. The US-Russia deal: Putin applies a Matryoshka-like policy in Syria
. Did Russia, Iran and Hezbollah fail in Aleppo, showing their limitations?
. Russia expected Hezbollah to complete the siege of Aleppo as a bargaining tool for further negotiation
Key words: US, USA, U.S., Russia, Syria.
By Elijah J. Magnier: @EjmAlrai
The Russian – American agreement over the city of Aleppo, is completed…no it is not completed… it will be completed.
Both superpower countries agreed on several issues, but above all to allow humanitarian convoys in the city (and other parts of Syria), and to freeze the war situation in Aleppo, defining demarcation lines between all belligerents, thus creating a potential springboard model to other Syrian regions.
The US suggested demilitarising the city, on both rebel and government forces sides, but Russia rejected the proposition, also disapproved of by Russia’s allies (Damascus and Tehran). One of question remains: how will the US impose any decision on al-Qaida and jihadist groups who are fighting in the area (along with other so called “moderate rebels” and vetted by the US).
At any rate, if and when the deal is concluded, all military efforts will be dedicated to hitting the “Islamic State” group (acronym ISIS/ISIL/Daesh) and Jabhat al-Nusra – Al Qaida in Syria (as previously named) and all jihadist factions that refuse to join the political process.
However, the two parties do require more time to reach agreement over Aleppo: America wants to make sure that Russia will not hit its allies and other rebels, and Russia has agreed to stop all attacks against US vetted groups as part of the deal. After all, Russia wants – as its allies complete once more the siege around Aleppo – to open a safe humanitarian corridor under its supervision and UN direct involvement. Is this a victory for Russia or the US?
On 15 August, I wrote in a special report on AL RAI: “Obama has the upper hand over Iran and Russia in Syria and Iraq, and without deploying major ground forces”. It turns out that the Kremlin’s Middle East foreign policy is structured on “Matryoshka” line: 51 wooden toys, one inside the other! Even as the media were claiming that Russia was sinking into the Syrian quagmire, (“have achieved little to recover Aleppo”), President Vladimir Putin Air force was by necessity embracing a peace deal with Turkey, turning the course of the events in Syria from starboard to port. This significantly altered the course of this complex Syrian war, stopping the process of dividing Syria, and supporting a low-casualty recovery of the military academies around Aleppo so as to close once more the circle breached a few weeks ago.
By striking a deal with Turkey, Putin has reaped the benefits from a situation where the allies of yesterday (i.e. US vetted rebels Free Syrian Army groups considered also pro-Turkey) now fight each other (Syrian Democratic Force supported by the US), and the same force supported by the US Air Force in the north of Syria, SDF-YPG, split and a few hundred militants have left the Kurds to join Turkey. The Russian forces stationed in Syria support the security around Damascus and contribute to mediating a cease-fire between over 48 rebel groups and the Syrian government. It turned out that Putin played last-minute “Russian Roulette”, dragging the US to the negotiation table just as the situation in Syria was about to go out of the US control, but without restoring to a Rambo-like show of power- and with minimum cost.
In September 2015, Russian Air Force began bombing jihadists and rebels in rural Latakia and Jabal Kurds to secure the control of Damascus and its allies in many areas. Russia supported also the recovery of the strategic cities of Homs, Aleppo, rural Damascus, and Deraa, south of Syria. The media and analysts attacked Russia at that time saying it “did not achieve any significant progress”. Even President Obama said “Moscow’s action will lead it into a quagmire” and that “its military intervention won’t work”. Russia was further accused of being a “novice in the Middle east policies, confronted with America’s long diplomatic experience in this hot spot of the World”.
They were wrong: after six months of supporting ground troops to control over 10.000 sq. km. of territory previously occupied by jihadists and rebels, the US called for a cease-fire that was welcomed by Moscow and Damascus. Iran was unhappy, arguing that the jihadists and rebels were in retreat and that therefore the military operation should not stop until these were defeated.
Regardless of its allies’ position, Moscow withdrew a large number of aircraft from the Syrian coastal military base of Hamymeen amid exclamations from Iran and President Bashar al-Assad related to the timing (before a robust cease-fire had been agreed) of withdrawal. Others argued that Russia was pulling out its jets due to “the high financial cost”.
Not long afterwards, with the negotiations stalled in Geneva between the US and Russia, the Russian jets began bombing again, securing more land and closing the circle around eastern Aleppo for the first time since the war started.
