Pupils of History,
Eleni Tsigante, an Athenian of ancient family, has translated to English, the essay by a French Colonel, commander of artillery of NATO coalition forces in Syria, which was referenced in the Moon of Alabama article I posted 2/20/19.
This essay has ceased to be available online, but I copy what she has sent me, with thanks to her and to Colonel François-Régis Legrier.
Battle of Hajin: tactical victory, strategic defeat?
Colonel François-Régis Legrier
Head of the 68th Artillery Regiment of Africa. commanding officer Wagram Task Force Levant from October 2018 to February 2019.
Author of If you want peace, prepare the war for Via Romana Publishing.
The battle of Hajin (September 2018 - January 2019) named after a small
locality on the east bank of the Euphrates on the borders of Syria and Iraq
deserves to be named in military history for more than one reason. First, it is
the last "pitched battle" against the pseudo Islamic State and seems to put
an end to its desire to control a territory. It is then, for Westerners, rich in lessons
about the war, and especially the limits of proxy warfare and our supremacy approach
In the nineteenth century, the fate of a battle involving a few thousand
men was settled in one day - Austerlitz for example; in the twentieth century it
must be counted in weeks - one thinks of the Dunkirk pocket in 1940; in the
Twenty-first century, it takes almost five months and an accumulation of destruction to
fight combat 2000 combatants who have neither air support nor
electronic warfare, neither special forces nor satellites. That is the reality of
war today that should lead us, policy makers and military leaders,
to a salutary critical examination of how we conceive and wage war.
Of course, the battle of Hajin was won, but at exorbitant cost and the price of gross destruction.
Of course, Westerners, in refusing to engage troops on the ground, have
limited their risk and in particular that of placating public opinion. But this refusal begs a question:
why maintain an army if we dare not use it? If the reduction of the last bastion of
Islamic State is not worth the trouble of engaging conventional troops, what cause is important enough?
While extremely comfortable about demanding swarms of officers from major multinational staffs, Western nations
did not have the political will to send in 1,000 seasoned fighters to settle in a few weeks the
fate of Hajin's pocket and save the population several months of war.
In addition, by subcontracting the conduct of ground operations to its proxies the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)
- troops backed by the Americans who delegated to them the right to fight in their place - , the Coalition (1)
gave up its freedom of action and lost control of the strategic tempo. Caught in a vice between
Donald Trump's decision to withdraw from northeastern Syria and MSDS aims,
we did not find a better solution than to intensify bombing to end it as soon as possible, thereby
jeopardizing the future of this province.
In the end, the question is whether the liberation of a region can be done only at the cost
of the destruction of its infrastructures (hospitals, places of worship, roads, bridges, dwellings, etc.).
This is the approach taken, yesterday and today, by the Americans; it's not ours and we wish
here to indicate what could have been done to put the enemy out of action without transforming
Hajin's pocket into fields of ruins.
Characteristics of the Battle of Hajin: a distillate of all types of war
Located in the heart of the "Big Game" between regional and large powers,
the pocket of Hajin gathered in September 2018 about 2 000 Islamist combatants
including a majority of foreigners. Stretched over thirty kilometers
along the Euphrates in Syrian Arab-Kurdish territory and a dozen
kilometers deep, it is the last bastion of the so-called Caliphate of the "Islamic State",
which is not saying much. In reality, we will see that the battle extends beyond its geographic
framework into the field of public perception, another essential issue of combat.
The action zone is a V-shaped strip of land wedged between the Euphrates to the
the West and the Iraqi-Syrian border to the East with a rural area (fields and villages)
along the river and some desert. Note that the West Bank of the Euphrates is more or
less under the control of the Syrian regime and Iraqi militias also control part of the border.
The population is estimated to be a few thousand people, concentrated in the northern part of the
pocket (Hajin locality).
South of the pocket (tip of the V) and at the edge of the Euphrates in Iraqi territory
is the city of Al-Qaim. North of the city the border is held by the Iraqi army and, slightly
set back, the ground-to-ground firing position of the coalition light artillery. In the South, the border
is held by a militia affiliated to Iran (Katiba Hesbollah), a real little army with tanks and guns. If the border
is generally watertight in the North, it is very porous in the South, with the militia engaged in contraband.
The ground combat was entrusted to the US proxies - the SDF, the Arab-Kurdish alliance - advised by US
special forces and supported by the ground-to-ground and air-to-air fire of the Coalition. The Coalition troops
are of a volume substantially equivalent to that of Daesh, but their combat value is quite relative knowing
that the Kurdish fighters come from northeastern Syria where they are regularly attacked by Turks, American
allies in NATO. At the end of October 2018, the SDF announced the suspension of operations following Turkish
strikes and it took several weeks of negotiations to resume the fight. The same scenario was repeated
in mid-December and almost compromised Hajin's proxy intake.
