On November 14, the International Syria Support Group, a gathering of nations meeting in Vienna, decided to work for Syrian-Syrian negotiations as early as possible, with a target date of January 1, 2016. This was largely the result of intense Russian-American discussions, following Moscow’s September 30 military intervention.
Russian President Vladimir Putin can thus be credited with having helped to reinvigorate the long-frozen Syrian peace process, but he has also exposed his country—and Syria—to great risks if the Vienna process fails to yield progress. As noted in a recent report by the European Council on Foreign Relations, Western nations that struggle with Russia in Ukraine are greatly tempted to entice Putin deeper into the Syrian quagmire, but for now, appear willing to let the Vienna track run its course:
“While some in the US, Europe, and the region want to make Moscow hurt in Syria, both Western and regional actors have been keen to explore the extent to which increased Russian skin in the game could be a useful tool to achieve political transition goals vis-à-vis Assad that have been elusive on the battlefield.”
The sad reality, however, is that the Vienna process is unlikely to yield results—and if it does, it will be because of a shifting balance of power inside Syria. In this case, politics is war by other means, and while the Vienna process is worth following, it is more important to look at the military effects of the Russian intervention.
Since the onset of the Russian intervention two months ago, has Vladimir Putin managed to turn the tide in Syria?
Assad’s and Putin’s Target Areas
In the week before the first Russian strikes, we identified three areas that seemed to be of particular strategic importance to the government of President Bashar al-Assad, while also politically relevant for Putin.
- Aleppo and the surrounding areas, particularly the government’s frail desert supply route to Hama in central Syria.
- The northwest tri-governorate area, where Islamist rebels had just advanced from the Idlib Governorate toward Alawite-populated areas of the Hama and Latakia regions.
- The desert east of Homs, where the self-proclaimed Islamic State had captured Palmyra and stood poised to advance further west, threatening critical government supply routes and energy infrastructure.
Two months later, we have seen Russian airstrikes across much of Syria, but the accompanying ground campaign has indeed focused on these three areas, albeit not exactly in the way orthe order anticipated.
Assad Expands South of Aleppo
It took more than a week for Assad to fully secure and clear the Aleppo–Hama supply route after a sudden Islamic State attack on October 23, but the Aleppo garrison never seemed to be in real danger. Instead, Assad has focused his attention on the area just south of Aleppo City where government loyalists launched a two-pronged offensive in October.
One column set off to the east, into Islamic State-controlled territory, to relieve the besieged defenders of the Kweiris Airbase. This was accomplished on November 10. Since then, the army has used the airbase as a staging ground for attacks against Islamic State communications with Raqqa, seeking to move onwards to Deir Hafer and beyond.
Another group of fighters went in the other direction, pushing through the rebel-held countryside toward the Idlib Governorate. On November 12, they captured al-Hader, a local center that has helped anchor the government’s territorial advance. Soon after, a rebel counter-offensive blunted further progress toward the M5 highway, but failed to significantly roll back the pro-Assad forces.
The goal of this western leg of the Aleppo offensive remains unclear. Shia Islamist foreign fighters backed by the Iranian government appear to make up a significant part of the pro-Assad force around al-Hader. Among them, many seem to view the offensive as a Kweiris-style attempt to save the besieged Shia enclave around Fouaa, northeast of Idlib City. However, Fouaa and Kefraya are much further away than Kweiris and the area is of significant strategic value to the rebels. While a pro-Assad expeditionary unit might be able to reach the towns, it would be at risk of being cut off from government lines.
Relieving the besieged Shia towns may well be a goal for the future. But one suspects that Fouaa and Kefraya are also invoked to fire up the foreign Shia Islamists for a mission that is primarily about cutting the M5 and placing pressure from the east on the insurgents in Idlib, who are also being attacked from Hama in the south and Latakia in the west.
Poor Performance on the Hama Front
Some of the very first Russian airstrikes took place in northwestern Syria. They put a stop to the rebel campaign nibbling away at core government territory, but the pro-Assad counteroffensive soon flagged. Some attributed this to government forces being overstretched by the clearing operations along the Hama-Aleppo supply route, but even so, it demonstrated weakness.
In early November, a Sunni rebel force spearheaded by jihadi foreign fighters took Morek, a town that has changed hands several times during the war. This put an end to any debate over which way the battle was headed. Both sides have sacrificed a great deal to keep Morek and losing the town was clearly an embarrassing setback for the government. For the Russians, who went into Syria counting on Assad’s army to be able to exploit their aerial support, this must have been a very worrisome development.
