The Russians in Syria: Chechnya redux

Strategy Page looks at how Russian military tactics in Syria mirror those it used in Chechnya during the 1990’s.  They’re brutal, but effective.

The Russians continue to resort the ancient tactics of attacking the civilian population and threatening annihilation through starvation and constant acts of murder, rape and plunder. This sort of thing goes back to antiquity and the Romans coined a phrase for it; create a desert and call it peace (“ubi solitudinem faciunt pacem appellant”, or they create desolation and call it peace) … What Russia did in Syria with artillery and air strikes the Syrian government had already been doing since 2012 and that included preventing supply trucks from reaching pro-rebel populations. There is talk of war crimes prosecutions over this, but as long as Russia and China back the Assad government this is unlikely to happen. The UN has always been opposed to the Assad’s “scorched earth” tactics which involve deliberate use of aircraft bombing and artillery attacks on residential neighborhoods. The civilian suffering is unprecedented and getting worse.

The Russians initially tried the “Western approach” when Chechnya tried to separate itself from Russia after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Russia responded with a kinder and gentler military operation (1994-6) that killed over 35,000 people, and failed. Russia withdrew and left the Chechens to their own devices.

. . .

In 1999 the second pacification campaign made greater use of commandoes and better trained and led troops in general. But the 1999 campaign also included massive attacks on civilians. This was easier in 1999 than five years earlier because once free of Russia rule, even briefly, the ethnic Chechens sought to drive out most of the ethnic Russian civilians. This was common in most of the 14 nations created by the dissolution of the Soviet Union but was nowhere as violent as in Chechnya.

This 1999 campaign succeeded in pacifying the population and then another ancient technique was employed to keep the area quiet. Basically, the Russians sought out Chechens who would be willing to run Chechnya, under Russian supervision, as long as they could keep the crime and terrorism under control. The Russians didn’t care how “their Chechens” did it, as long as there was not a return to the 1994-9 era of rampant criminal activity. And no Islamic terrorism either. That worked and the violence, and Islamic terrorism inside Chechnya, and Russia declined.

. . .

… in Syria Russia is showing that it not only recognizes the effectiveness of older techniques but can still carry them out.

There’s more at the link.  Very interesting reading for counter-insurgency buffs.

I’ve seen this approach in anti-terrorist operations in Africa.  It’s a tried and tested tactic, and it works.  To cite but one example;  the reason Rhodesia eventually became a democracy through negotiation, rather than through military conquest, was that the Rhodesian armed forces almost literally destroyed the economies of Mozambique and Zambia, the two nations harboring the terrorists trying to overthrow it.  Those nations, desperate to stop the carnage and economic cost of the war, forced the terrorists to negotiate rather than fight on.  They won anyway, at the ballot box, but were forced to make concessions that they found humiliating, to put it mildly.

I could cite many other examples, but you get the point.  If you make resistance so costly, in terms of lives, property and money, that it’s unsustainable, you win – or force others to do things your way, rather than theirs.  (The USA employed this strategy in its Linebacker II bombing campaign over North Vietnam, which forced that country back to the negotiating table.)

I’m rather glad I’m not a civilian in Syria right now . . . or in Chechnya, for that matter.



  1. The USA applied this tactic in the Civil War – Sherman's "March to the Sea" and especially his campaign in South Carolina were explicitly designed to make civilian support of the war impossible.

  2. It may have been Liddle Hart who said this,'the purpose of war is not to destroy your enemies tanks, but to destroy his will'. Something many in the west seem to have ignored for too long.

  3. @Borepatch, when bringing up Sherman's march to the sea, it's important to point out that earlier in the war he had been known to be extremely kind to the cities that he took.

    The March to the Sea was not the result of hate or meanness, it was a deliberate decision to cause more pain now to end the war quickly rather than letting it drag out longer (with the resulting pain over the longer timeframe)

    sometimes being 'kind' in war causes more pain in the long run because the war drags on.

  4. I'm not sure to what degree the Chechens forced the ethnic Russians out. I know a lot of them fled the fighting, and yet more were ordered out by the Russian government forces before they assaulted Grozny. Any who chose to remain simply had to take their chances in the ensuing battles. Those evacuated were housed in refugee camps for a year before being dispatched to places in Russia where most people didn't want to go. I knew two men in their twenties – cousins, ethnic Ossetians – who eventually ended up on Sakhalin Island, where I met them. One of them told me how the army came to his block of flats and told them to leave everything and get on a lorry.

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