What Is Russia’s Endgame in Syria? 

Fighting ISIS

The military balance of power in Syria and Iraq is changing.

The military balance of power in Syria and Iraq is changing. The Russian air strikes that have been taking place since the end of September are strengthening and raising the morale of the Syrian army, which earlier in the year looked fought out and was on the retreat. With the support of Russian airpower, the army is now on the offensive in and around Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city, and is seeking to regain lost territory in Idlib province. Syrian commanders on the ground are reportedly relaying the co-ordinates of between 400 and 800 targets to the Russian air force every day, though only a small proportion of them come under immediate attack. The chances of Bashar al-Assad’s government falling – though always more remote than many suggested – are disappearing. Not that this means he is going to win.

The US never dared to attack IS when it was fighting the Syrian army because Washington didn’t want to be accused of keeping Assad in power

The drama of Russian military action, while provoking a wave of Cold War rhetoric from Western leaders and the media, has taken attention away from an equally significant development in the war in Syria and Iraq. This has been the failure over the last year of the US air campaign – which began in Iraq in August 2014 before being extended to Syria – to weaken Islamic State and other al-Qaida-type groups. By October the US-led coalition had carried out 7323 air strikes, the great majority of them by the US air force, which made 3231 strikes in Iraq and 2487 in Syria. But the campaign has demonstrably failed to contain IS, which in May captured Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria. There have been far fewer attacks against the Syrian branch of al-Qaida, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the extreme Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham, which between them dominate the insurgency in northern Syria. The US failure is political as much as military: it needs partners on the ground who are fighting IS, but its choice is limited because those actually engaged in combat with the Sunni jihadis are largely Shia – Iran itself, the Syrian army, Hizbullah, the Shia militias in Iraq – and the US can’t offer them full military co-operation because that would alienate the Sunni states, the bedrock of America’s power in the region. As a result the US can only use its air force in support of the Kurds.

The US faces the same dilemma in Iraq and Syria today as it did after 9/11 when George Bush declared the war on terror. It was known then that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, Osama bin Laden was a Saudi and the money for the operation came from Saudi donors. But the US didn’t want to pursue al-Qaida at the expense of its relations with the Sunni states, so it muted criticism of Saudi Arabia and invaded Iraq; similarly, it never confronted Pakistan over its support for the Taliban, ensuring that the movement was able to regroup after losing power in 2001.

Washington tried to mitigate the failure of its air campaign, officially called Operation Inherent Resolve, by making exaggerated claims of success. Maps were issued to the press showing that IS had a weakening grip on between 25 and 30 per cent of its territory, but they conveniently left out the parts of Syria where IS was advancing. Such was the suppression and manipulation of intelligence by the administration that in July fifty analysts working for US Central Command signed a protest against the official distortion of what was happening on the battlefield. Russia has now taken advantage of the US failure to suppress the jihadis.

But great power rivalry is only one of the confrontations taking place in Syria, and the fixation on Russian intervention has obscured other important developments. The outside world hasn’t paid much attention, but the regional struggle between Shia and Sunni has intensified in the last few weeks. Shia states across the Middle East, notably Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, have never had much doubt that they are in a fight to the finish with the Sunni states, led by Saudi Arabia, and their local allies in Syria and Iraq. Shia leaders dismiss the idea, much favoured in Washington, that a sizeable moderate, non-sectarian Sunni opposition exists that would be willing to share power in Damascus and Baghdad: this, they believe, is propaganda pumped out by Saudi and Qatari-backed media. When it comes to keeping Assad in charge in Damascus, the increased involvement of the Shia powers is as important as the Russian air campaign. For the first time units of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard have been deployed in Syria, mostly around Aleppo, and there are reports that a thousand fighters from Iran and Hizbullah are waiting to attack from the north. Several senior Iranian commanders have recently been killed in the fighting. The mobilisation of the Shia axis is significant because, although Sunni outnumber Shia in the Muslim world at large, in the swathe of countries most directly involved in the conflict – Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon – there are more than a hundred million Shia, who believe their own existence is threatened if Assad goes down, compared to thirty million Sunnis, who are in a majority only in Syria.

In addition to the Russian-American rivalry and the struggle between Shia and Sunni, a third development of growing importance is shaping the war. This is the struggle of the 2.2 million Kurds, 10 per cent of the Syrian population, to create a Kurdish statelet in north-east Syria, which the Kurds call Rojava. Since the withdrawal of the Syrian army from the three Kurdish enclaves in the summer of 2012, the Kurds have been extraordinarily successful militarily and now control an area that stretches for 250 miles between the Euphrates and the Tigris along the southern frontier of Turkey. The Syrian Kurdish leader Salih Muslim told me in September that the Kurdish forces intended to advance west of the Euphrates, seizing the last IS-held border crossing with Turkey at Jarabulus and linking up with the Syrian Kurdish enclave at Afrin. Such an event would be viewed with horror by Turkey, which suddenly finds itself hemmed in by Kurdish forces backed by US airpower along much of its southern frontier.

