Who’s winning the Middle East war? It’s never an easy question to answer, even for the most skilled and informed analysts. Things rarely, very rarely, go the way we expect. Hence “the fog.” The most famous case of a military commander who got it right is Napoleon at Austerlitz, when he seems to have told his men precisely how the battle would go, hour by hour and move by move. It so impressed Hegel that he proclaimed the French general a “world-historical figure.”
Waterloo didn’t follow that template, however, thereby making my point. It behooves us to maintain a healthy skepticism about likely outcomes. Take Yemen, for example. Do you have a clear picture about whether the Saudis or the (Iranian proxies) Houthi are winning? I don’t. All I’ll say is that the Saudis are doing better than I expected, and the Iranians are demonstrating once again that they’re not fearsome fighters. We knew that already in the ’80s, when the Islamic Republic couldn’t find a way to defeat Saddam’s Iraq despite a significant manpower advantage. But the Saudis?
The Iranian casualties in Syria are significant, and they would appear even worse if Hezbollah were properly treated as part of “Iran.” All those “reporters” who tell us about “Iran-supported Hezbollah” are fudging the facts. Hezbollah leader Nasrullah is invariably photographed in front of a Khamenei poster, and for good reason. Hezbollah takes orders from Tehran, which created them in the first place.
So Iranian casualties in Syria or Iraq should not surprise us. ISIS and al-Qaeda are formidable. Just ask any sensible American commander. There is no guarantee they will be defeated in the latest round of fighting, whether or not they combine their forces against common enemies (certainly possible).
Now we’ve got the Russians on the battlefield. They are flying bombers and cargo planes all over Iran, Iraq, and Syria, and the energy with which Putin denies the presence of Russian fighters in Syria suggests they are there. If you had to bet, you’d probably wager that Putin and Khamenei are solid favorites. But don’t bet the farm. Russian and Iranian casualties are mounting and in some key areas they are in retreat from “rebels.” As Michael Weiss writes:
Evidence of rebel victories is everywhere on social media. Here’s a video of Liwa Suquour al-Jabal destroying an artillery gun with a TOW missile in Khirbat al Naqus, near Latakia. Here’s one of a BMP being wiped out with a TOW near al-Qarassi, Aleppo, a town the rebels appear to have sacked, along with Tel Qurha, which lies just hundreds of meters south of a regime army base. According to the opposition-run Local Coordination Committees, Jaysh al-Fateh seized the village of Mansoura in Hama today after intense combat with pro-regime forces. The FSA participated in that operation, too, because the same anti-tank missile system was put to use in Mansoura.
Not so very Napoleonic, at least at last view.
So who knows how it’s going, really? I will say this: Shoring up Assad, which is the Iranian-Russian mission, is no easy task. His army is pathetic, his enemies are a battle-hardened, highly motivated army of vicious killers who believe the Almighty blesses their cause. And the sight of Russians and Iranians is a great motivator.
Do NOT bet the farm.