American “allies” in Syria: their shameful performance is perfectly explainable

Submitted by Dmitry Orlov  –  The ClubOrlov Blog

[The recent American failure to train and equip anti-Assad forces in Syria is not an isolated incident. It is a symptom of a systemic problem. This article, which recently appeared in the Russian press, explains why.]

Yevgeny Krutikov, Vzglyad

The scandal around the “30th Divison,” which was prepared by American trainers for war against Assad, and which immediately surrendered to the Islamist An-Nusra Front as soon as it crossed the border from Turkey, is now resounding around the entire planet. There will be many such scandals. They have been predetermined by the methodology of American training of “allies”—in Syria, in Georgia and in the Ukraine.

Let’s recall that as a result An-Nusra Front (a branch Al-Qaeda) received weapons, equipment and a few pickup trucks from the USA. The commander of the “30th Division” assured representatives of the Front that he fooled the American military in order to get weapons. The problems which caused this to happen can be split into three uneven categories.

Problems with intelligence and psychology

The image of a CIA operative who decides whom to choose as an ally in the Middle East has been unduly exaggerated by Hollywood. In an absolute majority of cases the operatives latch onto anyone who shows even the most perfunctory signs of being loyal. But if somebody seems useful but does not show enough of the required signs, then they prefer to purchase his loyalty, even though such “partners” have been considered unreliable at all times. These are, roughly, the principles according to which the anti-Assad coalition was knocked together.

Add to this that the behavior of CIA operatives is very tightly regulated. Just about every eventuality is accounted for by a written instruction, which they are required to know almost by heart. Disagreement with operational instructions brings official sanction. The freedom of action of an operative is limited, and at times they are simply forced to fulfill the letter of the instructions instead of reacting to the situation. This problem plagues many intelligence services, but the American ones are, in addition, built on ideological and, to a lesser extent, on ethnic stereotypes. Generally speaking, any authentic-looking towelhead who is able to intelligibly pronounce the word “democracy” has a chance to receive financing and weapons. But nobody has any control over where he will then go with these weapons. By the way, Soviet intelligence services of the Brezhnev era had the same problem, latching onto any tribal chieftain who knew how to pronounce words like “Marx” and “Lenin.”

All of this is directly relevant to the case being described. The “30th Division” and Abd al-Tunisi personally demonstrated their loyalty, entered into Americans’ confidence, received weapons and disappeared together with them. Stereotypical and schematic perception of the world is a surprising distinctive quality of the CIA. Of course, this resulted from the “loss of principal adversary,” and from perceiving oneself as a “victor” specifically in the ideological rather than the physical sense of this word. The anti-Assad coalition, knocked together using a combination of threats and wishful thinking, fell apart specifically because of bad instructions and consequent mistakes made by the CIA. It is only possible to collect and to process intelligence correctly with the help of specialists who are free of ideological bias in perceiving the world, but Langley has a deficit in this department. The career-building system that has been created there already tends to sideline people with nonstandard ways of thinking, but the massive recruitment effort directed at former Marines has fully predetermined the melt-down of its analytical abilities.

And so the scandal around the “30th Division” is not the only one by far; there will be many such scandals. The golden age of American intelligence has remained in the hills of Hollywood.

Physical problems

American training offered to the soldiers of their questionable allies is usually a source of pride for those being trained. For instance, Peter Poroshenko and his government waxes ecstatic while talking about American and British instructors who are preparing Ukrainian military personnel at the base in Yarov according to an accelerated program. Given the fact that they are not being provided any serious weapons, this training is becoming about the only form of Western military support.

In preparing the Ukrainians (and, before them, the Georgians, the Croatians, the Albanians, and now, in Syria, such “anti-Assad” types as the “30th Division”) the Americans rely on the system of “observe and repeat.” In reality this something akin to boot camp: running over hurdles, the basics of weapons handling, physical training. The instructors also teach the basics of using radio and encryption equipment, which the Ukrainians simply don’t have. They also teach how to transport casualties, to minimize losses—a subject in which the Ukrainians who saw action in Eastern Ukraine could teach the Americans a thing or two. They teach how to open doors with a sledgehammer, but what sort of sledgehammer do you expect a soldier to carry to a thousand-mile-long front in the middle of open prairie? They teach how to check, using a special hook on a string, whether razor wire is booby-trapped, but not everybody learns how to do this effectively. In all, the so-called “remedial” program at Yarov contains 63 exercises divided into three courses, two months each. The result: plenty of foul language and some cases of insubordination.

