Putin Is Doing to Aleppo What He Did to Grozny: Flatten the Place
By Dr. Brian Glyn Williams / 12.15.2016
Professor of Islamic History
University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth
In case you didn’t get the memo, Russian fighter jets are back and operating in the skies above the Middle East in numbers not seen since Syria and Egypt’s Russian-built Mig 21s sparred with Israeli Air Force F-4 Phantoms over the Golan Heights and Sinai Peninsula during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Only this time around the Russian aircrafts’ pilots are following tactics found in a playbook that was perfected far to the north of the Middle Eastern killing deserts in the skies above the forested mountains on the northern flank of the Caucasus Mountains.
For all intents and purposes the battle for Aleppo has been won in recent days by the Syrian government forces and the Russian air force played a major role in this victory. If the barrage of media reports from Aleppo of bombed hospitals, casualty-filled morgues, declarations of “humanitarian corridors” out of government besieged neighborhoods (that turn out to be false advertising), heavy bombardments of towns by long range Russian tactical bombers, medium range ballistic missile strikes on civilian-packed neighborhoods, outrage and hand-wringing by Western human rights groups over war crimes, and strafing runs by deadly Hind attack helicopters and state-of–the-art Mig 29 Fulcrum fighter-bombers on communities uniformly described as “terrorists” sounds familiar, its because they are strikingly similar to the media reports of Putin’s brutal war on a small Caucasian people he proclaimed as his own. We have seen this airborne barbarity—that is so reminiscent of the sort indiscriminate bombing that inspired Pablo Picasso’s masterful condemnation of slaughter-by-airplane, “Guernica”—before in Vladimir Putin’s campaign to (in his own words) “clean out the shit house” of the tiny breakaway republic of Chechnya from 1999-2000.
A look back at the terror tactics employed by Putin’s air force in that airborne “counter-terrorism” campaign against an entire city—and the more insidious efforts by Kremlin spinmeisters to legitimize the callous slaughter of Chechen inhabitants of the Chechen capital, Grozny, in the name of prosecuting war against a population defined as “terrorists”—serves to vividly remind us that we’ve been down this road before. The rain of Russian laser-guided KAB—1500L “smart” bombs (and not so smart gravity bombs) on the ancient city Aleppo is, in many ways, simply a reprise of the street-by-street tactical obliteration of what was once the greatest city in the northern Caucasus. A city that became known at the turn of the century as the “Caucasian Hiroshima.”
Round One: The Russians Wipe Grozny off the Map in the Name of Killing “Terrorists”
In the fall of 1999 Russia was wracked by a series of unexplained bombings in Moscow and cities to the south that were reflexively blamed on the Chechens, a Sovietized Sufi Muslim highlander nation of less than a million that had overcome tremendous odds and defeated the mighty, transcontinental Russian Federation in a war for independence in 1996. At the time, Vladimir Putin, a relatively unknown FSB (the new KGB) officer who had been chosen by an ailing President Boris Yeltsin to be his prime minister, promised to punish the Chechens for this mysterious bombing spree that killed roughly 300 Russians in their apartment buildings. And that was how a European city came to be wiped off the map as effectively as Hiroshima, even as the rest of Europe entered the 21st century with grand visions of uniting to expand the E.U. and overcoming the divisive nationalism and militarism of the sort that had defined the previous century.
Before criminal investigations into the mysterious bombings (which would later exonerate the Chechens and officially place the blame for the bombing on an itinerant Saudi jihadist paladin named Emir Khattab—and unofficially on FSB operatives involved in a false flag operation designed to blame Chechens) even began, Putin ordered the Russian air force to immediately begin bombing Grozny the capital of independent Chechnya. The sick logic for the immediate dropping of bombs across a city packed with tens of thousands of innocent civilians seemed to be that this action would somehow avenge the dead Russians and somehow kill the guilty terrorist cell that had killed them. It was like using a sledgehammer to kill a suspected terrorist ant in an ant pile of tens of thousands innocent ants (only it turned out that the “terrorist ant” in this case, Emir Khattab, was not actually in the “ant pile” of Grozny after all as we shall see).
Regardless of the illogic of the premise or pretext for the war, thousands of Chechen civilians began to die in Grozny as their apartments were “rubbleized” in a ham-fisted, collective punishment response to the killing of three hundred Russians by unknown terrorists. It was an “eye for an eye” example of state sponsored terrorism to retaliate for an act of unexplained terrorism. You know, sort of like the launching of President Bush’s 2003 Shock and Awe invasion of Iraq, which made Baghdad burn … in order to punish the 19-man, non-Iraqi Al Qaeda “Hamburg Cell” that carried out the 9/11 attacks. Tens of thousands of civilians from the “Chechen terror nation” would ultimately die as payback for the mysterious fall 1999 bombings in Russia that the Russian prosecutors would later blame on non-Chechens.
