As I write this, news has just broken that President Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian Arab Army (SAA), backed by the Russian Air Force, has reached Kweiris Airbase east of Aleppo. The long since defunct landing strip had been under siege for nearly three years, with a small band of soldiers left to stave off a variety of rebel groups. In 2014, the surrounding countryside came under the sole control of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, which has since then repeatedly tried to blast its way into Kweiris. Today, Assad finally broke the siege, dealing a humiliating defeat to the Islamic State.
Anyone who follows Syrian politics will be aware of the controversies sparked by Russia’s September 30th military intervention in Syria. Moscow claims to be fighting the Islamic State on behalf of all moderate forces, but the Russian bombings have in fact mostly targeted other Sunni rebel groups. The operation is clearly more about strengthening Assad than about fighting jihadism.
Even so, various surveys of the available data indicate that something like one-fifth of the Russian strikes have been aimed at Islamic State targets. These have mostly come in the southern Aleppo area, where Russian-backed SAA forces are conductinga two-pronged offensive. Their jumping-off point is the military-industrial city of Sfeira, just southeast of Aleppo City. From there, one column has gone west to take al-Hader and wring the southern countryside out of rebel control, while another has moved east to break the siege on Kweiris.
Sfeira is a key link in Assad’s sole remaining supply line between Aleppo and central Syria, but this hastily improvised desert road is badly exposed on both sides and was briefly cut by jihadi fighters as recently as last week. The western wing of the offensive may therefore aim to broaden the zone protecting Assad’slogistical trail to Aleppo in preparation for future operations, or perhaps even to break south after al-Hader and create an entirely new road connection. As for the eastern part of the offensive, which just resulted in the lifting of the siege on Kweiris, it could produce several other advantages for Assad and Putin.
The Right Enemy
First of all, the victory at Kweiris will provide a much-needed boost for Assad’s and Putin’s media messaging and their hopes to draw Western states into talks with the Syrian government.
Assad has long claimed that he is an indispensible ally for any state seeking to contain international terrorism. The growth of Sunni-sectarian radicalism within the Syrian opposition and the Islamic State’s near-destruction of the Iraqi state in 2014 have been of great help to him. For the first time in years, there now exists a sizeable Western political constituency advocating resumed cooperation with Assad. Not only on the hard-right and hard-left fringes of politics, these whispers are increasingly heard among security officials and diplomats too. There’s a long way to go still, but that sort of international shift represents the Assad regime’s only real chance of longtime survival, if not exactly victory.
By helping Assad score points against the Islamic State in places like Kweiris, the Russian government hasachieved a dual goal: it makes Assad’s government appear more viable and useful as an ally, and it lets Russia boast of progress against the Islamic State after weeks of having to explain its choice to bomb other groups instead.
The Politics of Decapitation
Breaking the siege on Kweiris will also help Assad internally, as he seeks to ensure the loyalty of his political base. After four years of continuous conflict,a torrent of defections, and epidemic draft dodging, the SAA suffers from a debilitating lack of manpower. He must show every potential recruit that they are not mere cannon fodder, that he cares about his troops, and that he will expend every effort to bust them out if they become trapped. Only in that way can he encourage his forces to stay put and fight rather than try to strike a deal for their survival with hostile forces.
It’s a lesson the president previously tried to impart in Jisr al-Shughur, where a small band of pro-regime fighters were holed up in the National Hospital. In early May, Assad made an unprecedented public promise to send his army to save the “these heroes who are besieged in the Jisr al-Shughur Hospital”. Later that month, the defenders of the National Hospital managed to flee and some of them eventually reaching SAA lines. Even though they sustained major casualties and actually retreated from battle with rebel fighters firing in the air out of sheer joy, this was hailed as an important victory by the government. It needed to show that the president makes good on his word and that the SAA will not abandon a trapped soldier.
When the Islamic State rampaged through eastern Syrian in mid-2014, it overran isolated government bases, including the 17th Division north of Raqqa and the Tabqa Airbase. Soon after, it released gruesome videos in which the surviving prisoners of war were murdered and mutilated in front of the camera. This seems to have caused a rare stirring of anger within Assad’s political base, where some felt let down by the army leadership and were appalled by the sight of Syrian soldiers slaughtered like cattle.
