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With the new year 2017 knocking at the door of the Syrian war, there are many players in Bilad al-Sham: some are directly present with their forces on the ground, the others through their proxies with differing goals.
After five and a half years of war there are winners and there are losers.
Russia had been politically hibernating, unwilling to engage in the Middle East despite cries from the region for a balanced superpower situation, one that the US held for many decades, precisely since the Perestroika reform. The Libyan war was a good example of the lack of Russian political engagement, allowing a failed state situation to take place, and triggered by the international community whilst removing Moammar Ghaddafi without drawing up any plans to preserve stability in the country. This allowed jihadists to move in and create insurgency for many years throughout Libya and to-date.
Even when the “Arab Spring” (Tsunami really rather than Spring) blew over the Middle East and the war in Syria started, Russia was still hiding in its lair..
The re-awakening started only when a media campaign blew up in the face of Damascus, accusing the Syrian government of using chemical weapons against rebel-controlled areas soliciting a call for an international military action against Assad. The US administration prepared domestic and international opinion generally for a military intervention which would hit Damascus and change the regime, despite the complete lack of any alternative.
This is when Russia woke up, pushed by Iran. Iranian officials visited Moscow with a clear message: if Damascus is bombed, Israel will be next. Still, the Kremlin acted as a mediator, late 2013, and coordinated a way out, with Washington, to end this critical period for the Middle East by outlining a plan for Assad to cede control of its chemical arsenal. The US took the Iranian threat seriously and wanted to avoid a wider Middle Eastern war without any visibility of the possible devastating consequences. Russia however remained shy about its involvement in Syria until, again, Iran pushed for a direct intervention to save the Syrian government in April 2015. This is when Russia saw the opportunity and was ready to jump.
Russia sent its forces to Syria, enlarged its naval base in Tartus, took hold of a military airport in Hamymeen, signed a 50 year contract with Damascus for its long term free base with a wide window on the Mediterranean, trained its pilots and special forces on real war scenarios.
So doing it increased by additionall $10bn its armament sales and it imposed itself on the Middle Eastern and International arena: it showed the world its capacity to exclude and marginalise the US and Europe from the peace process (previously Washington’s exclusive arena for decades): it managed to create a breach between an important NATO member (Turkey) and the US. It achieved all that and more through the Syrian gateway, where Russia became the dominant international player.
The cost for Moscow in human lives was, to-date, less than 30 officers and soldiers, and a few dozen private military contractors. Russia used up its MOD budget allocated for training in Syria but exceeded the original financial commitment, a “deficit” largely covered by the sale of weapons and the live trials of dozens of new weapons in Syria in full view of the world.
The Islamic Republic of Iran enjoyed excellent relationship with the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad until 2011 when the war started. Assad was part of the “axis of the resistance” who supported Iran on the international arena, supported the Palestinian cause and groups (Hamas, the Islamic Jihad, Popular Front-General command…) against Israel and allowed Tehran to send weapons via Damascus into Lebanon to supply the Iranian proxy: Hezbollah.
Over the five and a half years of war, Iran has spent over $25bn in Syria to support the Syrian government and people by supplying Damascus with financial aid to pay salaries, build roads, reconstruct parts of destroyed cities, offer medical support to hospitals, sending oil and hundreds of advisors to prevent Assad from falling. Iran sent thousands of Iraqis, Afghan and Pakistani to fight, hold the ground or carry out offensives to recover land from jihadists and rebels. The Iran Air Force supplied many embattled Syrian cities. Many pilots were present in Syria offering support to their Syrian counterparts. Iran invested in the reconstruction of the Syrian armament industry to meet the significant missile and rocket demands during the five and a half years of war.
Politically, Iran was behind the Russian involvement in Syria by explaining the critical situation it was in in April 2015 when Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Brigade, visited Moscow for that purpose . A year later, Tehran reopened its gates to the Turkish President RecepTayyib Erdogan to repair the catastrophic relationship with Russia following the downing of the Sukhoi-24 late in 2015. Moreover, Iran exerted serious pressure on Turkey to join the peace process and brought it to Moscow to start a ceasefire excluding the US administration and Europe, to the delight of Russia.
All the above represent serious investment, diplomatic efforts and huge financial and human losses (Iranian advisors and their proxies) for Tehran to regain the position it used to enjoy with Damascus and with President Assad prior 2011.
