by Wayne White
A Middle East Institute (MEI) study on Russia’s aims in Syria (much of which I wrote) predicted on November 10 what the Russo-Syrian-Iranian forces are doing right now: seeking to overrun most rebel holdings in the northernmost part of Syria. If this offensive succeeds, it would pose the greatest threat yet to Syria’s moderate rebels across the north. It could be a game-changer, leaving the rebels (and their Western and moderate regional backers) in a poor position to demand concessions in future talks.
Under a curtain of Russian air strikes, regime ground forces have been driving rebels from a swath of positions around and north of what is left of Syria’s once largest city Aleppo and elsewhere in Aleppo and Idlib Governorates. Pro-regime troops consist of Syrian Army regulars, thousands of Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, Iraqi Shi’a militiamen, and Russian advisors as well as Iranian advisors and combatants. Russia’s heavy-handed airstrikes (inflicting far more civilian casualties than the coalition’s) and the regime’s advances have driven over 100,000 more refugees to the Turkish border.
Syrian regime and Hezbollah combatants, like the rebels, have long been war-weary. Yet, against mostly lightly armed moderate rebels dogged by chronic shortages of ammunition, the forces aligned with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were still formidable even when losing ground before Russia intervened in late 2015. Since then, regime forces have regrouped, are more heavily armed, and have been reinforced by Russian and Iranian advisors (along with Iranian proxy combatants). Moreover, Russian drone reconnaissance has made regime artillery far more accurate. So, early this year, their bolstered capabilities, coupled with vastly improved air support, finally began to reverse the ground game in their favor.
Worse still for the rebels, stemming the regime tide seems nearly impossible. Only considerable attrition among pro-regime ground forces in combat with the rebels could force their advances to slow or grind to a halt. This may happen at some point (as noted in the MEI study). However, if the Russians keep up the pace of air strikes (510 last week, says Moscow), such high attrition rates on the ground are unlikely to occur since many regime advances consist of occupying areas already blasted free of many rebels by Russian airstrikes. Indeed, not surprisingly, rebels in the Aleppo area say they are “simply being slaughtered” by the sheer weight of this firepower.
Meanwhile, Syrian Kurdish “People’s Defense Units” (or YPG) recently have drifted closer to Moscow. The YPG, so effective against the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and therefore backed by the US, long maintained links to Damascus and could shift its alignment back to the regime if the military situation continues to tilt in favor of the regime in the north. In this context, the Russian delivery of arms to YPG fighters in one area north of Aleppo and Russian air support helping the YPG take an airbase near the Turkish border are ominous signs.
With this adverse situation on the ground as a backdrop, “peace talks” in Munich consisted of mainly US and Western pleas for the Russians to call a halt to hostilities to prevent further rebel losses, ease the miserable plight of refugees trying to flee across a veritable battlefield, and allow humanitarian relief to reach encircled rebel-held areas. The result is of dubious value.
On February 12, Moscow agreed to a “cessation of hostilities” on the ground (but not to begin for another week and not signed by the Syrians). Also, Russia was permitted to continue its air strikes so long as they are directed at IS and the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front. The Russians were given information on the positions of forces associated with both. Roughly 17 encircled areas (most held by rebels) have been designated for humanitarian relief.
In the air and on the ground, Russo-Syrian forces will now press hard to make additional gains this week, especially north of Aleppo toward the Turkish border in order to cut off the northern rebels from overland resupply. Also, since some moderate rebel combatants fight alongside al-Nusra against both regime and IS forces, even after the halt to most fighting the Russians will likely make an effort to knock out rebel forces anywhere near al-Nusra. Moreover, in an interview released on February 12, Assad declared ominously: “…if we negotiate, it does not mean that we stop fighting terrorism. The two tracks are inevitable in Syria.” Terrorism is standard Syrian code for all anti-government forces. Wary of claims that meaningful humanitarian resupply will be permitted to take place, relief organizations were rushing supplies into the Aleppo area by the one circuitous route still open as of February 13.
It seems astonishing, given Moscow’s confrontational posture elsewhere in the world such as Ukraine, that when Russia dove into the Syrian maelstrom last year Secretary Kerry thought it was a possible “opportunity” to join forces against IS. President Obama was more guarded in this comments. Probably still clinging to the hope that Russia would sign on to the US-led campaign against IS, Kerry declared in Moscow in December that the US and its coalition were “not seeking so-called regime change” in Syria (a major concession to Assad and his foreign allies). Yet, even after IS downed a Russian airliner over the Sinai in October 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin only diverted air strikes against IS for less than a week before returning his focus to mainly US- and Western-backed rebel targets.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s comment on February 12 that Russia is “way off track in Syria…throwing gasoline on an already dangerous fire” most likely will remain true for the foreseeable future. Putin seems determined, over time, to render as many rebels as possible west of IS unable to threaten the regime and to restore as much regime control as possible to what is known as “useful Syria” (the heavily populated and relatively well-watered western third of the country). Although in Munich all parties were asked “to contribute to an immediate reduction in violence”—even before the cessation in hostilities takes effect—the tempo of Russian air strikes has not fallen off substantially. Russian bombing reportedly destroyed two hospitals this week.
Ceasefires and humanitarian relief extended to rebels and rebel-held areas are likely to remain limited. They may temporarily polish the tarnished images of Putin and Assad as well as tempt rebels to quit the fight. But as Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said on February 13: “We have slid back into a new Cold War.” Kerry, speaking of Syria and Ukraine, accused Russia of “repeated aggression.” The phone chat initiated by President Barack Obama with Putin over the weekend aside, Medvedev’s comments best capture Russian attitudes—and resultant misbehavior—that make trust in future Russian agreements like Munich misplaced.
Photo: Aleppo street scene