On the other hand, Assad has also seen some good news come out of northwestern Syria. Since early October, his forces have edged forward on the western side of the Ghab Plain and in the northern ranges of the Alawite Mountains. There, the Sunni stronghold of Salma remains in rebel hands, but the Syrian army is blasting away at insurgents in the surrounding highlands. It was in this area that a Russian Su-24 jet crashed after being shot down by the Turkish Air Force on November 24. Putin called the incident a “treacherous war crime” and has vowed that Turkey will regret it “more than once.”
Cleanup Operations Around Homs; Palmyra Next?
Airstrikes also took place in the Homs region on September 30, the first day of the Russian intervention. But the focus was not on the eastern deserts, where the Islamic State captured Palmyra in May. Instead, the government has sought to shut down the two main remaining rebel enclaves near Homs City, which was itself cleared of anti-government holdouts in spring 2014.
Backed by the Russian Air Force, Assad quickly deployed his army and local Alawite militias against semi-isolated rebels in the area stretching from Houla to Rastan and Telbiseh, just north of Homs. There has not been any significant progress in this area, but Assad achieved another important goal on December 2, when a ceasefire agreement was announced in Waer, a large Sunni suburb west of Homs City. The rebels in Waer have been under siege for two years, but around 200 or 300 of them have now accepted to leave the suburb in return for food and humanitarian aid being sent in to their families. While more rebels remain behind, Waer appears to be well on its way to pulling out of the war.
Meanwhile, however, the Islamic State captured Mahein, an oasis town uncomfortably close to the Damascus-Homs road. This was in early November and it took a couple of weeks before the government launched a proper counteroffensive. Mhein was retaken on November 23 and government forces then began eyeing Qaryatein, the next major stop on the road to the east, which was captured by the Islamic State in August. The army also began to put pressure on Palmyra, skirmishing with Islamic State forces in the hills and deserts to the city’s west and south, as well as near the Shaer gas field northwest of Palmyra.
In the last days of November, al-Rai reported that Russia is about to send significant reinforcements to Syria and that it will station jets and helicopters at the Shaayrat Airport. The airport, which is located southeast of Homs City, is now reportedly being upgraded and reinforced to house the Russian expeditionary force. If this presages an intensified offensive east of Homs, it seems quite possible that the jihadis will lose the desert city less than a year after its capture. It would be the Islamic State’s worst defeat in Syria since the Kurds recovered Kobane and a tangible success for the governments in Moscow and Damascus.
In addition to the three primary ground offensives in Aleppo, the Hama-Idlib-Latakia region, and Homs, there have been scattered Russian strikes against various Sunni rebels and (to a lesser extent) Islamic State loyalists in other areas of the country. Two developments, where the Russian role has been low-key and somewhat unclear, deserve special mention.
Seeking a Ceasefire in the Eastern Ghouta?
The first is the reported Russian attempt to broker a ceasefire in the Eastern Ghouta region, which is ruled by the Islam Army, a powerful Islamist group with Saudi sponsorship. This would have been a major breakthrough, but although a deal appears to have been close, it fell victim to renewed fighting and was followed by intensive air raids by the Syrian Arab Air Force.
Some commentators claim that the al-Qaeda aligned Nusra Front, which fears a negotiated resolution to the conflict, deliberately scuttled the deal. Others attribute the breaking of the ceasefire to the government itself.
It may seem like a pointless debate, particularly since it is almost impossible for outsiders to tell what really happened. But going ahead, much will depend on whether Russia can restrain its allies and deliver the acquiescence of Assad, Iran, and Hezbollah to their ceasefire proposals. If Moscow fails to do so, its influence will diminish sharply.
Of course, the same goes for the Gulf, Western, and Turkish-backed rebels. Foreign powers seem to accept the fact that their clients mingle with radical jihadis on the battlefield, as long as they are a little discreet about it—but the true test comes when these rebels are asked to forcibly ensure the compliance of their extremist allies-cum-rivals with an internationally sponsored deal.
Backing the Kurds North of Aleppo?
The other major event of significance to Russia’s intervention is the renewed clashes north of Aleppo, on the eastern edges of the Kurdish-controlled Efrin enclave.
Efrin is an incredibly strategic area, since it forms the western border of the Azaz corridor, a sliver of territory between 5 and 15 km wide that serves as rebel-held Aleppo’s lifeline into Turkey. On the eastern side of the corridor, rebels struggle to contain the Islamic State, while Assad and pro-Iranian Shia fighters hold territory to the south. What happens in the Azaz corridor may determine who will win Aleppo, and thus the war.
As for Efrin, it is controlled by the Kurdish Popular Protection Units, or YPG, which is a front for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. It is a rare beast on the Syrian battlefield: the YPG has become the Pentagon’s main client in Syria, but politically speaking it is much more in tune with the Russians, while also maintaining decent ties to the Assad government. Conversely, the YPG is loathed by mainstream Sunni rebels, al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and most of all by the PKK’s old foe, Turkey.