Prior to 2011 Hezbollah enjoyed full support from President Assad. In fact, Assad visited Hezbollah positions in the south of Lebanon, and established robust relationships with its leadership before his mandate as President. He helped removed key intelligence officers in Lebanon (Brigadier General Ghazi Kanaan and his team) and the vice President (Abdel Halim Khaddam) so as to favour Hezbollah’s position and relationship.
Between 2003 and 2006, Assad was under serious regional and international pressure to give up on supporting Hezbollah and cut the supply road between Iran and Lebanon that used to flow via Damascus. He resisted this pressure and, when the occasion presented itself, supplied Hezbollah with the most advanced anti-missile tanks, a crucial weapon and a major contribution changing the course of the second Israeli-War in 2006. Furthermore, he supplied Hezbollah, under the full control of the Israeli Air Force during the 30 days war in 2006, with a new version of al-Fateh missiles offering his M-600 long range and most accurate and destructive missiles to Hezbollah, waved in the face of Israel through its Secretary General Sayed Hasan Nasrallah’s famous sentence: “We shall hit Haifa and targets much beyond Haifa if Beirut is targeted”.
Syria was also Hezbollah’s favourite nearby backyard where commanders and top ranking officials considered the country as a breathing space with a friendly entourage: Syria was Hezbollah’s Switzerland.
In 2012, Hezbollah intervened in Syria to protect the holy shrines around Damascus. Assad rejected any support in the first year of the war. It was not until 2013 that Hezbollah became fully engaged, with tens of thousands of militants distributed all over the Syrian geography to secure the borders and the major Syrian cities.
Due to the vast engagement in a huge geographic area like Syria (Lebanon is 10.500 km2 while Syria is 180.000 km2), the number of Hezbollah fighters seriously increased to the point where Nusrallah told commanders (in a private meeting) to be ready because “there will be a martyr in every single house to stop jihadists in Syria and prevent these from moving the fight to Lebanon”. Commanders enrolled their own sons into training programs and these were sent to fight in Syria.
Hezbollah used to run battles (against Israel) at the level of battalions or units. Today, it is fighting at the level of division, with different branches harmonised: the artillery, armoured divisions, infantry, developing and modifying weaponry, armed drones and the coordination of air strikes with the troops’ advance.
Hezbollah used to attack Israeli positions in the south of Lebanon or military patrols on the borders. During the last years of war in Syria, Hezbollah attacked cities, strategic mountains, fought in the desert, in open fields, and engaged in dense urban warfare in all weather Lebanese organisation used to fight in small zones, today it is fighting an operational theatre on multiple zones and fronts, imposing challenges on its planning command and troops support by every means possible.
The military engagement on several fronts turned Hezbollah from a guerrilla group to a non-regular organised army with tens of thousands of men and a huge infrastructure in Syria. It was therefore no longer possible for Hezbollah to return to Lebanon and leave Syria permanently, but it improvised new bases, mainly along the Syrian-Lebanese borders, both away from and within residential areas. The Syrian mountains offer an adequate hideout for Hezbollah’s strategic long-range missiles, causing a real threat to Israel.
But Hezbollah has lost around 1.600 militants (including top ranking field commanders and a member of the Jihadi council, the highest level among decision makers) and more than 7.000 wounded to stop cities and strategic positions from falling to the Jihadists and rebels. It took, to-date, four years of war with full engagement to regain the position Hezbollah enjoyed in 2011 and to keep Syria as a friendly country and passage for its weapon supply and continuous existence in Lebanon.
What was allowed for Hezbollah in Syria prior to 2011 is still allowed in 2017. Moreover, Hezbollah enjoyed a wide support among Sunni, even Salafi radicals, following its second war with Israel in 2006. Due to its decisive military role in Syria, Hezbollah has lost considerable support among these to the point that countries of the region now feel comfortable in labelling it a “terrorist organisation”.
When the leader of “Islamic State in Iraq” (ISI) Abu Baker al-Baghdadi sent a group of commanders led by Abu Mohamad al-Joulani in May-June 2011 to establish a base in Syria, he was unaware that this move would cost him dearly and will lead later on to a serious split among the jihadists.
