Key Words: Syria, Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, al-Qaida, ISIS.
By Elijah J. Magnier: @
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 most advanced anti-tank missiles, 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 conditions.The 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.