This is not military training. It is, at most, police training, but even then it is only elementary. The representatives of the American army regard their students as representatives of the third world, who need to be told which end of the machine gun the bullets come out of. For example, the instructors at Yarov are very upset that Ukrainian soldiers coming back from the East carry their machine guns with the safety off. This, the instructors feel, is unprofessional of them. But many of them managed to survive specifically because of such “unprofessionalism” [being able to open fire without any warning clicks].

This might all sound like a farce, but it reflects the essence of training that’s used in the US Army and which is being transferred to its allies. The emphasis is on physical capabilities, suppression of individual initiative, drilling in specific techniques and, of course, “teamwork.” As a result, when a fighter finds himself in a nonstandard situation, he becomes confused and cannot apply the skills in which he has been trained to the specific problem. He has been “honed” to react to situations that are consistent, homogeneous and artificially constructed.

None of this works, either in the Ukraine or in Syria. The American instructors have no idea what a frontal war is, how to act in close combat, how to hide from fire from a multiple-launch rocket system. They don’t even know how to set up defensive positions. The Iraqi experience, of which the Pentagon is so proud, trained them to patrol, to accompany convoys, and to man garrisons in the middle of the desert. Three decades of random abuse directed at weak opponents have accustomed the American army to rely on technological superiority, and it has largely lost the skills of close-range combat. Now even at Yarov the Ukrainian military and national guard are refusing to obey instructors, whom they see as complete and utter newbies.

The Pentagon didn’t notice the moment when blowing up defenseless, demoralized adversaries using cruise missiles stopped being the only method for waging war. And now it is very difficult to appraise the real capabilities of the huge bulk of the US Army or Marine Corps, should they ever encounter an enemy that is approximately equal to them in technical capabilities. But America’s allies and fellow-travelers have to fight exactly such wars. They have little or no air power, cruise missiles or aircraft carriers. In the deserts of Syria or the prairies of Novorussia there is no need to open doors using a sledgehammer in the course of meditatively mopping up a population center from which everyone has already fled and hid. There, you have to hold down miles of frontline, in open country, under rocket fire.

The bottom line is that the individual preparation of “allies” and “fellow-travelers” has turned into a slapstick comedy. Some, as in the case of the anti-Assad elements in Syria, consider all this “training” as a necessary evil, sent by Allah as a test. Some, like the Ukrainians, are grumbling rather loudly. Of course, such training won’t ruin seasoned fighters. But the Ukrainian Marines, formed out of reservists and sent through Yarov (and, based on this distinction, labeled an “elite unit” and sent to a difficult part of the front) crumbled upon their first contact with the insurgents.

Mass “breaking in” of allied units in Iraq and Afghanistan (for example, those same Ukrainians and Georgians) produced exactly the same effect. These units were pronounced “elite” because of this experience, but turned out to be unsuitable for modern wars without (and this is important) American technical support—aviation, drones and artillery. On the other hand, their ability to show initiative and to be resourceful does atrophy, as does their commanders’ ability to think independently, starting at the level of the company.

Tactical problems

All the tactical preparation is conducted on the basis of the Iraqi experience, which, for some reason, is considered state of the art. It comes down to techniques for patrolling territory with minimal exchange of fire with the enemy. Nobody trains for engaging a well-matched enemy in direct combat at numbers above the troop level; in the age of cyberattacks, satellite systems and precision weaponry this is considered as something entirely outdated. The American military tended to be dismissive of the very idea of engaging the enemy at close range, and when, due to an artillery miscalculation, such engagements did happen, they either tried to disengage and call in air strikes, or they sustained disproportionately large casualties. Since the experience of the last three decades did not involve close-range combat, there was no reason to develop modern battle plans for it. This would be a problem just for Americans—if it didn’t spread to all the armies they patronize in all the countries who surrendered their security to them. The difference is particularly obvious in the armies of former Soviet republics, between the units trained by the Americans and those who are still commanded by officers who received Soviet training. The Georgian army in particular gave plenty of opportunities for this sort of analysis.