From 2011 to 2013, Joulani managed to build a robust reputation among Syrian rebels, leading attacks with suicide bombers and effective planning under the name of his organisation, Jabhat al-Nusra. This “success” alarmed Baghdadi (informed about Joulani’s intention to “play solo”): in April 2013, the leader of ISI declared the merger between ISIS and Nusra creating the “Islamic State in Iraq and Sham” (ISIS/ISIL). To protect his achievement and save his neck, Joulani announced the split from ISI and self-declared his organisation as part of al-Qaida, without even consulting Ayaman al-Zawaheri, AQ Central Emir. To his delight, Zawaheri adopted Joulani: it was a mutual convenience opportunity for both men. Al-Qaida (AQ) was growing bigger than ever with a strong presence in the heart of the Middle Eastern events.
Throughout the years, AQ in Syria became bigger, stronger, richer and formidably equipped with weapons. It has developed remote-controlled Vehicle with Improvised Explosive devices (VIEDs), used drones, tanks, US most advanced anti-Tank TOWs and managed to combine guerrilla and classical warfare. Today AQ in Syria counts over 10.000 militants and have managed to infiltrate the Syrian society in rural Aleppo and Idlib mainly.
Even if Nusra has rebranded to become JabhatFath al-Sham, militants are part of Qaidat al-Jihad, holding the same aims, ideology, creed and goal: establish an Islamic Emirate.
Regardless of what 2017 could bring to AQ in Syria, AQ central has managed to reboot itself following the death of Oussama Bin laden and many core leaders in Yemen and Syria. It will continue to represent a threat to the regimes and monarchies of the Middle East for a very long time to come.
In 2011, the SyrianPresident Bashar al- Assad was watching the “Arab Spring” effect all around him, confident it wouldn’t reach his country. He was unaware of the regional and international intentions to remove him. The “Islamic State in Iraq” (ISI) was also planning to create chaos in Bilad al-Sham, a perfect ambiance for its militants to proliferate.
Assad was badly advised by his entourage who discouraged him from implementing serious reforms in the first months to contain the “revolution”. No one, among the high ranking officials in Syria, believed that a plan to destabilise the country was already in operation regardless of any domestic reforms: thousands of jihadists travelled to Syria from all over the world and billions were spent to arm the “revolution”.
The world was watching how Jihadists were infiltrating the “revolution” and hijacking it. That didn’t create a problem or a reaction simply because Assad was due to fall in few months.
Throughout the years of war, Bilad al-Sham became the Mecca of all Jihadists, creating a real split in Syrian society and pushing it toward sectarianism.
Cities changed hands, hundreds of small groupings were formed, the inevitable infighting among rebels and jihadists was noticed, and defections of officers and soldiers of the Syrian Army weakened it. Syria is the second country, according to the United Nations, to host so many different nationalities on its soil with the difference that all these are armed and fighting each other. The number of victims among civilians, soldiers and militants is unknown but fluctuates between 300 and 400.000 and the number of wounded largely surpasses the million. The devastating economic destruction (infrastructure, agriculture, industry and commerce) is beyond $280bn. There are 5 million refugees outside the country and 6 million internally displaced people. Whoever will control Syria, it will be an almost impossible task to regain the state of affairs prior to 2011.
Who are the winners? Syria as a country and Syrians as a population are certainly not among the winners. Their country has been turned into a battleground for many different kinds of opposing forces.
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Key words: Turkey, Russia, Syria, Iran, U.S.
As the end of 2016 approaches, the Syrian war is coming close to its sixth year, leaving about half a million combatants and civilians killed, more than that number wounded, and millions of displaced people inside and outside the country. The infrastructure, housing and business damage exceeds 250 billion dollars. In addition Syria almost set off the third world war, between the United States of America and Russia.
The Syrian war spawned such terrorist organisations as the “Islamic State” (ISIS/Daesh) and the al-Qaeda franchise (Jabhat al-Nusra, aka Fatah al-Sham). Many rebel factions emerged and several small groups merged with other more powerful ones. Other rebel organisations were taken out of the Syrian arena despite the hundreds of millions of dollars invested in training and weapons in the hope of changing the Syrian regime.
From Syria, terrorism spread outside its borders striking Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and other countries in the region and much further afield, setting off serious alarm bells and increasing counter-terrorism budgets throughout the world.