How the Efrin-Azaz fighting began remains a matter of dispute, but Turkish and pro-rebel media is abuzz with rumors about Russian support for the YPG. The Kurds prefer to instead portray the fighting as an internal Arab dispute between its own local allies and rival rebel groups.
These other groups are portrayed by the YPG as inveterate jihadis and even Islamic State members, while in reality, some are the former, but none the latter. They include al-Qaeda loyalists, but also Western, Gulf, and Turkish-backed rebels of a more pragmatic Islamist stripe. Since the Turkish downing of the Russian Su-24 in late November, they are however being pummeled by the Russian Air Force. This has benefited the YPG and its few Arab allies in Efrin, even though it is unclear to what extent the Kurds and the Russians actively coordinate their efforts
By intent or not, the reignited clashes on the Efrin front have locked the Sunni Arab rebels of Aleppo and the Azaz corridor into a three-front battle against the Kurds, the Islamic State, and the Assad government. Some of their forces have been diverted from the rebels’ critically important eastern frontline near Marea, potentially allowing the Islamic State to push forth into the Azaz area from the east. While the Russians, the Kurds, and Assad may all see some benefit in this, an Islamic State advance into the Azaz corridor would be a major threat to American and Turkish interests.
Blanket Border Bombings Threaten Civilians
Russian bombings in the Aleppo area and along the Turkish border more generally appear to have increased significantly since Turkey’s downing of the Russian Air Force Su-24 in November. The border region had previously been partially shielded from air attacks, since the Syrian Arab Air Force typically avoids flying too close to Turkish air defenses. But now, Russia is aggressively targeting the border traffic and the passage of convoys, claiming that it wants to stop the flow of oil and arms.
According to the Kuwaiti daily al-Rai, a source in a joint Russian-Iranian-Hezbollah operations room in Damascus has stated that “the Russian forces now focus on preventing the entry of trucks via the Azaz and Bab al-Salama crossings into Syria, and they have increased their strikes from air and ground in this area, as a response to Turkey. It is expected that Russian support will gradually increase to prevent the opposition from having any presence on the Syrian-Turkish border.”
If the bombing campaign continues with the current pattern, it could have a significant impact, not only on battlefield dynamics, but also on the civilian population in the border area, which includes several million internally displaced persons. Any indiscriminate bombing of convoys and congested border checkpoints would directly affect the well-being of people in northern Syria, the majority of whom depend on cross-border trade and humanitarian aid for their survival. A year ago, the Aleppo area alone contained nearly 1.8 million internally displaced civilians and more than 1.2 million people in the Aleppo-Idlib region received food aid in October 2015 before Russia stepped up its bombardment of the border traffic.
To make matters worse, Russia has been accused of attacking sensitive civilian infrastructure, whether deliberately or not. A November airstrike against Aleppo’s main water treatment plant prompted a protest from UNICEF, which noted that millions of people depend on water purification carried out at the plant.
It Is Working, But Not Working Miracles
Over two months into the Russian intervention, President Assad appears to have been strengthened. The Syrian president was losing territory fast by mid-2015, but with Russian and Iranian support, he has now turned the tide of battle on several fronts and slowed rebel advances elsewhere. In addition, we should not exclude the possibility that the bombings may have a delayed effect, by taking out rebel logistics and command centers, depleting ammunition storages, and causing chaos and humanitarian crises in insurgent-controlled areas, thus paving the way for sudden breakthroughs that have yet to occur. Furthermore, if the Syrian army manages to recapture Palmyra, it could have a major effect not only on the battlefield but also on the politics of the conflict.
But even taking Palmyra would not be enough to stabilize Assad’s government. The army could roll his enemies back from all of Palmyra, Jisr al-Shughur, and Idlib, but even that would only turn the clock back a year. Assad’s position was poor before he lost Idlib in March, Jisr al-Shughur in April, and Palmyra in May. It would not be good even if he were to regain them all. The best the Syrian president can hope for is that the rebels and the coalition of nations backing them will disintegrate faster than his own battered army.
A scenario that could very well happen. Given the open distrust and distaste with which the international community now views the Syrian opposition, waiting out the war would be a decent strategy but for the fact that Assad’s time is also running out.
The Syrian army’s manpower deficiency is well known and growing. The state also faces more fundamental economic and structural problems that have served to undermine faith in Assad’s staying power. Since the conflict began, the Syrian pound has lost nine tenths of its value and Tehran’s billion-dollar investments in the Syrian economy have failed to stem the decline. These are not problems that can be solved with Sukhoi jets. But the Russian bombing campaign may indeed be able to accelerate the collapse of the other side in Syria’s continued race to the bottom—and of course, it remains to be seen what happens with the peace process.