Who Attacked the Russian Air Base…or, is Syria Becoming Russia’s Vietnam?
Ever since the U.S. “lost” the Vietnam War, the phrase, “Name of Country is So-and-So’s Vietnam,” has been used over and over to describe a super-power’s military quagmire. One of the first uses was when Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1978, and pundits were saying “Cambodia will be Vietnam’s Vietnam.” Meaning, of course, that Vietnam would get bogged down in a bloody and lengthy guerrilla war in Cambodia and, even if it managed to pull out a win, it would be at great cost, and so on and so forth. Ironically, while Vietnam did end up in Cambodia for a long time (14 years), when the war finally ended, Vietnam had accomplished their basic goals. Just a couple years later though, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, that invasion, occupation, and subsequent guerrilla war did earn the sobriquet of “Russia’s Vietnam.” The Soviet Union clearly lost, having to retreat back home with the enemy still in the field, and, just like with the American experience in Vietnam, within a couple years of leaving, the pro-Soviet government fell to the enemy.
Fast forward now to the year 2016, and we see modern, post-Soviet Russia embroiled in a similar foreign intervention, this time in Syria (again, supporting an unpopular secular government against Jihadists who employ significant numbers of foreign fighters-just like in Afghanistan 35 years ago). Russia joined the multi-faceted and international War on ISIS in September of 2015, and, unlike in Afghanistan, is keeping Russian ground forces in more of a support role to the Syrian Army. The Russian air power, though, is a different thing. Russian warplanes and helicopters have turned the tide back in favor of the Assad regime in Syria.
So, it should be no surprise then, that the Islamic State (ISIS) and, perhaps, other rebel groups, might try to hit the Russian air bases in Syria. Apparently, according to the private American intelligence company STRATFOR, rebels (they say it is ISIS), infiltrated the Russian air base at Tiyas (also known as T4), on May 14, 2016, set explosives, and destroyed four MI-24 Hind attack helicopters and up to 20 trucks and other vehicles. If true, this is an interesting escalation of the war for the Russians.
If the news reports are accurate though, the question arises as to why they think ISIS did this. There are other rebel groups in Syria, some of whom oppose the Syrian regime as well as oppose ISIS. And Russian air power has been used effectively against all of the anti-Assad groups, even those supported by the United States and the other Western powers. The Islamic State actively recruits followers who are willing to engage in suicide attacks to kill their foes. Based on what STRATFOR and other media outlets are reporting, the attack on Tiyas was more in line with a sabotage operation than a typical Jihadist “let’s kill all the infidels and go to heaven” type of suicide assault. If ISIS Jihadist forces had really managed to infiltrate a Syrian/Russian air base, would they content themselves just blowing up some easily replaced helos and trucks? It would be more typical of ISIS fighters to also attack the barracks housing the Russian pilots and support personnel, and really make the Russians pay for intervening in the Syrian War. In light of this, it is far more likely that the attack on the T4/Tiyas air base was conducted by non-Jihadist forces. And that idea leads to the question of whether or not the attackers were from a group supported by the Western Powers, specifically, the United States.
If so, that would be a very serious escalation of the war, but it would also make the analogy of Syria being Russia’s own Vietnam more accurate. Remember, in Vietnam, the Russians directly supported the forces fighting the Americans, and in Afghanistan, the Americans returned the favor by directly arming and aiding the Afghan forces fighting the Russians. This could be a very interesting development in the Syrian War.