Human beings in Syria faced humiliation and killing in the name of religion and doctrine. The mainstream media seriously contributed to fuelling sectarian strife by reporting news away from the field, quoting anti-government sectarian activists, and projecting the war in Syria as one between the Alawite minority and the Sunni majority. The war is far from being exclusively between religious belligerents. The majority of the Syrian Army is Sunni, fighting for the survival of the government infrastructure and unity of the country, against Jihadists whose creed rejects democracy, all non Muslim-Sunni, and non religious government. International media reputation was seriously damaged, losing credibility due to this poor and biased coverage of the Syrian war.
Players change as well as their role and the consequences of their input: Syria moved from certain partition to another more stable situation that will be more easily defined as the coming year, 2017, evolves.
The Turkish role:
This role was and still is the most influential in the Syrian war over jihadists and rebels. Turkey’s intervention was important and decisive for the fate of Syria politically and on the battlefield, forming different alliances where yesterday’s enemies are today now tolerated.
Turkey’s intervention in the Syrian war began five and a half years ago. The goal of the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was not limited to the removal of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power, but included the annexation of a “security belt” (safe zone) along the northern border. He went even further in his plans, preparing the ground to seize the city of Aleppo, a city that remained outside what was falsely called the “Syrian spring” for over a year after the beginning of the unrest in Syria. The city was enjoying the economic-political power it represented, the Sunni influence in Syria being represented in the cities of Aleppo and Damascus.
This Turkish intervention came with the impact of Western countries’ push to dislodge Assad, for various reasons: the US extended its influence through former President George W. Bush, following the invasion of Iraq. Syria was next on the list to produce a “new Middle East”; the Qatar gas project that was supposed to go through Syria into Europe with the aim of weakening the Russian economy, at present a major gas supplier to Europe; the role of Assad in the “axis of resistance” and his support for organisations Washington considers terrorist groups (Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad); Syria’s support for Iran standing in the way of an Arab – Israeli rapprochement. All of these influences were present behind the “Arab Spring,” putting Syria into a real “Arab tsunami” without apparently creating major benefits.
Since the first days of the war in Syria, Turkey has opened its borders to anyone who wanted to join the war. Many foreigners (European and non European) travelled to Syria, via Turkey, to join jihadist organisations, later known as the “Islamic state” (ISIS/Daesh) and the al-Qaeda franchise in Syria (Jabhat al-Nusra, aka Fateh al-Sham).These people travelled with the knowledge and, for the most part, the approval of Western countries (France, US, Britain …). Many of those same fighters returned later to their respective countries, representing a real threat to their societies, but above all to Turkey itself because fighters were also asked to establish themselves in that country to form a (radical) society. In fact, ISIS asked many of these foreign fighters to stop in Turkey and form a family and a society where they might be needed one day to serve “the Islamic nation”, establishing a nucleus for the future.
The “free world” predicted the fall of Assad in 3 months…6months…1 year… The situation became gloomy after that date. The fall of Assad was no longer predictable. In the first years of the war, the Syrian army resisted despite the large splits within its ranks, to become cornered in few cities in 2013. This is when Assad called on his allies for help. The French intelligence chief and his British intelligence counterpart both said “the map of the Middle East will never be the same again”. In the light of today, both clearly failed in the extent of their prediction, confirming that many politicians, intelligence officers, analysts and media also failed in their assessment because they were expressing wishful thinking rather than facts. This is exactly what happened to President Erdogan, who believed the partition of Syria was at hand.
Erdogan therefore allowed ISIS to spill over inside the country, permitting commercial exchanges, especially oil, and opening the arms supply road to the Jihadists of al-Qaeda as well. That was considered a temporary procedure because “Assad was supposed to step-down in few months”.
As time was going by and the Syrian government was still holding up, Turkey built strong alliances with Syrian groups like Ahrar al-Sham (15-20,000 fighters), Nur ad-DinZengi (3,000 fighters), Sultan Murad (2,000 fighters) and others who were (years later) recalled to form the ” Euphrates shield” and fight under direct Turkish forces’ command in Syria. These same groups established good relations with both the moderate and jihadist groups in Syria.
