Monday, October 05, 2015

Russia's Syria Strategy

"In terms of strategy, the dictator sought to lessen the problem of manpower by retreating from all areas not considered vital. The result of this strategy has been the emergence of the de facto partitioned Syria of today. Assad effectively has ceded huge swathes of eastern, northern and southern Syria to his enemies."
"Today, Islamic State controls most of eastern Syria. The Kurdish PYD (Democratic Union Party) rules a large area in the northeast and a smaller enclave in the far northwest. Islamist rebels, including Jabhat al-Nusra, also known as al-Nusra Front, the local franchise of al-Qai'da, rule a swathe of the northwest. Western-backed rebels and al-Nusra control Quneitra province adjoining the Golan Heights and much of Dera'a province south of Damascus."

"The regime still holds Damascus, the western coastal area and the line of cities to the capital's north (Homs, Hama and part of contested Aleppo).
The problem with the regime's strategy of retreat and consolidation is that it can be carried only so far. At a certain point, the erosion of the regime enclave will reach a point that makes Assad's survival no longer viable. In recent months it has looked as if Assad was in danger of reaching this point. This is the immediate precipitating reason for the increased Russian intervention."
Jonathan Spyer, The Australian

"[U.S. aircraft had carried out] a number of strikes in the past 24 hours, including just an hour ago. And these strikes will continue. We must not and we will not be confused in our fight against ISIL."
"If Russia's recent actions and those now ongoing reflect a genuine commitment to defeat ISIL, we are prepared to welcome those efforts and find a way to deconflict and therefore multiply our efforts."
"[The United States would have] grave concerns should Russian aircraft strike targets where ISIL and affiliated targets are not operating [striking instead U.S.-backed forces fighting Assad]."
"My colleague [Lavrov] has said we must support Assad to defeat ISIL The reality is that Assad himself has rarely chosen, himself, to fight ISIL ...Instead, [Assad] has focused all of its military power on moderate opposition groups who are fighting for a voice in Syria. The answer cannot be found in a military alliance with Assad."
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry

"If this is a part of international action against ISIL, that appalling terrorist death cult outfit, then that is all to the good. If, on the other hand, this is action against the Free Syrian Army in support of Assad the dictator, then obviously, that is a retrograde step."
British Prime Minister David Cameron

"Targets hit are not in areas where [ISIL] operates. Thus, strikes are not about fighting [ISIL] but instead about helping [the] increasingly weak Assad government."
Robert Ford, (former) U.S. ambassador to Syria
© Maxim Blinov

But, said a Russian Defence Ministry spokesman, Russia is intent on targeting arms and ammunition stores and transport and communication equipment belonging to Islamic State. Russian jets, according to Syrian state-run TV, struck ISIL targets in Homs and Hama provinces. Not so, said Khaled Khoja, head of Syria's main opposition backed by the West; Russia's military involvement in the conflict represents an "invasion".

What a surprise! Americans were given a terse and cursory warning barely 24 hours after an obliging Barack Obama gave Vladimir Putin's plan to commit Russian resources to destroying Islamic State, that they'd do well to keep their aircraft out of Syrian airspace, since Russia would be taking to the skies. Invited to do so by the Syrian regime, more than the U.S.-led air coalition could claim.

Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius stated that France, targeting Islamic State was given no such heads-up.

It took mere hours after the launch of the Russian airstrikes for "grave concerns" to surface relating to Moscow's intentions. The 20 percent of Syria that remains under the control of the Assad regime is of huge concern to Moscow and to Tehran, both intent on ensuring that Syrian rebels and their foreign helpers make no further inroads toward Damascus. The regime never did seem concerned over the presence of ISIL; it was the rebels they were focused on.

Of 982 missions launched in 2014 by the regime's forces a mere six percent were against ISIL at the very time when large swathes of eastern Syria were being overrun by ISIL which took control of valuable oilfields and consolidated their capital in Raqqa. The focus of the Assad regime was to cast 94 percent of the Syrian military attacks against rebel movements. Through the use of barrel bombs, of chlorine gas attacks and strike aircraft Assad in fact aided ISIL to gain ground from the rebels.

Little wonder that Syria's Sunni population continually targeted by their own government views even ISIL favourably in contrast to the regime. It hasn't been ISIL that has slaughtered Syrian Sunnis, but a quarter-million worth has been destroyed for being the wrong sect of Islam, by their own leader. Islamic State hasn't yet been charged with torturing Syrian children and with gassing them, only the Syrian Alawite regime.

A boy carries bread as he walks in Latamneh city, which was hit by Russian air strikes, in the northern countryside of Hama.
A boy carries bread as he walks in Latamneh city, which was hit by Russian air strikes, in the northern countryside of Hama
So it is the Army of Conquest, Jabhat al Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, and others that have received backing from the CIA, that were targeted by Russian warplanes. Their threat to northwest Syria around Idlib and Latakia is what concerns Moscow where safeguarding the new Russian military base is of paramount importance to Putin.

ISIL is reputed to have between 30,000 and 70,000 fighters across the region, holding a substantial portion of the 80% of Syria no longer controlled by the regime.

The Free Syrian Army founded by officers defected from the Syrian army has coordinated an alliance of rebel groups including those backed by the CIA. The FSA has among its fighters Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims and Druze minority fighters, hoping to see a future Syria as a pluralist state. Its stronghold at present is northern and western Syria; Aleppo, Homs and Deraa.

Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda's presence in Syria, looks forward to a Sunni Islamic regime whose hold in Northwest Syria in Idlib further fragments a country that will never again be whole.

The Jaysh al-Fatah (Army of Conquest) backed by Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, is an alliance that managed a string of battlefield successes against the regime in the vital northwest of the country.
Their success raised the possibility of moving the frontline toward Latakia province. Bringing the rebellion too close to the Mediterranean and too close to comfort for Russia's naval depot at Tartus.

A situation that called for action, and action is precisely what the Russian deployment in Syria represents as a concerted effort to stop its advance. Concern for ISIL? Not so much.

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