The Syrian government, itself guilty of mass-murder on a far larger scale, was not the only one to notice these effects. This September, the long-besieged Abu al-Dhuhour Airbase was captured by al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front after a two-year siege. The Saudi jihadi preacher Abdullah al-Moheisini, who is now an influential figure in rebel-ruled Idlib City, then held a videotaped speech calling on Sunni families to learn from what was about to happen and stop sending their sons to Assad’s army. The Nusra Front later released pictures of some fifty prisoners lined up on the airstrip and executed, blood drying on sun-drenched concrete.
These massacres are not simply wanton cruelty. They are designed to induce fear, limit recruitment, and sap the morale of isolated SAA garrisons. Assad’s enemies want to teach his supporters that once trapped, their only choice is to either buy their survival by surrendering territory or to die in the most nightmarish fashion. But in Kweiris, Assad undid the lesson of Abu al-Dhuhour, showing his troops that with Russia on the battlefield, they can fight and survive.
The Road to Raqqa
Last, and perhaps most importantly, there is a way in which the Kweiris battle matters to the larger struggle against the Islamic State—because by capturing the airbase, Assad threatens communications between the Islamic State’s so called capital in Raqqa and its largest military front in Aleppo.
The Islamic State’s administration in the eastern Aleppo area is centered in the two rural centers of al-Bab and Manbij. Although there is no longer an open border crossing at Jarabulous, on the western shore of the Euphrates, the area still serves as the Islamic State’s sole remaining point of access to Turkey, through which foreign fighters and smuggled goods arrive to the Islamic State. The region also includes Dabiq, a tiny town near the frontline that plays an outsized religious and political significance due to its role in the armageddon of Islamic eschatology. Last but not least, eastern Aleppo holds forth a promise of enormous material gain if the jihadis should manage to break through rebel defenses in the Marea-Azaz area north of Aleppo, or cut the above-mentioned supply line that runs through Sfeira down to Assad-held territory in Hama.
From eastern Syria and the Iraqi border, the east-west Highway 4 runs to Raqqa and then on toward Aleppo. Once in Raqqa, you could formerly take one of two routes to get to the frontlines around Aleppo.
- The northern route feeds into the M4 Highway from Hasakah and crosses the Euphrates near Manbij, but it was cut by U.S.-backed Kurdish forces bursting out of Kobane this spring. In May, the Islamic State blew up the last remaining bridge over the Euphrates in the Jarabulous area, in an attempt to seal the frontline and use the river as natural protection from the Kurds. From that point on, the northern route is no longer an option.
- The southern route, on which you continue west from Raqqa along Highway 4, was always the main connection to Aleppo. It never crosses the Euphrates and therefore cannot be cut by bridge bombings. Unfortunately for the Islamic State, the M4 then hits Kweiris Airbase. Although we must presume that this particular stretch of the road has been out of commission for a while due to the heavy fighting, this final stretch of the road has now been taken by the Syrian Arab Army.
To be clear, this does not mean that the Islamic State can no longer ferry troops between Raqqa and Aleppo. It can. Highway 4 has three northern offshoots toward Manbij and al-Bab and either one of them will do just fine to get troops into this region. But if Assad’s troops decide to press on from Kweiris, they are now within realistic striking distance of the closest one, which springs from the intersection at Deir Hafer to provide direct access to the Islamic State’s regional administrative center in al-Bab. The more pressure that is put on the road network in this area, the more it will impede and endanger Islamic State logistics.
What Does This Mean?
Now, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The battles in this area have flowed back and forth. According to a Syrian military source speaking to Reuters, the army is still working to secure the area. In other words, the Islamic State could still retake Kweiris or Assad might voluntarily decide to pull out once the base’s defenders have been evacuated.
But if neither of those things happen, and the Assad-Putin alliance continues to press forward east of Aleppo, it will create a very interesting situation. Politically speaking, Kweiris will then have earned Assad and Russia a small but far from insignificant victory in the struggle against the Islamic State. Militarily speaking, it might complicate the jihadis’ operations in the eastern Aleppo countryside, which could in turn help U.S.-backed anti-Assad rebels north of Aleppo, around Marea, to turn the tables on the jihadi group.
The interlinked nature of the battles against the Islamic State in the Aleppo region is not something that either Assad or the rebels will be eager to recognize, since their ultimate goal is to eradicate the other. Neither will the United States want to publicly credit Russia with any advances against the jihadis. But in the long run, should such an unspoken interdependence really develop, it could create some really interesting American-Russian and regime-rebel synergies in northern Syria.
And that is, of course, exactly what Russia is looking for.