Turkey contributed effectively to the fall of the city of Kessab in rural Lattakia by allowing jihadists to use its territory to cross into Syria and to control the hills surrounding the north-west Syrian province. Moreover, Turkey played an essential role in arming and offering logistics and intelligence for jihadists and rebels to occupy the city of Idlib and Jisr al-Shoughour. Everything was going as Turkey planned until Assad called Iran and its allies for help.
Ankara has supported the control which the jihadists and the opposition exerted over large parts of Aleppo. It played an active role, enabling Iran to enter the battle line with its allies. The presence of Iran tipped the scales in favour of President Assad, but not enough to counter the continuous Turkish regional support, sustained by the United States and the countries of the region (Saudi Arabia and Qatar). Despite significant gains made in Damascus and Qalmoun and other areas, the regime and its allies decided to retreat within the major towns to protect the cities themselves.
Here Russia intervened to spoil the plans of everyone willing to divide Syria, and change the map of their projects and their wishes. It rebalanced the battlefield imposing the initial solution which required everyone to sit down at the negotiating table and recognize the role of al-Assad, who had been sidelined. But Turkey’s shooting down of the Sukhoi 24 in Novembre 2015 changed the whole Syrian game. The partition of Syria was no longer an option and Russia showed thatkeeping a balance among the various players was not its concern. The event marked a turning point in the history of the Syrian war: Russia deployed more forces, advanced anti-air missiles and threw its military weight in the battle field offering the possibility of a victory for President Assad.
A second turning point in the Syrian war took place when President Erdogan suffered a failed coup d’état. Intelligence support provided by Moscow through Iran contributed in warning the Turkish president in time for him to adopt security measures, counter the coup and remain alive. Erdogan implicitly accused the US of being behind the coup and turned his political energies towards Russia.
The Turkish – Russian – Iranian understanding over Syria isolated the present US administration and marginalised it (at least until the new US administration takes control). This consensus among the three countries has allowed the return of Aleppo to the control of the Syrian government. It has also prevented the partition of northern Syria and a large US sphere of influence among the Kurdish controlled area extending from al-Hasaka to Afrin.
Russia blessed the involvement of Turkey on the battlefield: Turkish forces and their allies took control of Jarablus, Dabiq and reached the gates of the city of al-Bab. This is when Russia stopped Erdogan again due to the lack of coordination of the presence of anti-government forces (Turkey proxies) facing the Syrian Army at the limits of Aleppo. This would be critical in the event of al-Bab falling to Ankara’s control. Turkish forces were bombed a few kilometres from al-Bab, sending a strong message and drawing the line of what would be the limit of deployment of forces. Again, Turkey understood the message and called for an immediate meeting with Russia and Iran to coordinate further steps.
An important meeting was held between the Foreign and Defence ministers of Russia, Iran and Turkey in Moscow to map out the strategy and distribute/co-ordinate tasks through to 2017 in Syria. This meeting excluded the US and Europe. The exit of militants from Aleppo and the advance of theTurkish troops (with their proxies under “the Euphrates Shield”) to al-Bab were the first visible results of the meeting.
The ISIS brutality of burning two captured Turkish soldiers in its custody removed President Erdogan’s option of going back to support the terrorist group. On the contrary, the elimination of this organisation has now become one of Turkey’s priorities. However, the harmony between Russia -Turkey – Iran, if continued at this rhythm, will not aim to destroy ISIS as a priority compared to the other jihadist groups operating within the collection of Syrian rebels.
Turkey has abandoned Aleppo and contributed to the defeat of the militants and jihadists. Despite Ankara’s long record of support to al-Qaeda (Nusra, aka Fatah al-Sham), the relationship can now no longer be the same. Indeed, Al-Qaeda has refused to bow to Erdogan on many occasions even though its military, security, medical and logistic support comes via the Syrian-Turkish borders.
Turkey announced that al-Qaeda in Syria (Jabhat al-Nusra) is on its list of terrorist groups. But this decision was never implemented: on the contrary, Ankara effectively contributed to the formation of “Jaish al-Fath” where al-Qaeda and Turkey’s allies (and other groups) were included under one umbrella.
