MESOP Syria Special: No “Strategic Victory” — What Does Russia Do Now?
20 April 2016 – eaworldview Umer Karim and Scott Lucas write: On 11 and 12, Iranian troops — including Revolutionary Guards and special forces — and their allied militias were heavily defeated by rebels and Jabhat al-Nusra south of Syria’s largest city Aleppo.The Iranian-led force was trying to regain territory that had been taken by a sudden rebel-Nusra offensive on April 1, including the town of al-Eis on the Aleppo-to-Damascus highway. For the first time, the 65th Air Brigade and other Iranian Army units were in battle alongside Revolutionary Guards.
But by the end of two days of assaults, all that the attacks could show were more than 100 casualties, many of the bodies littered on a hillside where they were cut down by Nusra defenders. At the funerals of special forces, Iranian commanders were seen in tears.
Part of the cause of the defeat appeared to be poor tactics, with troops advancing across an open field into a heavily-fortified line. But even more apparent was what was missing — apart from a few sorties before and after the failed assaults, the Russian Air Force was absent.
Moscow’s aerial intervention from September 30 had been essential in the regime-Iranian-Hezbollah offensives that gained territory south of Aleppo and on other fronts. But now, as the rebel-Nusra counter-attack was erasing some of those gain, the official line from President Putin was that Russia had withdrawn “most” of its warplanes.
Had Putin mis-calculated? And what will he do now, as the rebels, Nusra, and the jihadists of Jund al-Aqsa expand the offensives into Hama and Latakia Provinces?
Russia’s withdrawal, following the limited success of pro-Assad offensives, was a message to the Syrian President and his ally Iran that the battlefield gains were possible only because of Moscow’s intervention. Its effective absence from south Aleppo last week was an equally powerful signal.
Moscow’s geo-strategic goals include strengthening of Assad’s rule by securing his western heartland — home to Russian naval and air bases — but they do not back the regime’s policy of re-capturing all of Syria or even taking back rebel-held parts of Aleppo.
Russia also understands that unconditional support for regime might prompt regional backers of Syrian rebels as well as the US to supply portable MANPADS anti-aircraft missiles. In the last month, the rebels have downed two regime aircraft with the weapons, and US officials are pressing President Obama to permit the delivery of some missiles.
Russia has lost one warplane to enemy fire, but that was from intercepting Turkish jets. A downing by rebels would raise the stakes significantly, forcing Moscow to consider an even greater military involvement in the air and on the ground.
CONFLICT WITH IRAN’S INTERESTS
In contrast to Russia, Iran regards ridding Aleppo of rebels as an essential tactical goal — thus its leadership of the fight on the southern Aleppo front. Importantly, that goal is no longer tied to Assad’s continued rule. It is being framed as a matter of Iranian national security.
But now Tehran is in a dilemma. In July 2015, after the rebel advances across northwest and southern Syria, Moscow was willing to invest its air forces and ground “advisors” to hold a defense line from Latakia Province on the Mediterranean through Homs to Damascus. It does not appear willing to extend that investment in a fight for Aleppo.
Last week, Iran sent General Qassem Soleimani, the head of the elite Qods Force and the envoy in the July talks, back to Moscow to make its case. So far there is no sign whether he has swayed Russian officials.
A DEFIANT ASSAD
Meanwhile, the Assad regime is not listening to Russian advice. It proceeded with Parliamentary elections last week, despite Moscow’s concern that they would hinder political talks in Geneva. The Syrian Prime Minister vowed to start a major offensive, with the help of the Russian Air Force, to recapture all of Aleppo city — a declaration that was quickly denied by the Chief of Army Staff in Moscow.
But for now Russia has no options in Syria, if it is to remain a leading player in Middle Eastern politics, except to support President Assad. The regime is manipulating this Russian difficulty, giving precedence to its political goals — and those of Iran — rather than any worries in the Kremlin.
WHERE NOW FOR MOSCOW?
Significantly Russia gave almost no support to the Iranian offensive against rebels and Jabhat al-Nusra south of Aleppo. But now the political and military provocations of the Assad regime has led to further offensives by the rebels and jihadists in Latakia and Hama Provinces.
Having flown some of its warplanes back home last month, will Russia fly them back to Syria? Possibly not, given that Moscow has positioned attack helicopters in its airbase in Latakia Province as its lasting force.
But, for political reasons, President Putin had hoped to use this airpower — and Russian special forces on the ground — alongside the Syrian military, Iran, and Hezbollah against the Islamic State. Because of the sudden rebel-jihadist attacks in Latakia and Hama, that offensive in central Syria may have been suspended.
So, as Iran’s General Soleimani puts Tehran’s case in Moscow, the Russians will probably agree to operations to check the rebel-jihadist offensives in the northwest. The priority — as it was last year — will be to bolster the defense line from Latakia to Homs to Damascus.
Russia could also return to the strategy of eroding the rebel position in Aleppo Province, helping the pro-Assad forces — now effectively led by Iran in many places — choke off supply routes north of Aleppo city as well as regaining the initiative to the south.
But that does not solve Moscow’s problems.
Russia’s renewal of air attacks in the northwest would be the death knell for the February 27 cessation of hostilities. Although that ceasefire is already shattered in the northwest, Moscow — having brokered the arrangement and the renewal of the Geneva talks — will not want to be seen as a contributor to the burial. So the Kremlin will have to time any airstrikes carefully, basing them on the argument that the rebels have joined Jabhat al-Nusra in the shattering of peace initiatives.
Even more importantly, Russia has no long-term political option. In February, Moscow tested the possibility of a “federal” Syria, supporting Kurdish autonomy in much of the north, alongside Assad’s continued rule. But this was bluntly dismissed by President Assad in a series of interviews, as well as by his officials and State media.
Assad’s continues to be that he has to remain as the leader of all of Syria’s people — even if many of them long ago rejected him. Russia has not been able to persuade the President that this is not an option.
And so Vladimir Putin can only act for the short-term, recalculating and recalibrating the commitment of his political capital as well as his military units. There is no “strategic victory” in sight. www.mesop.de