NIGHTWATCH (2): Russia Draws the Line at Syria

06 Russia, 08 Wild Cards


Russia: President Putin today accused the West of worsening the situation in Syria by “blowing up an internal conflict” there. His remarks were broadcast by state news television channel Rossiya 24.

At an international meeting Putin interrupted former French Prime Minister Francois Fillon who said mass murder in Syria must be stopped. “Of course, we cannot calmly watch mass murder,” Putin said. “But let’s be honest with each other: yes, there was an internal conflict in Syria, but it was immediately blown up from abroad, and weapons and rebels started coming into Syria.”

He accused the West of supporting rebels in the Syrian conflict. “You are helping them to come to power. And what will you do next? Will you take a newspaper and push them away from power?” Putin asked.

According to Putin, the West has no answer to the question what will happen next in Syria. To the question “what will you do?”, the West replies “we don’t know”, Putin said. “But if you don’t know, what is the point of launching strikes that are to no avail and without knowing how they will end?” …

Later in the discussion, Putin said it was “premature” to ask him about what Russia would do in the event of Syria’s failing to meet its obligations under the chemical weapons deal. “So far we have had no reasons to believe that the Syrians will not meet their obligations,” he said

Comment: Putin was in fine fettle and also criticized Western interventions in Iraq and Libya as failures for making changes without thinking through the consequences. His linkage of Iraq, Libya and Syria – all Soviet/Russian clients – suggests he perceives the West deliberately has acted to strip Russia of its clients. In this view, that matches a pattern similar to the eastern expansion of NATO that stripped Russia of its buffer states in eastern Europe and the Baltic.

In eastern Europe, Putin stopped NATO’s expansion at the Ukraine and at Georgia and continues to harass the Baltic members of NATO. In the Middle East, his words and demeanor indicate Syria is where Putin is drawing his line. Russia is stronger now than it was when NATO expanded eastward.

One of the many messages behind the message is payback.

Syria: Update on Feedback concerning M-14 rockets or knock-offs. After nearly a week of exchanges with genuinely brilliant and well-informed Readers, there is no reasonable doubt that the rocket body examined at Ghouta was not fired by a regular Syrian army rocket unit because the Syrian army has not fielded the weapon system that fires that rocket for nearly 30 years. The army had them, as did most Soviet-supplied armed forces, but replaced them in the 1980s with the BM-21 122-mm 40-tube, truck-mounted multiple rocket launcher … as did most Soviet-supplied armed forces.

As for the 330-mm diameter rocket, no information has been received on that.

What the evidence and our judgment signify is that the pool of plausible users of that rocket is larger than discussed in international media. There are multiple plausible users

Rebel groups sometimes may be distinguished by their weapons. Not all have rocket weapons, but, as reported in the Al Jazirah video mentioned yesterday, some do. The Free Syrian Army should be able to provide insight on who fires M-14s.

Little information is available on the weapons used by pro-government militias in Syria. Syrian special forces could use a variety of old and new equipment, but there is no information about their practices. Syrian army defectors should know answers to these knowledge gaps.

No open sources report on weapons used by Hizballah fighters in Syria. Hizballah has fired BM-14s from southern Lebanon into northern Israel in the past, along with Fajr 5 333-mm rockets.

In the Feedback exchanges, it is also beyond  doubt that BM-14 tubes and M-14 rockets have been used in every past conflict in which the Soviets have supplied weapons to a state or a non-state actor. They include Yemeni rebels, Hizballah in Lebanon, Palestinian groups and an assortment of Islamist militant and terror groups. There also is a Chinese knock-off of the Soviet system that was sold to clients. That means the system or its dismantled components are still available.

Equipment discarded, abandoned or junked by modernizing armies always and everywhere gets recycled and repurposed.


Russia-UN-Syria: Russia yesterday denied that the UN inspectors’ report of the 21 August sarin attack implicated Syria. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said, “There is still no answer to the question of where the missile was produced.” Lavrov also questioned the U.N. report, saying there are “serious grounds to believe” the incident was a provocation carried out by the rebel side.

Russia-Syria: The Syrian government provided Russia new materials about the sarin attack outside Damascus on 21 August, according to Sergei Ryabkov, the Russian deputy foreign minister who is in Damascus for talks.