However, al-Qaida stood up to Turkey when it announced its rejection of a safe zone on the borders “because it is not in the interests of the Jihad,” and pulled out its jihadists from the northern part of Syria, leaving Turkish allies to face ISIS on their own. But the straw that broke the camel’s back was when al-Qaida announced the prohibition of asking for Turkish Army support and therefore condemned any group participating in the “Euphrates Shield”.
The Turkish-backed factions will never accept a merger with al-Qaeda because in Syria this organisation is expected to be targeted in the coming months.
This was also clearly announced and approved by Turkey during the Moscow meeting with Russia and Iran.
Turkey now is one of the main players in the Syrian arena. Its forces are deployed on the battlefield to contribute to changing the rules of the game and the pattern of alliances. Ankara’s soldiers are in the Syrian quagmire (fighting ISIS in al-Bab to start with), losing more men in one week than Russia has lost in 18 months. President Erdogan can no longer pull out of his involvement to collect the result after the war. Therefore, a peaceful settlement will not include those jihadist groups unwilling to merge with more moderate (even Islamist) groups. In Syria, there can’t be a place for al-Qaeda foreign fighters, neither ISIS nor the ones unwilling to bow to a peace process to stop the war.
Therefore, serious differences and infighting are expected to arise between the various factions located at the northern city of Idlib in the process which should pave the way for a political settlement and spare Idlib a bloody theatre-style destructive climax similar to that which flattened the city of Aleppo.
So Turkey remains one of the most important players, aware that any alliance with the actual US administration (under Obama) over Syria will have an aborted outcome, whereas the alliance with Russia has allowed Ankara to remain in Syria. The Syrian President will have to negotiate with Ankara and take into consideration its interests, the day the Syrian war comes to an end.
Regional and international balance in the Levant (2): Russia’s role in the Syrian war and the tactical differences with Iran.
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Following the request of President Bashar al-Assad to his allies for an urgent intervention to prevent the fall of Damascus in March 2013, Iran and its proxies moved into Syria to restore some balance to the battlefield. But the flow of jihadists from many countries in the area and internationally, plus indiscriminate external military and financial support to all groups fighting the Syrian government: all this created a serious threat to several cities.
Among them was the province of Lattakia where millions of Syrian of all religions had found shelter away from the war. The city was hosting millions of displaced Syrians, also the Russian naval base in Tartus. The danger reached also Aleppo: Damascus and its allies were certain Aleppo was about to fall and were ready to accept the defeat and the loss of the second biggest Syrian city. The Syrian Army and its allies were about to pull out their forces from all rural areas and regroup around the main cities to defend and create a demarcation line: this was at the beginning of 2015. The partition of Syria was more than ever a real possibility, and the north of Syria was about to be invaded by Jihadists and their rebel allies. It was not possible to win this war with an unceasing flow of men and weapons from the north, east and south into Syria.
The Iranian leadership, after consultation with Damascus, decided in April 2015 to send the commander of the Quds Forces of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) QassemSoleimani to Moscow to explain to the Russian leadership the danger Syria, and above all Latakia and Aleppo were facing. Jihadists coming from Turkey to rural Latakia shelled the Russian naval base. The US administration’s plan to divide Syria was about to take effect and Iran and its allies were powerless to stop it. Iran would have to provide tens of thousands of its own troops, but that option, which seemed realistic at the time, was rejected due to the treaty between Saudi Arabia and Turkey which allowed them to move their own forces into Syria. This would have added another dimension to the war in Syria and opened the gates to a wider regional and even more destructive conflict. The Russian intervention was the only solution left.
Moscow was convinced: a few months later, in mid 2015, Russia sent its planes, refurbished the Hamemeen military airport (which became its air base) and the command centre, from where it would run its Syrian operation to re-create the lost balance among forces on the ground.
But the reasons behind Russia’s intervention were not, at the outset, to save the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but to stop the Syrian state from disintegration and prevent the US from threatening Moscow’s access to the Mediterranean. Syria also allowed the Russian President Vladimir Putin to reaffirm Moscow’s role in the Middle East, as a superpower and main player after a long absence. The challenge was worth attempting even in thisdifficult country called Syria where the US, the UK, France, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and Iran were all in the same theatre and on the same stage.