Here is a characteristic episode demonstrating the value of “Iraqi-style” American tactical preparation. It occurred during the war in South Ossetia in 2008. (Especially important in it is the low quality of the decisions made by the commanders.) From 2300 hours on August 7 the 43 battalion of IV brigade of the Georgian army, located to the west of Tskhinval, started “mopping up” villages on the right bank of the river Prone. After marching all night, the battalion fanned out as separate companies, and around 1100-1200 on August 8 at a spot 2 km from the regional center Znaur one of them stumbled into an ambush. The Ossetian defensive force opened fire on the Georgian grouping, immediately wounding five of them. After this (according to an order from the battalion commander) all the companies were concentrated together at that spot “to destroy the key position of the enemy.”

Even before the start of their attack, the battalion commander requested artillery support, and received it, and was reinforced by three tanks. The Georgian grouping started firing on the position of the Ossetian irregulars, after which, around 1600, the infantry stormed and “took” this “height” (!) where there wasn’t any enemy to be seen. Obviously, there were no casualties either. By 1800 hours the battalion, at full strength, arrived at the bridge leading into Znaur, but did not enter the settlement because it had lost artillery support. The battalion was tired and needed rest. The commander then decided to return to the “key position of the enemy” and camp there for the night. That is, all day long the battalion wandered around the forests and the mountains, discovered all on their own “a large defensive enemy position” (which later was found out to have consisted of no more than ten Ossetian irregulars who, after staging the ambush, called it a day and quietly retreated), blasted it with artillery for an hour and a half, then marched to their goal, [Znaur] but then went back to square one because they were tired.

Let’s underscore this again: this was a unit specially prepared for serving in Iraq. They did not understand what it means to march quickly, to deliver strikes, to maneuver or to organize breakthroughs, nonstop, day and night. They acted in accordance with the unhurried Iraqi tactic of patrolling, which is entirely unsuitable for open, running battles.

This is how they attacked. How they defended was even worse. Following unclear orders, the 43 battalion spent its ordnance on one tiny position and wasted its physical strength by pointlessly marching from village to village. Until noon on August 8 they had no idea what was happening in Tskhinval or Gori. Because they were under the influence of ideological euphoria, they mistook the planes that were circling overhead for Georgian aviation—they simply didn’t expect any other. But by noon the soldiers of the 43 battalion started receiving information about casualties in other parts of the IV brigade. The brigade started to panic. By 1900 on August 8 the 43 battalion, which was almost at the point of mutiny, was ordered by the “Iraqi” brigade to withdraw from Znaur, leaving some completely disoriented reservists to cover their retreat.

Then the 43th battalion was ordered to set up a defensive position near the village of Pkhvenisi. But none of them knew how to do this. Only a few of them volunteered to dig trenches; the rest bivouacked in irrigation ditches, in spite of the fact that construction equipment had been delivered to the site for constructing a defensive line. All night the “Iraqi brigade” lounged around an apple orchard and watched the glowing headlights of Russian columns descending toward them from the direction of Tskhinval. Around 2300 on August 10 a Russian helicopter, while flying around the area, was amazed to discover the “defensive positions” of the “Iraqi” brigade and immediately blew up the IV brigade’s last remaining tank and a pickup truck with a large-caliber machine gun, which were left out in the open and without camouflage. Nobody was brave enough to fire back; instead they started to panic. Neither of the two shoulder-fired “Strela” anti-air rockets they had worked because nobody had paid attention to their state of repair. By dawn on August 11 Georgian command issued more orders to strengthen the by then nonexistent defensive position near Pkhvenisi, but in each company there were on average no more than 30 men ready to carry out the order. The headquarters company of the II brigade, which was stuck near Tskhinval, decided to carry out this order, even though the “Iraqi” brigade had long deserted their position. As a result, while nearing Shindisi, the headquarters company mistook Russian tanks for Georgian ones (they couldn’t imagine that these units, so highly regarded thanks to their American training, simply ran away) and was completely destroyed.

In judging the results of the military action of August 2008, the company that was recognized as the most capable was this very II brigade, which was previously stationed in western Georgia, far from any action, and did not receive any American training.

Thus, the scandal around the “30th Division” in Syria is just the tip of the iceberg. It is already possible to declare that such problems have a systemic character that cannot be explained by psychological mistakes made by the CIA. In the near future we will learn a lot of interesting details about the quality of the training which the Americans force upon their allies. And somebody is going to have to answer for it.