On the ground, the distinctive features of this battle are quite close to those of
battles of the First World War: a front line between fighters where each gain of 500 meters or 1 kilometer
of territory represents a success; violent and repeated counter-attacks by an enemy surrounded on all sides and
who seeks to loosen the grip of SDF; a massive use of artillery, alone able to deliver fire in bad weather conditions
and which, several times, saved the SDF when violently attacked; and finally, comparable combatant losses
(several hundred in total on both sides).
On a purely tactical level, this battle has rediscovered all the virtues of ground-to-ground fire support
(2) which combines the effects of saturation explosive shells and precision ammunition, and which is
operational in all weather. Thus, on December 3, 2018 Anti-tank shells were successfully fired for the first time in
Operation Infinite Resolve, with the bonus of destroying a pickup column launched on the assault of the SDF defense lines.
In the air, Western supremacy is obviously total. As in Gavin Hood's movie, Eye in the Sky (3), it's the
quintessence of high technology unfolding almost without limit through the massive use of surveillance
and intelligence, and planes to observe and strike. In the space of six
months, several thousand bombs were dumped over a few tens of kilometers
square with the main result being destruction of infrastructure.
Has the enemy been destroyed by these strikes? Yes, but not as much as the reports claim - the impressive BDA (4)
is calculated statistically and not by visual observation.
Has the enemy's morale and willingness to fight been destroyed? Obviously, no. He has deployed to the end
an unshakable combativeness which profited in periods of bad weather preventing air strikes, to violently
counter-attack and repeatedly inflict serious tactical setbacks to MSDS. When defeat became unavoidable,
he exfiltrated to areas of refuge to continue the fight in insurrectional mode leaving on the spot
only a handful of foreign fighters.
Thus, this battle perfectly illustrates the words of General Desportes:
"Increasingly efficient weapon systems always produce ever more disappointing results"(5). Let's pay heed.
They are not disappointing because of the performers but because poorly employed; we will come back to this.
Finally, the battle of Hajin goes well beyond its geographic context to register widely in the infinite
field of public perception. It is clear that in this area, Daesh has been able to exploit this weakness
to create value and make it their strategic success. The Western strikes and their real or fictitious collateral damage
have been widely and successfully publicized. Indeed, on several occasions, the Coalition too often in reaction
to public perception, gave up its strikes in the face of media pressure. There is a whole field of thought here
to explore and in particular the shift in perspective: where Daesh uses this strategically to aim at Western public opinion,
the Coalition, a military tool without any real political thinking, is forced to remain at the tactical level and can not exploit its
superiority in the information field with the same reactivity as the enemy.
The limits of proxy war and our techno-centered approach:
Proxy war - or how to lose control strategically
By relying on proxies to conduct the battle on the ground, the Westerners have certainly gained a short-term political
advantage: that of avoiding losses and thus avoiding public opinion against their policy. On the other hand, in the medium-long term,
this choice proved disastrous.
While asserting that the pocket was the Main Battle Area (6) by refusing to engage ground means or even attack helicopters,
the Americans have created doubt about their real intentions to finish quickly. Therefore, it has been suggested that the Hajin pocket
was an excellent alibi for maintaining a presence in northeastern Syria and especially to prevent possible
disintegration of the Coalition too fast. So, as the battle progresses, the speech was articulated as follows: "we must destroy Daech"
to "yes, Daesh will soon be eliminated in Syria but it is reconstituted in Iraq and remains just as "dangerous", which raises the question
of the relevance of the strategy followed all these years. Where is the real stake? Destroy Daesh or contain Iran?
Moreover, the most immediate consequence of such an approach is the loss of time and control: the operation progresses
according to the will of the proxies and according to their own agenda and it trails in length whatever the scale of
support granted. It's called a stagnation.
To complicate matters, the divergence of views between Donald Trump and his military staff came to light. Faithful to his campaign
promise, the President of the United States seized the opportunity of the recovery of Hajin in mid-December
to announce victory over Daesh and the withdrawal of US forces from Syria - showing, with brutal clarity, that it is the political tempo
which should determine strategy and not the other way around.
By ignoring and refusing to include in their Middle East strategy Trump's desire for withdrawal announced two years ago,
the US Administration and Coalition states created their own trap. Jostled by the political decision maker
on the one hand, and having relinquished control of the tempo of ground operations on the other, that is to say deprived of any
margin of maneuver, their only reaction was to intensify air strikes and therefore further increase the intensity of destruction. Hajin
suffered the same fate as Mosul and Raqqa: near total destruction.
So this tactical victory, by the way it was acquired, compromised the future of this province without opening up any interesting
strategic perspectives for the Coalition. The future of North-Eastern Syria is more than ever uncertain and Daesh, though it lost
this territory, does not seem to be affected in its will to continue the fight.
The lesson is this: there can be no strategy and therefore no lasting victory without freedom of manouver. This is at the very heart
of the intersection between politics and the military. The strategist must imperatively plan his action in the context of policy and must keep
control of operations in all areas including land operations if he wants to be able to present several options to the decision maker.
There are no other possible solutions.
The techno-centered approach or the illusion of power
Relying mainly on special forces and tactical air strikes which become inoperative when weather conditions deteriorate, the Coalition
lost a lot of time, energy, and credibility, while Daesh had a nice game boasting of having defeated the world's leading power for months.