Russia decided to fully engage in Syria on condition that Iran would provide the ground forces, a move which would take advantage of the Russian air force intervention. Russia was not ready to involve troops because for fear of the Syrian quagmire, so it confined its ground force intervention to limited and specialised units. Iran asked the Lebanese Hezbollah to secure tens of thousands of fighters and brought from Iran and Iraq a total of 8,000 men. Iran’s stance was adamant: a battle against ISIS and al-Qaeda ideologists needs similar fighters on the other side to hold the ground in equal confrontation. The regular Syrian Amy was certainly not sustained by a similarly strong ideology and firm objectives to fight and hold the ground, given the disproportionate number of attacking forces in many battles across Syria.
But Russia’s views and objectives differed from those of Iran in Syria. Iran believed Assad in person was the key essential partner, and represented the guarantee needed for the “axis of resistance”. Tehran was convinced that any other Syrian President during a time of war would not be able to cope with so much pressure: multinational alliances were gathering against him in response to his partnership with Iran, Hezbollah and various Palestinian groups, and the countries of the region were directing a considerable flow of finances to the opponents of the Syrian government. Iran, moreover, strongly believed (and still believes) that the war in Syria must end with the total elimination of the “Islamic State” (ISIS/Daesh) and al-Qaeda (Nusra or Fatah al-Sham) together with all the other jihadist ideologists. These jihadists, if not eliminated, would certainly spill over into neighbouring countries on the Lebanese and Iraqi borders, representing a huge potential threat to Iran’s allies and, in consequence, to its own national security.
Russia engaged in the war in Syria, imposing its own priorities, to liberate the land considered the most crucial for its own benefit and its own national security.Tehran and Damascus on the other hand wished to widen the involvement on multiple fronts. The organisation of military operations here raises complex issues, because Russia maintains and seeks to continue a good politico-economic relationship with the many countries involved in the war, especially Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel.
Russia learned a lesson from Afghanistan, avoiding the involvement of large numbers of troops on the battlefield, limiting its presence to small artillery units, Special Forces, intelligence units, and commanding staff officers to support its air strikes. The Russian Ministry of Defence allocated the same budget usually spent on training domestically to be invested in Syria for its new pilots and officers to train on real objectives.
Contrary to the predictions of most western analysts and media expectations, Russia was able to establish, in the first six months of its intervention, the balance of forces needed to impose President al-Assad as a negotiator and as an essential part of the solution to end the war in Syria.
In March 2016, President Putin – despite the objection of all of his allies on the ground – announced the end of military operations and his willingness to negotiate a peace process, imposing his will over Syria and Iran. But he has not been able to impose his will on the West, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and these have certainly not yet said their last word.
Iran opposed Russia over the first cease-fire agreed between Moscow and Washington. Tehran believed the US was looking to gain time for the jihadists and rebels to re-organise themselves. The Americans have more experience than the Russians in stopping battles when they believe those they are supporting are losing. In fact, a few weeks later, while the US Foreign Secretary John Kerry failed to separate the US and its allied proxies from jihadists, these launched a massive attack, regaining in days what took Iran and its allies months to recover in the first battle of Aleppo.
Russia was focused, with concern, on the mainstream media which was largely directed against Moscow, even at the cost of turning a blind eye to jihadists like al-Qaida. Both Washington’s foreign policy and the international press tolerated those who had committed the biggest single and most destructive act of terrorism against the US (9/11). And even if Russia went along with the US, its aim was still not to liberate all of Syria as Iran and Assad wanted, but to reach a politically negotiated settlement with Assad as a partner, though not the only one.
The Russian offer was unsuitable for a game with so many players: the US wanted to halt the air force activity but avoid Assad and his allies victory; Qatar and Saudi Arabia wanted to remove Assad by diplomacy or military means as the Saudi Foreign Minister declared endlessly; Iran wanted to eliminate all jihadists to avoid seeing these back on tract again, which is exactly what happen with ISIS several years after its defeat in 2008 in Iraq; Assad wanted to fight, taking advantage of Russian air force and his allies ground forces supporting the Syrian Army.
Moscow ignored the allies’ wishes until new elements imposed themselves and pushed Russia to change its mind: the turkish downing of the Sukhoi 24. This changed Russia’s stance into an aggressive one towards Turkey and its proxies in Syria. At the same time, the US Foreign Secretary was unable to keep his promise (and the agreement) to separate jihadists from rebels : this wasdue to an internal power struggle with the Pentagon (as he himself declared).
