Key words: Syria, Turkey, U.S., Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, Aleppo, Idlib, Raqqah.
Elijah J. Magnier – @EjmAlrai
With the fall of Aleppo and its return to Syrian central government control, most of the significant Syrian cities are no longer under the control of jihadists and the other rebels who were supported by the US and by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. This strategic event demonstrates Russia’s upper hand, defeating the US administration in Bilad al-Sham even though the war is still far from over. The beginning of the end of the war in Syria has started.
The cities of Suweida, Daraa, Damascus, Homs, Tartus, Latakkia, Hama, Aleppo, Deirezzour (part) and al-Hasaka, therefore are all out of jihadist and rebel control. The plan to divide Syria has much less chance of survival today, thanks to the Russian intervention of over a year and a half in that hectic and divided country, as it was then, at the exception of the north-east of Syria . Russia imposed a united Syria: it blew away the US plan to create a Kurdish federation in the north (from al-Hasaka to Afrein), a “Sunni enclave” in Deirezzour, Raqqah, Idlib and Aleppo, and a “buffer zone” in the south of Syria from Daraa to Quneitra, along the Syrian-Israeli borders.
Today, Raqqah with 300-400.000 inhabitants’ remains within the “Islamic State” group (ISIS/Daesh), Idlib is under the Jihadists of al-Qaida and other rebels of different affiliations (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, US) who also control some of the rural areas in various parts of the country. Therefore, most Syrian inhabitants who remain live under Syrian government control.
Russia decided to participate in the Syrian war in mid 2015 when the Syrian Army and its allies (Iran and Hezbollah) announced they would limit their control to specific areas and cities, allowing the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to remain as one of the players in Syria. In fact, in mid 2015, Hezbollah recovered its forces from Aleppo, unwilling to lose more men for the only purpose of improving political negotiation terms. It accepted the de facto of static demarcation lines between the Syrian forces and the jihadists and rebel allies.
If we go back in time to the beginning of the war in Syria, Assad has always emphasized the necessity to keep Aleppo under Damascus’s control. The inhabitants of the city didn’t follow the jihadists or the regional sponsors. The inhabitants of the rural area around Aleppo forced the uprising in July 2012, one year after the revolt, when these outsiders supported by Turkey broke into this city considered the main industrial town in Syria, the capital. Ankara planned to annexe Aleppo since regional and international plans were set to divide the country into different parts and the Sykes-Picot agreement seemed doomed.
Nevertheless, Assad did not manage to protect Aleppo: it fell into the jihadists’ and other proxies’ hands, and he found himself defending the capital, Damascus, whit Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda in the Levant) in Sahat al-Abbasiy’yeen, the heart of the city.
That was when Assad called for the contributions of Hezbollah and Iran to save the capital in March 2013. Despite the heavy intervention of Assad allies who managed to control the Quseyr, Homs, Hama, Qalamoun, Zabadani, the flow of weapons, finance and men from the US and regional countries imposed itself and weighed heavily on the arena.
Assad and his allies consolidated the government forces positions but didn’t manage to retake many parts of the Syrian rural areas. Therefore, it was decided to play the last card before retreating to the main cities and accepting a static front. In the Summer of 2015, the head of the Iranian revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – al Quds brigade Qassem Soleimani travelled to Moscow to explain the reality of the military situation on the ground. Iran explained its incapacity to face the US (and its Middle Eastern allies) and Turkey, who were becoming the main players in the Syrian war. Turkey was determined to divide Syria, supplying jihadists (including foreign fighters) and its proxies with weapons and men, and offering intelligence information.
Turkey’s mistakes contributed to changing the course of the Syrian war:
Turkey’s first and biggest mistake was to allow jihadists and its proxies to attack Lattakia in the beginning of 2014 and to allow these to reach Kessab and the Mediterranean. These shelled Lattakia and Tartus, not only where millions of Syrian displaced from all over Syria lived, but also where Russia has a long established naval military base and window on the Mediterranean.
Turkey is part of NATO: the United States stores approximately 50 B61 nuclear bombs at Incirlik Air Force Base in southern Turkey. Turkish control over Syria means a US capability to ask the new ruler of Damascus, whoever wins, to tighten its hold on the Russian naval base in Tartus and push them to leave. Moscow would lose a strategic window on the Mediterranean.
Moreover, the Russian passive stance toward changing the Libyan regime in 2011 deprived Moscow of an important role in Middle Eastern affairs. Similarly, the loss of the “axis of resistance”, including Syria, would leave little chances of Russia remaining in Bilad al-Sham, as stipulated under a 1971 agreement with Ba’athist Syria. This was a decision taken by the late President Hafez Assad and not by his son Bashar.
Also, Russia finally considered the war in Syria a golden opportunity to present its military capability in real manoeuvres during an ongoing war. Moscow could learn, draw the lessons of war and update its military capability by meeting a combined classical-guerrilla new type of fighting never encountered before in ancient or modern history. Furthermore, the Russian air force was able to train and produce qualified new pilots who, instead of serving on simulated targets, used real objectives to attack and learn from.
The same yearly budget allocated for the Defence Ministry was invested in Syria where Russia conducted a “clean war” at 30.000 feet, despite the prediction of most western analysts who predicted its inevitable fall into the Syrian quagmire. These expressed more and more what was wishful rather than real thinking. Russia refused Assad’s demand to attack Aleppo because it was not at the top of its list of priorities and objectives. Russia was trying to hold the stick in the middle to create a balance between its good relationship with Israel, its excellent ties with Saudi Arabia, and its important commercial exchanges with Turkey.