You have to be in a Strike Cell (7) on a cloudy day to understand all the limits of our techno-centered approach. Indeed, in the case of rain,
fog and clouds, screens become black, people play cards or watch a movie: the war stops for them while waiting for the next window of clear
weather. During the violent Daesh counter-attacks in October 2018 and the withdrawal of SDF, the first observation of a general officer
was to say: "Because of the weather, we no longer had air support". Implied: Daesh does not respect the rules of the game, it attacks
in bad weather!
No, we were not held in check by the weather but by our refusal to adapt to our enemy and to the reality. The proxy war, that is to say
this refusal to engage combat-capable ground troops but to rely solely on special forces and the air force, is one of the main factors of
our current failure. Special forces are made ... for special operations and not conventional combat in urban or desert areas.
Again, make no mistake, this is not about criticizing here the indispensable contribution of the air force or special forces
but it is a mistake to rely solely on them to win a battle. This ultra-technological concept designed to reduce conventional troops and
seduce the politician into believing we can do better with less is a seductive lure but a lure anyway.
So what did you have to do?
The answer is simple: understand that if the battle is won at the tactical level - adaptation to the terrain and to the enemy - the war is won
at the strategic and political level, and that it is a dialectic of wills and not an eradication of "Bad guys" impossible to achieve.
In this case, it was necessary to relocate the battle of Hajin in a more global context: that of preventing Daesh from reconstituting itself
on the one hand and preserving the future of the Euphrates valley by avoiding unnecessary destruction on the other hand.
At the tactical level, a battle is won by having the appropriate means in the right place and at the right time (principle of economy
of forces and concentration of effort) to create a favourable balance of power. So, while relying on the SDF, it was necessary, in addition
to supporting fire, to engage at least a grouping of tactical motorized interarmes able to seize quickly the Hajin pocket and thus limiting
the destruction of infrastructure as much as possible.
Indeed, a battle is not just about destroying targets like at a fairground. It is the combination of manoeuver and fire power that dislocates
the enemy and makes it impossible for him to continue battle: by conquering the key points of the field, and its means of command
and logistics. Hajin's capture in December is a late illustration of this: the enemy, having lost his command center, was no longer able
to oppose coordinated resistance thereafter. Finally, the battle must be fought in imminent time in the public information field, that is to say
in advance. The greater public believe what is stated first: this is an immutable law that must be taken into account.
Greater responsiveness was necessary to disqualify the behaviour of the opponent and value our success instead of having to
justify afterward the unnecessary destruction, the collateral damage.
The evocation of the battle in the field of influences allows us to make a transition to the high parts of the war, strategy and politics.
Instead of focusing excessively on Hajin's pocket, the Coalition should have integrated it into a strategic approach and
thus cut out its space of battle not according to its internal structures (division between command Special Forces in Syria and
Conventional Command in Iraq) but depending on the enemy battle space from Kirkuk in the northeast of Iraq through the desert of Al-Anbar
to the West through Hajin and Al-Qaim. Only an overall view of the problem would have made it possible to draft an overall strategy
and avoid the bitter realization that Daech will re-emerge where it was hunted two years before. Only a global strategy
aimed at a lasting political resolution [my italics] would have allowed politics to understand the need for more time instead of rushing
to come out of what looks like a dead end and a failure.
We must therefore recall with General Desportes that the military victory must always be thought through the lens of its political
purpose and that it can not do without of a commitment to contact: "The war at a distance is a decoy: it produces a
military effect but no political effect. The "power projection", that is to say the projection of destruction, without "projection of forces",
of soldiers on the ground does not work ; it destroys without mastering the reconstruction and creates chaos. There is
a true illusion of air efficiency: yes, it allows some savings initially but it never leads to the expected result. At the end,
it is always necessary, in one way or another, to control the space. »(8)
Yes, the battle of Hajin was won, but by refusing engagement on the ground, we unnecessarily
prolonged the conflict and therefore contributed to increase the number of victims in the population. We destroyed massively
the infrastructure and gave the population a detestable picture of what may be a Western-style liberation leaving behind the
seeds of a resurgence next time of a new opponent. We have not in any way won the war - for lack of a realistic and persevering
policy and an adequate strategy.
How many Hajins will it take to understand that we are wrong?
(1) Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR): Coalition led by the Americans.
(2) It should also be noted the massive use by Daesh of rockets and mortars sometimes going to consumptions
100 ammunition a day.
(3) Released in 2016: shows the politico-legal ambiguities of a decision of an air strike.
(4) Battle Damage Assessment: estimate of enemy losses.
(5) Vincent Desportes: "Lessons today for the wars of tomorrow", Casoar n ° 231, p 19.
(6) The priority battle space
(7) Operations center covered with screens allowing a replica of the view provided by drones or airplanes. It is
from there that air strikes and artillery fire originate, hence its name Strike Cell.
(8) Vincent Desportes: "Lessons today for the wars of tomorrow", op. cit.