However this circle was broken again after a few weeks: thousands of Jihadists, supported by US vetted rebel groups, took control with little resistance of the largest four military academies, which were equipped with huge warehouses full of ammunition. Over 1200 Syrian Army officers and soldiers guarded these and had a large space around the academies that should permit an easy defence.
The fall of the academies came at a time when Moscow was about to impose its terms on the US and the United Nations for establishing a humanitarian corridor into the besieged part of Aleppo and into other northern cities, and to engage in a long sustainable cease-fire. Freezing the on-going war now appears logical: most belligerents are convinced that a military solution to the war in Syria is not longer a viable option.
The real problem does not lie in the Russian military-political performance nor in the diplomatic capabilities of its Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov when facing his US counterpart John Kerry. The problem lies in Damascus, its soldiers and its allies.
Last March, Russia withdrew part of its air force because of the lack of capability of the allied forces on the ground to keep up with and Air Force carpet-bombing against jihadists and rebels in various cities simultaneously. The Syrian army has a special unit led by Colonel Suhail Al-Hassan – known as the “Tiger Forces” – covering the whole military map and fighting on several fronts; because the regular units within the Syrian army lack the fighting spirit to face their enemy or to hold a conquered position. Damascus’s allies, i.e. Iran and its proxies, have an attacking force but this is not a static one to be positioned to defend cities in case of attack. This attacking force is made up of around 12000 Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis and Iranians, but the Lebanese Hezbollah fighters alone exceed this number. Yet, distributed over the entire Syrian military map (North, north-east, west Aleppo, rural Damascus, Qalamoun, Zabadani and Daraa), this total represents a relatively small number of fighters. Hezbollah is changing tactics in all battles, excepting Aleppo. It is no longer sending troops to take control of a city or key positions when this implies a lack of consideration for its own casualties. Therefore, if the Syrian Army is unwilling or unable to hold on to a position its role weakens the whole case. This is what Russia is fully aware off, and is one of the main reasons why Putin looked for alternative support where common interests are present: Turkey.
The Russian President took out of his pocket the first doll of Matryoshka when he assisted the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan before and during the first hours of the failed coup d’état, being rewarded in exchange with a radical policy change by Turkey in Syria. Erdogan called back his numerous proxies from around Aleppo to fight the Kurds and recover land from the “Islamic State” (acronym ISIS/ISIS), leaving the city to the jihadists and few small groups. Turkey directed its guns toward the allies of the US, the Kurdish forces supported by the US Air Force, in order to prevent these from creating a Kurdish state. Putin supported Erdogan, he who ordered the shooting down the Russian Jet Su-24 . Putin played “Russian roulette” when supporting his declared enemy even when determined to hit him back by bringing the S-400 to Syria and giving orders at that time to shoot down any Turkish jet on the Turkish-Syrian borders.
Russia grabbed its opportunity when Erdogan launched his indirect accusation against the US for being knowledgeable about the failed coup. Putin, with his risky move, managed to secure the survival of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and gave himself a serious advantage over the US in the Syrian war. The result is surprising: Turkey accepts Assad and is no longer asking to remove him as a pre-condition to any negotiation. Moreover, Turkey shot down the Kurdish dream of establishing a State, preventing the partition of Syria starting form the north.
On the other hand, both Moscow and Damascus accept dealing with the “moderate rebels”, including Ahrar al-Sham, as long as these keep their distance from al-Qaida, ex-Jabhat al Nusra. Russia and Syria are willing to go along with a freeze on all fronts and to stop targeting the Syrian rebels (excluding the jihadists). ISIS and ex-Nusra are offered up on the altar of the US-Russia understanding, once this is concluded.
This is the agreement prepared by the major powers on Syria, which may allow the possibility of achieving a gradual cessation of hostilities in Syria – and put an end to the jihadists, unwilling to board the conciliation train.
But what if Obama does not play in the Russian game? Putin seems have pulled out his first Matryushka doll by bombing the enemies of Damascus last September. He pulled out the second smaller doll when accepting a cease-fire. Then he pulled out a third doll by helping to besiege Aleppo the first time. The fourth was skilfully brought out when he supported Erdogan and approved –Putin before Obama – a safe passage for the Turkish troops into Syria. What is the content that the 47 other smaller dolls could be in case the wind should blow the ship Syria in an undesirable direction?