Kurdish Female Fighters

Meet the Kurdish women fighting ISIS

The Syrian Kurds say that their People’s Protection Units (YPG) number fifty thousand men and women under arms (though in the Middle East it is wise to divide by two all claims of military strength). They are the one force to have repeatedly beaten Islamic State, including in the long battle for Kobani that ended in January. The YPG is lightly armed, but highly effective when co-ordinating its attacks with US aircraft. The Kurds may be exaggerating the strength of their position: Rojava is the safest part of Syria aside from the Mediterranean coast, but this is a measure of the chronic insecurity in the rest of the country, where, even in government-held central Damascus, mortar bombs fired from opposition enclaves explode daily. Front lines are very long and porous, so IS can infiltrate and launch sudden raids. The YPG may have driven IS out of these areas, but they have not gone far.

Innumerable victories and defeats on the battlefield in Syria and Iraq have been announced over the last four years, but most of them haven’t been decisive. Between 2011 and 2013 it was conventional wisdom in the West and much of the Middle East that Assad was going to be overthrown just as Gaddafi has been. In late 2013 and throughout 2014, it was clear that Assad still controlled most populated areas, but then the jihadi advances in northern and eastern Syria in May revived talk of the regime’s crumbling. In reality, neither the government nor its opponents are likely to collapse: all sides have many supporters who will fight to the death. It is a genuine civil war: In Baghdad an Iraqi politician reportedly stated that ‘the problem in Iraq is that all parties are both too strong and too weak: too strong to be defeated, but too weak to win.’ The same applies today in Syria. Even if one combatant suffers a temporary defeat, its foreign supporters will prop it up: the ailing non-IS part of the Syrian opposition was rescued by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey in 2014 and this year Assad is being saved by Russia, Iran and Hizbullah. All have too much to lose: Russia needs success in Syria after twenty years of retreat, while the Shia states dare not allow a Sunni triumph.

The military stalemate will be difficult to break. The battleground is vast, with front lines stretching from Iran to the Mediterranean. Will the entrance of the Russian air force result in a new balance of power in the region? Will it be more effective than the Americans and their allies? For air power to work, even when armed with precision weapons, it needs a well-organised military partner on the ground identifying targets and relaying co-ordinates to the planes overhead.This approach worked for the US when it was supporting the Northern Alliance against the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 and the Iraqi peshmerga against Saddam’s army in northern Iraq in 2003. Russia will now hope to have the same success through its co-operation with the Syrian army. There are some signs that this may be happening; on 18 October what appeared to be Russian planes were reported by independent observers to have wiped out a 16-vehicle IS convoy and killed forty fighters near Raqqa, Islamic State’s Syrian capital.

But Russian air support won’t be enough to defeat IS and the other al-Qaida-type groups, because years of fighting the US, Iraqi and Syrian armies has given their fighters formidable military expertise. Tactics include multiple co-ordinated attacks by suicide bombers, sometimes driving armoured trucks that carry several tons of explosives, as well as the mass use of IEDs and booby traps. IS puts emphasis on prolonged training as well as religious teaching; its snipers are famous for remaining still for hours as they search for a target. IS acts like a guerrilla force, relying on surprise and diversionary attacks to keep its enemies guessing.

The types of injury reflect the kind of combat that predominates. Most of it takes place in cities or built-up areas and involves house-to-house fighting in which losses are high. Syrian, Kurdish and Iraqi soldiers described being hit by snipers as they manned checkpoints or being injured by mines or booby traps.

For some soldiers, injuries aren’t the only threat to their survival. In 2012, in the Mezze military hospital in Damascus there is the story of a 21-year-old Syrian army soldier who a year earlier in Aleppo had been hit by a bullet that shattered his lower left leg. After making an initial recovery he had gone back to his home village of Rahiya in Idlib province, which was a dangerous move since it was under the control of the opposition. Hearing that there was a wounded government soldier in the village, they took Diab hostage and held him for five months; they even sold his metal splint and gave him a piece of wood to strap to his leg instead. Finally, his family ransomed him for the equivalent of $1000 but his leg had become infected and so he was back in hospital.

The Russian intervention in Syria, the greater involvement of Iran and the Shia powers, and the rise of the Syrian Kurds has not yet changed the status quo in Iraq and Syria, though it has the potential to do so. The Russian presence makes Turkish military intervention against the Kurds and the government in Damascus less likely. But the Russians, the Syrian army and their allies need to win a serious victory – such as capturing the rebel-held half of Aleppo – if they are to transform the civil war. Assad won’t want his experienced combat units to be caught up in the sort of street-by-street fighting described by the wounded soldiers in the hospitals.

On the other hand, the Russian air campaign has an advantage over that of the Americans in that it has been launched in support of an effective regular army. The US never dared to attack IS when it was fighting the Syrian army because Washington didn’t want to be accused of keeping Assad in power. The US approach has left it without real allies on the ground, aside from the Kurds, whose effectiveness is limited outside Kurdish majority areas. The crippling weakness of US strategy in both Iraq and Syria has been to pretend that a ‘moderate Sunni opposition’ either exists or can be created. For all America’s fierce denunciations of Russian intervention, some in Washington can see the advantage of Russia doing what the US can’t do itself. Meanwhile, Britain is wrestling with the prospect of joining the US-led air campaign, without noticing that it has already failed in its main purpose.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of  Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.


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