The Russian air force arrived in Syria two years ago this week to save President Bashar al-Assad and his army. They succeeded. The Syrian army held out, albeit at the cost of (then) 56,000 of its soldiers. “We’re not going to have another Afghanistan here,” the Russians told everyone they met in Damascus. But of course, soon they would have forward air observers on the ground to vector their Sukhois onto their targets, de-mining specialists to pull the forests of Isis bombs out of the soil, military police officers to oversee the passage of Islamist fighters out of Syria’s great western cities. And generals to advise – and, last week, to be killed – in Syria.
The death of Lieutenant General Valery Asapov in the suburbs of Deir Ezzor as he assisted Syrian commanders in their recapture of the city – surrounded by Isis for three years, its civilian population and at least 10,000 Syrian troops resupplied by helicopter – was given little attention in the Western media. The Kurdish assault on Raqqa, with a smattering of Arabs to smother the Kurdish face of the pseudo-“Syrian Democratic Forces” militia and with the help of American air attacks, took first place in the Western Middle East news agenda. But the Russian Defence Ministry took the death of their highest-ranking officer in Syria – along with two Russian colonels – very seriously indeed. They were right. General Asapov was commander of the Russian 5th army in the Far East Russian city of Ussiriysk, not far from Vladivostok.
And how did he die? According to the Russians, he was killed under shellfire from Isis forces outside Deir Ezzor, a remarkable piece of targeting – if, indeed, Isis were working on the trajectories – for a group which usually wastes artillery shells by the hundred in order to hit their enemies. Did they know that he was visiting this particular military position? And if so, who taught them to fire so accurately? Or was this a chance success for a defeated Islamist army?