It was obvious to Russia, to the great joy of Iran, that Washington was only buying time, even when the jihadists and their allies managed to break the siege of east Aleppo and recover important strategic hills in Homs.
Events effectively re-imposed Russian – Iranian harmony. Russia pushed its whole weight into the battlefield after the jihadists’ and rebels’ second battle of Aleppo, brought its fleet to the Mediterranean,enlarged its naval and air bases on the Syrian coast and decided to offer Aleppo, all of Aleppo, to Assad and disregard any call from Washington. In fact, Iran and Russia agreed to bring in Turkey because of its strong influence over many (– though not all) – of the jihadists and rebel groups operating in Syria.
Following thousands of Russian airstrikes, the Syrian government regained control over the second biggest city of Syria, the industrial capital, Aleppo, ending any dialogue between Moscow and the present US administration.
Again, Damascus, Iran and Russia disagreed on Aleppo: Moscow agreed to evacuate thousands of jihadists and rebels from the east of Aleppo, despite the objections of both allies to the agreement, which was offering free access to jihadists and rebels without any return. The two partners wanted to exchange all prisoners of war captured and detained in east Aleppo, and wanted the evacuation of a similar number of civilians from the two besieged cities of Fua and Kfarya in rural Idlib.
Russia wanted to put on one side the east Aleppo issue and conclude a deal as soon as possible. For Russia, regaining territory and a city like Aleppo was more important than engaging in an exchange of prisoners and civilians that might take weeks to achieve. Turkey offered to allow 1250 wounded to exit the two Shia cities to calm Russia’s partner, in exchange for 13,000 jihadists, rebels and their families. The deal was considered possible by Russia who managed to impose it on all partners. With the withdrawal of the last militants from east Aleppo, Damascus found the bodies of dozens of soldiers executed.
Today, Moscow is uninterested in dealing with the actual US administration in its last days of power. Nevertheless, Obama decided to embarrass his successor, President Donald Trump, by signing a decree to arm the Syrian rebels (those operating closely with al-Qaeda and other jihadists) with anti-aircraft missiles. The effect of such a decision won’t change the course of the war in Syria for as long as Turkey continues to work closely with Russia and Iran to distance the Islamists and rebels from the jihadists. Despite the fact that President Putin announced it was time to negotiate a cessation of hostilities over all the Syrian territory, his American counterpart is still engaged with the language of war. In fact, Obama’s policy is in line with Iran’s policy. Iran doesn’t consider the potential deal with jihadists to be achievable.
Tactically, there are differences of priority regarding the next step after Aleppo: today, Russia sees a military priority for ground troops to go to Palmyra to re-take it from ISIS whereas Iran considers that the battle should concentrate on enlarging the security perimeter around Aleppo from Rashideen-4 to abu-Duhur and Khan al-Asal up to the Idlib area, restoring Tel el-Eis and breaking the siege of the cities of Fua and Kefraya. The Syrian government believes the priority lies in liberating the whole Damascus area, Duma and the south of Damascus.
Russia could agree on multiple fronts as long as ground forces are available to benefit from its air bombing. Moscow always sees Syria from its own perspective, taking into consideration its allies’ views in many but not all cases. Moscow keeps in mind its relationship with the other important players in the Middle East, i.e. Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Syria is headed toward more battles but a peace deal is visible on the 2017 horizon. Sometimes diplomacy necessitates the language of guns and fire to impose peace on the participants. One thing is certain: the jihadists certainly will not be laying down their arms for the simple reason that this would blow away the essence of their ideology: they would have to choose to migrate to a country outside Syria.
Yet despite what Tehran and Damascus believe, there are already many rebels ready to be reconciled and lay down their arms. The last word over the future of Syria has not yet been said. The Middle Eastern policy of the forthcoming US president, Donald Trump, will be important in prolonging the war or pushing, along with Russia, towards the end of it. Whatever Trump’s decision, Moscow is headed towards consolidating itself in Bilad al-Sham to achieve the end of this war before it reaches the end of its seventh year: it won’t be practically possible to stop all belligerents before May-June 2017.
Regional and international balance in the Levant (1): Turkish shifts in the Syrian war Ar: http://alrai.li/wxv2plm