Syria: Pro-Regime Rampage in the North

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

Wayne White

Wayne White is a former Deputy Director of the State Department's Middle East/South Asia Intelligence Office (INR/NESA). Earlier in the Foreign Service and later in the INR he served in Niger, Israel, Egypt, the Sinai and Iraq as an intelligence briefer to senior officials of many Middle East countries and as the State Department's representative to NATO Middle East Working Groups in Brussels. Now a Scholar with the Middle East Institute, Mr. White has written numerous articles, been cited in scores of publications, and made numerous TV and radio appearances.



  1. This article is utter nonsense to the extent it is: (1) retagging as moderate rebels the jihadists in the North (who for so long have held part of Aleppo hostage, and (2) is alleging that Russia has been the aggressor in Ukraine. C’mon get your facts straight. The moderates, to the extent they exist, are based primarily in the South, and the Assad government and Russians have been coordinating with them. As for Ukraine, I have been waiting for some time for the international lawyers to file a ‘j’accuse’ brief that will put the blame for violating the Helsinki Final Act and Budapest Memorandum on the responsible parties- namely the West.

    Re: Ashton Carter’s recent pronouncement, it is merely one more molotov cocktail in a propaganda war that has got the narrative wrong.

    Just as with the removal of Syria’s stock of chemical weapons, Putin is pulling our chestnuts out of the fire yet again from the arsonist mess we have created in the Middle East, and doing so at Russia’s expense So, we should welcome it, not mischaracterize and condemn it.

  2. I agree fully, and gratefully, with edding. White’s writing of the “Syrian regime” and treating Russia as if it were not a party requested by the sovereign Syrian government to assist in defending and protecting its territorial integrity is simply off the scale, smelling of neocon machinations. Viva Syria!

    I have thought that MEI is a valuable think tank/observer of the MidEast scene…must re-think that opinion….

  3. If this article is indicative of the advice which has driven US foreign policy in recent years, it is little wonder that US foreign policy has been so disastrous and ended up costing US tax payers a $19 Trillion debt – or an estimated $58,000 for every US man, woman and child.
    Mr White refers to so-called ‘moderate rebels’ and their so-called ‘moderate Western and moderate regional backers’. Really? Are you having some sort of laugh at our expense?
    There are no moderate rebels anywhere in Syria. They are all armed and dangerous killers.
    The so-called ‘moderate regional backers’ presumably includes Turkish neo-imperialists under Erdogan, leading elements of those oh-so-democratic members of the so-called “royal” Saud, Jordan, Qatar, Kuwait and Jordan families, as well as elements of other establishment-backed terrorist groups in Afghanistan, Pakistan, the US and their neo-traitor zionist fascist friends.
    Mr White: spout all this nonsense of yours all you like to uninformed and ill-educated senators and congressmen and women but don’t waste your time trying to retail this idiotic nonsense of yours to people who have more of an inkling and understanding than you will ever possess.

  4. Some of this is good news. Yes the `rampage’ is finally cutting off the supplies to extremist Rebels / ISIS from Turkey/Saudi Arabia so SAA/Russia now is rapidly winning – good. Not so good that Saudis & Turkey are massing and threatening to join the fight. Bluffing really, because SAA/Russia/Iran would clean their clocks too. One is very glad that the US has been supporting the Kurds, the only really good guys in the fight, because if US joins in also they will be shown to have totally betrayed everyone – the Sunnis in northern Iraq, the Kurds, and, of course are still 100% for dropping the only pluralistic UN sanctioned regime in the region – Assad’s Syria. You know Assad all along has personally been willing to step aside, but his government wants him, and he is supported by a very professional military, a good portion of which are Sunni. You guys (the West MSM) have it back-asswards. Compare how well USA has done versus ISIS. Why? Because the Sunnis of the north LIKE ISIS. Half of Hussein’s generals lead ISIS. Why? Do you recall `Shock and Awe’ when USA, without justification killed millions of Iraqis, most of Sunni army right off the bat. Jeez.

  5. bothandeach: things are not always what they appear to be.
    Some feel the US and Saudis have been original organisers and current supporters of ISIS.
    If that seems a stretch, ask yourself why it is that while the US was allegedly bombing ISIS they seemed to make very little impact upon ISIS yet since the Russians got involved they have been kicking ISIS all over the park. Why is that?
    Why is it that despite the alleged best efforts of the Iraqi leadership, the US and NATO-ally Turkey (if you will forgive the humour!) that ISIS have not only managed to survive their combined attacks but have actually been able to expand the territory they control. How is that?
    The truth is that the US, Saudis, Turks, zionists, Qataris, Kuwaitis and Jordanians all back ISIS.
    It is only Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and legitimate Syrian regime forces which truly oppose ISIS.
    I think we all agree Erdogan is determined to start World War Three for his imperial desires.

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