Key terms: Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, Damascus, SAA, IRGC, USA, Al-Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra.
Elijah J. Magnier : @EjmAlrai
The Damascus and Moscow alliance faced with the cooperation of the Middle Eastern regional countries and the United States in Syria is failing at the moment. Al-Qaeda in al-Sham (Jabhat al-Nusra) although excluded from the Cease-fire, grabbed the initiative on the ground and counter attacked south of Aleppo with many allies: Ahrar al-Sham, Jund al-Aqsa, Jaish al-Sunnah and the Turkestan forces (all not excluded from the Cease-fire) fighting within the ranks of Jaish al-Fateh, the “army of conquest,” which includes more jihadist organizations and others more moderate.
Although the southern Aleppo city of Khan Tuman seized by the “Army of Conquest” in recent days does not exceed a radius of 3 kms including the village of al-Khalidiya, the successful offensive of the Syrian rebels represent an important milestone in the history of the Syrian war for various reasons. It is revealing the vulnerability of Iran, the fine military planning of rebels and their capability to defy their enemies in spite of the presumed presence of Air Force power.
But most important is the fact that countries in the region know how to read the current political-military current dynamic and understand that Russia, at the moment is sinking politically in the mud of American diplomacy and is engaged in the tunnel of diplomacy. At this moment the Kremlin does not see any solid justification for re-engaging in another air force campaign similar to the one carried for six months, prior the cease-fire.
Now that over 97 cities and towns are engaged in the cessation of hostilities (COH), the Russian President Vladimir Putin needs a strong case to return to the Syrian arena in full force. Today, Moscow has placed itself alongside flexible American diplomacy, which in Syria changes according to developments and is unwilling to re-initiate a military campaign that could be considered aggressive to various countries in the Middle East. Such a flexible Russian attitude has angered Tehran and Damascus and their proxy allies, forcing them to alter plans of deployment.
During a meeting in Moscow between the Iranian revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) al-Quds commander Qassem Soleimani and President Putin in July 2015, Iran agreed to provide sufficient men to benefit from a full Russian engagement in the sky of Syria to recover the lost geography, reverse the situation (from being on the defensive to mounting an offensive campaign) and regain control of the Latakia rural area. The agreement – said sources in Syria – proposed that Iran, Hezbollah and the Iraqi militia provide sufficient troops to retake Aleppo, Sahel al-Ghab, Idlib, rural Latakia and create a wider perimeter around Damascus, including protection of the road between the capital and Daraa, south Syria. The aim was not to attack the “Islamic State” group, ISIS, on a large offensive scale, but to recover Palmyra and the energy (oil and gas fields). ISIS does not represent a danger to the regime because it has only enemies in the region and worldwide and is much easier to defeat since it does not enjoy the support of Syrian rebels, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Jordan and the U.S.
In six months, Damascus troops and allies spread and managed to recover more than 10.000 square kms outside of the main cities that they were confined to prior to the Russian intervention. The sudden Cease-fire unilaterally (from Damascus and its allies’ side) agreed between Russia and the United States was opposed by Iran. The cease-fire has allowed some Russian forces to return home as heroes, but simultaneously has permitted the Syrian rebels to re-take the initiative and attack and recover Tal el-Eiss, the city of el-Eiss, Syriatel strategic hill, al-khalidiya and Khan Tuman, with large number of militants. Damascus allies’ forces, spread over the rural area, find today no reason to stay in a tactical and non-strategic open field without any air or artillery coverage, specially if the large military operation is due to cease. The Syrian Air Force and artillery are already spread too thin over tens of thousands of kilometres, facing the rebel- controlled area on several hot fronts , and is unable to offer the requested fire cover when its allies forces are under attack.
Sources in Syria reveal “Moscow has angered its allies in Syria, imposing – what the allies consider to be an inappropriate cease-fire timing considering that rebels were defeated on several fronts and troops were just about to reach the Turkish borders north of Aleppo; were already at the doors of Sahl al-Ghab; and prepared to advance toward Idlib, the heart of Jabhat al-Nusra, not far from breaking the siege of Fua and Kefraya”.
Decision makers in Syria say “Moscow gave the time for rebels to regroup and reorganise their offensives. There is no point in fighting and dying in areas we don’t need to hold on to. Before the Russian intervention, we were defending the main cities and no force could have managed to break in. Now we are on several fronts without serious coordination between all forces. It is time to change tactics and reduce military deployment”.
“Rebels are expected to attack other points and advance in rural areas in the coming weeks. The serious differences between Moscow and its Damascus allies over various objectives permit rebels to recover more territory. Although Russia is not asking the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, nevertheless, its unilateral deal with the Americans is exposing and endangering all forces spread thin as they are on the front lines. That was not the initial deal agreed between Tehran and Moscow. Russia fell into the diplomatic trap, offering a golden possibility to the Syrian negotiators in Geneva to impose their will when in fact most of these have no real power over the rebels on the ground around Aleppo and Idlib. Russia is unaware that even the unforeseen departure of Assad won’t stop the salafist jihadists continuing the war (like al-Qaeda, Jund al-Aqsa, Ahrar al-Sham, Jaish al-Muhajereen wal Ansar, Jaish al-Sunnah and others), said the source.
“Countries in the region are prepared to wait seven more months for a new U.S. President who would interact with Assad more aggressively than President Barack Obama. These countries will continue supporting the rebels in the next 7 months, sending money and weapons so they are prepared for another confrontation. The allies of Damascus consider Russia has repeated what the late President of Egypt Anwar al-Sadat did in 1973 when he stopped the war suddenly and gave Israel the opportunity to regroup its forces, returning to regain the initiative and overcome the Egyptian third army, all of which resulted in the Camp David agreement”.
It is therefore expected that Hezbollah, a strong and effective ally of Damascus, will modify its deployment plans on the battlefield to mitigate the human losses as long as there is an unclear horizon and that Russian politics in Syria are unclear, say the sources. Six months ago, Damascus and its allies decided to retreat to the main cities and abandon distant and rural areas, difficult to supply logistically and considered less strategic. Today, Hezbollah refuses to engage in all on-going battles when military plans are drawn up but not implemented, even with limited officers. If Russia is willing to hit only ISIS in the East of Syria and refrain from hitting al-Nusra and other jihadists spread in vast area around Aleppo, Hezbollah is not willing to lose more men to keep a status quo. There will be no withdrawal from Syria but redeployment and reduce participation in many forthcoming battles, according to sources on the ground.
A fuzzy future is overwhelming Syria. It seems that the appeasing Russian policy of appeasement with regard to Jahbat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and other jihadists will negatively affect the Syrian army provided that there are no other changes in the Syrian dynamic. The war in Syria is not expected to end soon.