The tactical destruction of the once beautiful city of Grozny by notoriously imprecise SS-1 ballistic Scud missiles (whose launch was picked up by the Americans at NORAD-North American Aerospace Defense Command), Buratino thermobaric and FAE-Fuel Air Explosive bombs (that ignite and burn the air being breathed by people hiding in basements), Tochka cluster munitions that drop bomblets over large areas, Uragan (Hurricane) multiple rocket launcher systems, T-90 “Vladimir” main battle tanks, armor plated Mil-24 Hind attack helicopters, and other horrific battlefield weapons that are banned by the Geneva Conventions from use against civilian-populated areas shocked and horrified world leaders.
In a typical attack by these weapons, that were triumphantly described as “third generation precision weapons” by Russia’s generals, a wave of massive “hypersonic” Scud missiles fired from the neighboring republic of North Ossetia (later home to Russian bombers that would bomb Aleppo) descended on a Grozny hospital and the city’s main outdoor market, as it was packed with shoppers, killing 137 people in a horrible instant in October 1999. Far from apologizing for this all too typical wanton murder of civilians, the Russian government subsequently described the targets of the wildly inaccurate missiles as “well known terrorist centers.” An eyewitness account of the slaughter described it differently in heartbreaking terms as follows “After the first hit, I saw a man who was sitting in a car. His head had been blown off, but his hands were still holding the wheel. Corpses were everywhere in the market. They were lying on the stalls.” Human rights activists and Western leaders were outraged by such bald lies as well as by Putin’s subsequent designation of anyone who refused to leave the besieged city in so-called “humanitarian corridors” (where Chechen fighting aged men were arrested en masse and on several occasions refugee columns were bombed) as “terrorists.”
But even as Grozny burned so brightly that it was visible from space (when Google Earth came out you could clearly see Grozny on fire and plumes of smoke drifting across Chechnya from its imagery) and Western leaders, including George W. Bush, condemned him, Putin’s popularity soared in Russia. The previously unknown, grim KGBnik rose on the hate-filled currents of anti-Chechenism, which were stoked across Russia (leading to thousands of Chechen arrests), and won the 2000 presidential election.
But the glow surrounding Putin’s inaugural celebrations was dimmed by the fact that a small band of several thousand stubborn, battle-hardened Chechen warriors armed with nothing more than RPG-7 Rocket Propelled Grenades, mines and assault rifles refused to surrender. The skilled Chechen guerillas were able to ambush and obliterate Russian tank and armored personnel carrier columns that probed into the center of the “urban forest” of Grozny’s shattered ruins. The city needed to be flattened by further bombardments to destroy the “terrorists” holed up in its center, the world was told. And so the uneven war between 80,000 Russian Federation troops besieging Grozny that was supported by an air armada raining bombs from above, and no more than 5,000 prickly Chechen “urban rats” ground on from September 1999 until the night of January 30th 2000. Remarkably, on that snowy night the Chechen rebels broke through ring after ring of Russian armor, artillery and land mine fields, and fought their way into the mist-covered mountains of the south where they scattered.
Meanwhile, in distant North America, Mohammad Atta’s “Hamburg Cell” later killed approximately 3,000 people on 9/11 and Bush launched the GWOT (Global War on Terror). The Kremlin’s spokesmen lost no time in conflating their secessionist enemies, a Sovietized mountain people who had been fighting Russia for independence on and off since their brutal conquest in 1861, with Bin Laden’s Afghanistan-based Arab Salafite-Takfiri-Wahhabi terrorist group. Sadly, the Bush administration unquestioningly bought into this Soviet-style dezinformatsiia (disinformation) narrative and the Americans came to define the Chechen mountaineers, who arguably knew the words of Marx better than Mohammad, as notorious henchmen of Al Qaeda.
In the end, Chechnya’s president, an ex-Soviet artillery officer named Aslan Mashkadov who had long called for peaceful relations with Russia and had fought to expel Islamic extremists like Emir Khattab (who for his part had tried grafting jihad onto the Chechens’ struggle for Baltic Republics-style independence), was hunted down by Russian forces and killed, as were most boyeviks (Chechen fighters). As for the globetrotting Saudi jihadi Emir Khattab, whose Kavkaz Complex camp was not even located in Grozny, but far to the southeast in the mountains near Dagestan, he was ironically enough killed with, get this, a poisoned letter sent from the FSB in March 2002. In case you missed the irony here, all that was needed to surgically kill “Russia’s Bin Laden,” the man blamed for the 1999 bombing spree in Russia, was a letter. Grozny’s destruction had nothing to do with counter-terrorism; it was done to punish the Chechens for their bold aspirations for independence.
