A few days ago, someone brought up Fisk’s recent article in the Independent, “After warnings of mass murder and catastrophe in Idlib, I prowled the front lines for two days. I didn’t find what I’d expected.” Fisk took a whirlwind tour of the SAA front lines surrounding Idlib in a Syrian taxi. The gist of his investigation is that he found no evidence of the massing SAA troops, tanks and artillery reported to be prepared to assault Idlib.
Fisk may be an experienced and accomplished war correspondent, but he apparently understands little about concealment, camouflage and dispersion. These are not just field techniques. These are critical skills necessary for surviving on the modern battlefield and achieving the element of surprise, a principle of war espoused by the US and most other militaries in the world. For the Russians and their allies, the SAA, these techniques are included in doctrine of maskirovka. I found this definition of maskirovka in a 1987 paper written at the Army Command and General Staff College by an Corps of Engineers major. I think it captures the essence of these techniques and their importance to surviving and achieving the element of surprise
“a form of security for the combat actions and daily activity of the forces; a complex of measures, directed at deceiving the enemy relative to the presence and location of forces, various combat objectives, their status, battle readiness and action, and also the plans of the command.”
Since my time as a cadet and junior officer, the maxim that if you can be seen, you can be killed was drilled into my head. To avoid being seen and killed, we practiced the arts of camouflage, concealment and dispersion. So did soldiers in every other army I know. We had no problem hiding a light infantry battalion in mountain jungle (not hard). We could also hide that infantry battalion on a barren lava field (a little harder). I have absolutely no doubt that the SAA is practicing the same skills as they mass for the coming Idlib offensive. They are using every minute fold in the terrain to hide their troops, tanks, artillery and supplies. They are well camouflaged. They are maintaining light, noise and movement discipline. They are well dispersed so the jihadis cannot discover the SAA’s immediate tactical objectives.
I am not at all surprised that Fisk did not find the SAA. The SAA is hiding from jihadi reconnaissance patrols, spies and drones, as well as Turkish and Coalition efforts to locate the massing forces. A well trained and disciplined army surely can evade a reconnaissance from the front seat of a taxi by a journalist. To Fisk's credit, he did admit that just because his cursory tour didn't reveal the SAA massing for an offensive, it did not mean that the SAA wasn't there. I find it telling that Fisk did not encounter any military convoys along his route from Hama to the Abu Dhuhour Military Airfield. That indicates that the formations and supplies for the coming offensive are in place. They are just waiting for the order to strike.