations forces now in Syria are working closely with a collection of Syrian Arab groups within an alliance that is still dominated by Kurdish forces. The United States has been supplying Arabs in the thousands-strong alliance with ammunition since October.
While the strategy is showing results so far, U.S. officials and Kurdish leaders agree that a predominately Arab force is needed to take Raqqa, a majority Arab city whose residents would consider Kurds as occupiers.
That is unless the Syrian army, supported by Russia, isn’t able to liberate the city first.
Meanwhile, in a separate report, the Daily Beast reports that there while there are currently only 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq—about what a colonel usually commands. But for this ISIS war, as many as 21 generals have been deployed (to a war the US denies fighting). More:
In the war against the self-proclaimed Islamic State, the U.S. military is notably short on soldiers, but apparently not on generals.
There are at least 12 U.S. generals in Iraq, a stunningly high number for a war that, if you believe the White House talking points, doesn’t involve American troops in combat. And that number is, if anything, a conservative estimate, not taking into account the flag officers running the U.S. air war, the admirals helping wage the war from the sea, or their superiors back at the Pentagon.
At U.S. headquarters inside Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, even majors and colonels frequently find themselves saluting superiors at a pace that outranks the Pentagon and certainly any normal military installation. With about 5,000 troops deployed to Iraq and Syria ISIS war, that means there’s a general for every 416 troops, give or take. To compare, there are some captains in the U.S. Army in charge of that many people.
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But if the U.S. footprint is so small, why does the war demand so many generals?
Why so many generals to so few troops? Perhaps because, just like the Syrian “special forces” reinforcements, the U.S. troops are about to be deployed in Iraq as well where they will have more than enough generals to guide them.
Which begs the question: as the ongoing proxy war in the Middle East has been gradually pushed back from the front pages, are all these stealthy reinforcements indicative that something far bigger is about to be unleashed in the region.
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