Following the crushing of Chechen independence, in the name of killing Khattab’s terrorists, Putin was lauded as the hero who had saved Velikii Rus (Great Russia) from the Chechen terror menace. The body-filled rubble of Grozny was then bulldozed and a strongman named Ramazan Kadyrov was put in charge of war-blackened Chechnya, the estimated 300,000 civilians killed in the Russian-Chechen wars (according to deputy minister of the new Chechen administration) were buried, and Grozny (described by the U.N. as the “most destroyed city on earth”) was flushed down the memory hole for most non-Chechens. Putin and Kadyrov then had a skyscraper-studded, soulless “Potemkin Village” built on its ruins to demonstrate to the world that the whole enterprise had been a mission civilsatrice.
Round Two: The Russians Flatten Sunni-held Neighborhoods in Aleppo in the Name of Killing “Terrorists”
Flash forward to September 30, 2015. Putin surprises the world by intervening in the Syrian civil war that pitted another dictator, this time President Bashar Assad, against another group of rebels. On this occasion, the eclectic array of rebel groups representing Syria’s Sunni majority population was again described in broad-brush strokes by the Kremlin’s spinmeisters as “terrorists.” Which meant they had to “surgically” bombed of course. Once again the mighty Russian air armada began dropping bombs on civilian-packed neighborhoods to “rubbleize” them in order to defeat terrorists said to be hiding in them. This time it round it was eastern Aleppo and its Sunni habitants who were being sacrificed on the altar of Putin’s ambitions.
Today, Russian news is once again filled with coverage of a glorious war against “terrorists” in what has been described on this occasion as Operation Vozmezdie (Retribution). The Russian accounts of the high altitude bombardments of eastern Aleppo by Tu-22M3 Backfire, Tu-160 Blackjack, and Tu-95MS Bear strategic bombers flying from North Ossetia are breathtaking in their claims that bombs dropped from two thousand feet onto civilian-packed neighborhoods below can somehow distinguish between civilians and terrorists. A typical account recently appeared on the Russian Ministry of Defense website (which was parroted by an unquestioning Russian media) and proudly proclaimed:
“During a massive airstrike today, 14 important ISIL [ISIS] targets were destroyed by 34 air-launched cruise missiles. The targets destroyed include command posts that were used to coordinate ISIL activities in the provinces of Idlib and Aleppo, munition and supply depots in the northwestern part of Syria.”
Of course ISIS’s strongholds lie far to the southeast of the northwestern town of Aleppo in the central Syrian desert, so Kremlin claims that the Russian Air Force is targeting the notorious terrorists’ “command posts” said to be hidden in that city are nothing more than Soviet style agitprop (agitation propaganda). For the meantime though, the world seems to be rejecting this attempt by Putin to conflate rebels with international terrorists, unlike his previous success with the Chechens. But that may change if Putin’s ongoing “bromance” with Trump bears fruit. Should Trump turn a blind eye to Putin’s recently stepped up bombing campaign in eastern Aleppo and should the beleaguered Sunni rebels be crushed, then perhaps the Russian government can pour money into city to have it rebuilt. It could become another skyscraper-studded proof of Putin’s positive role in the world as a “counter-terrorist civilizer,” it could become a Middle Eastern Grozny if you will.
But that is in the potential future. For now, as Aleppo burns under a rain of Kalibr cruise missiles and bombs dropped from planes flying from the decks of the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier, Putin has shown as little remorse as he did over the tactical “rubbleization” of Grozny. A recent BBC report captured his casual wave-of-the-hand ease with such morally vexing issues as state sponsored lying and terrorism as follows:
“Mr Putin told France’s TF1 TV channel that Russia would pursue ‘terrorists’ even if they hid among civilians. ‘We can’t allow terrorists to use people as human shields and blackmail the entire world,’ he said, adding that civilian deaths were the ‘sad reality of war.’ ”
What Putin failed to mention is another sad reality of war, that truth is its first casualty. One hopes that the horror-filled eyes of Omran Daqneesh, the small, bloodied boy who became the face of the tactical bombing of Aleppo when he was photographed this August after his apartment had been “rubbleized” on top of him by bombs, puts a lie to the Russian leader’s claims to be bombing “terrorists” this time around.