“The corresponding materials were handed to the Russian side. We were told it was evidence that the rebels are implicated in the chemical attack,” Ryabkov was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies after talks with Walid al-Mo’allim, the Syrian foreign minister, late on Tuesday.

Ryabkov also said that Russia was disappointed with the UN report on the chemical weapons attack published this week because it was selective and had ignored other episodes.

Comment: Some US news outlets already have dismissed the new Syrian evidence.

Special comment: Human Rights Watch published a useful report with a map that showed range rings for what its author considers the likely firing ranges and location for the two rockets examined by the UN inspectors. The location was determined by back tracking the trajectory from the information provided in the UN report.

This report and map have received extensive news coverage because the commentary concludes that they implicate Syrian army units at a large Syrian army base. It includes a Republican Guard unit and an armored division. Some news outlets have cited this as conclusive proof that only Syrian units could have fired the rockets.

It is a useful and elementary thing to do with the UN information about the rockets. It is far from conclusive because so many assumptions have to be made in such an analysis and need to be stated up front, as assumptions.

Old hands at detailed military intelligence have done this kind of analysis hundreds of times over decades, on multiple continents and in multiple crises, but not usually from buried rocket bodies. Back tracking over distances measured in miles from the orientation of a buried rocket body requires even more assumptions. A threshold one is that the impact areas were not disturbed.

The UN inspectors said the impact areas had been traveled; people were seen carrying and handling pieces of munitions. These are buzz words for a contaminated scene and deception. The inspectors dutifully reported what they found and measured, but provided no assurance that the rocket bodies had not been moved, twisted or handled.

Another assumption is that the rockets flew true. Back tracking a trajectory from a buried rocket body that was fired from a multiple rocket launcher in a saturation attack is tricky because the rockets are unguided and are supposed to scatter. Compounding this problem is that the inspectors examined two different rocket bodies, one 140-mm in diameter and the other 330-mm.

That is important information for many reasons, including that the two would not have the same range, payload or impact. The inspectors said one of the rocket bodies they examined resembled an M14 rocket which is fired from the BM-14 16-tube rocket launcher. The map rings in the Human Rights Watch report were drawn using known BM-14 minimum and maximum ranges.

The UN report does not constitute proof that a BM-14 weapon was used, with its known range and characteristics. It only indicates that a rocket body like an M14 was examined.

Al Jazeera published on 17 September a video of a rocket manufacturing workshop run by the Free Syrian Army. It contains computer driven lathes. The video narrator said he was told the shop produces three kinds of rockets used by rebel forces, one of which has the same range as the BM 14 launcher. The shop makes the rocket bodies and motors, the warheads and the detonators. This is circumstantial, but relevant.

The back tracked trajectories were drawn to meet at the large Syrian Army base, but that assumes only M14 rockets were fired; the trajectory information is accurate and, critically, the Syrian army still uses BM14s. No one has explained the presence of the 330-mm diameter rocket plate. Open source information indicates the Syrian army does not have BM14s or rockets that are 330-mm in diameter.

There are other pitfalls in this kind of analysis, including examination of the influence of terrain, weather and other external factors. A major problem is that it satisfices. It has cognitive allure because it provides a quick, neat, seemingly comprehensive and easily understood solution.

That nurtures premature cognitive closure, which means the analyst prematurely stops his search for evidence. Contrary leads are not followed and additional, necessary corroborative leads that might nuance or alter the conclusions are ignored. Contradictory evidence is not given the weight or mental energy that is applied to the solution that satisfices. Other cognitive problems characteristic of bias follow.

In a more complete analysis, the next essential steps before presenting it to a senior official would be to determine the rocket launching capabilities of the suspect Syrian Army units; locate the rocket launcher units; locate the suspect chemical warfare depots or supply vehicles; identify likely firing sites on the base and look for signs that troops recently handled chemical weapons. There have been a sufficient number of Syrian army defectors that the answers should be easily available, probably from men who served in the suspect units.

Those appreciations might be followed by a search for likely firing sites from other locations. At least one range ring on the map overlaps an area identified as rebel-controlled, but with different azimuths.

The result of this is that there remain many open questions and all judgments about who fired are probabilities judgments. More field work is needed and the Syrian President said in an interview on the 17th that UN inspectors have been invited back to Syria.

Administrative note: NightWatch thanks the many brilliant Readers who responded to the invitation to provide Feedback. We still do not know who is firing M14 or M14-like rockets.