This is why Putin conducted a war from the sky, with few troops on the ground, to recover the safety belt around Tartus-Lattakia, Damascus, and Daraa. He recovered the archaeological city of Palmyra and held a musical ceremony to celebrate his victory in a quick war with almost no Russian casualties. Russia’s victory, again, defeated all analysts’ expectations (or wishful thinking), who has predicted that failure would occur only a few months after its first intervention. Palmyra was re-occupied by ISIS but that is a tactical detail, possibly falling into a “kinetic defence policy” (retrieving from city when under overwhelming attack to regroup later and re-organise a counter attack with the aim to inflict major losses to the enemy).
But Turkey was waiting for an opportunity to hit Russia, and believed it was possible to play with the Russian bear and come out without scratches. Erdogan wanted also to show his “Islamic leadership” as the one who is taking the Muslim cause in hand on behalf of the Islamists in Syria. Its air defence shot down the Su-24 in November 2015 and Turkey’s proxies killed the Russian pilot when he parachuted himself the moment his jet was hit. This confirmed that Turkey had not mastered the art of war, nor correctly predicted the reaction of Russia before playing such a dangerous game.
Russia changed its objectives in Syria, developing a thoughtful yet more aggressive policy and goals, and disregarding the previous balance. The reputation of Russia was on the line. The Turkish-US move produced a furious but strategic Russian bear willing to turn everything upside down in Syria. Moscow imposed a financial embargo on Turkey and destroyed in weeks what Turkey built in five years with its proxies in Syria.
Russia decided to free Aleppo and give it back to Damascus, stopped the US plan for a Kurdish federation in the northern east and west of Syria (Hasaka to Afrin) and deprived Israel of its “buffer zone”. Moscow dictated the rules in Syria and paid less attention to the US Obama administration, this despite the ferocious American and British media propaganda. It vetoed every US decision related to Syria at the United Nations. Russian military means were augmented in Syria to achieve this purpose.
The Russian reaction:
Russia stopped Turkey at the gates of the northern city of al-Bab to prevent its proxies from entering into contact with the Syrian Army at the gates of Aleppo. Nevertheless Moscow allowed it weeks later to storm al-Bab for a more strategic gain: Idlib.
Moscow gave legitimacy to Assad by forcing the international community to negotiate with representatives of Damascus in Geneva to discuss the future of Syria. Thanks only to the Russian full support; Assad threatened the Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan for the first time in decades. Russia also negotiated on behalf of Damascus and Tehran (in the same way that the US negotiates on behalf of Jihadists and rebels), because the arena now belonged to Kremlin and Washington forces and allies.
This is not a war between Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar on one side and Assad and Iran on the other. It is a war between Russia and the American administration. Obama lost the battle (not the war) in Syria to Russia the moment it accepted Moscow’s warning that “any jet approaching the Syrian airspace will be shot down if flying without previous coordination with the Russian military base”. The Russian and US tensions have now led the world onto a dangerous threshold.
Iran main gains:
As far as Iran is concerned, its forces are present in Syria since 1982 when the late Imam Khomeini sent his revolutionary guards to the Zabadani area to form and train Hezbollah in Lebanon following the 1982 Israeli invasion. Therefore this victory at Aleppo is not a personal victory for Assad but a victory for Russia and the “axis of the resistance” (even if Russia is not part of this axis). It is also a victory for the Syrian government over terrorism and its US-GCC proxies. By asking Russia to intervene, Iran managed to protect Hezbollah in Lebanon whereas the victory of the jihadists and the rebels would have rendered the Iran-Hezbollah military support much more difficult. Jihadists and rebels have called, since 2012, for the cutting of the umbilical cord between Tehran and Hezbollah via Damascus, an obligatory passage for all advanced weapons and missiles supplied on a regular basis. Without this continuous flow of weapons, it would have been difficult for Hezbollah to face the Israeli military machine in Lebanon as it did in the 2006 war. Iran benefitted since 1982 from a transit facility through Damascus into Lebanon. Today its presence is all over Syria.
Consequences of the Syrian war for the US , Israel, and Russia and its allies :
The magic turned against the magician: despite the full support supplied to jihadists (al-Qaida) and other rebels directly and indirectly endless US mistakes in Syria have created strategic consequences that virtually annihilated the interests of the US and Israel in the Syrian war.
How did the war in Syria benefit Damascus allies?
- It created a powerful Russian area of influence in the Middle East that the Kremlin could only have dreamed of.
- It has allowed Russia to prove its ability to defend its partners and friends when necessary by providing lethal military power, proportional to the combat needs, and also by offering its protection at the UN.
- It permitted Russia to use the Syrian war as one of its best military teaching grounds, proving the extent of its firepower and allowing its forces to learn from the various classical-guerrilla style tactics used by jihadists. This is the dream of every army.
- It created the possibility for Russia to exhibit its weaponry, its strategic jets and missiles, its jet carriers and its capability to strike objectives from afar, thus offering new weapons markets to Moscow.
- It offered to the organised but irregular force of Hezbollah the use of classical weapons in guerrilla warfare through one of its most trained Special Operation Forces. Hezbollah gathered experience in moving forces under artillery or air cover and fought against those trained by US Special Forces: those who fought in Afghanistan against the Russian in 1979 and those who battled the US forces in Iraq. Hezbollah was also able to gain experience in fighting side by side with the Syrian army, to experience their strength and weaknesses, and their level of reliability in real combat. Clearly Hezbollah will definitely take advantage of these unique experiences in its next war against its eternal enemy, Israel.
- Iran was able to establish itself in Syria, again, by offering its financial support and bringing proxies to fight in the country. Its future presence maybe more tolerated by the inhabitants than before this war.
- The Syrian Army was transformed from an army spending most of its time manning barricades to a more professional army with broad experience of war, capable of operating in harmony with the other branches of the military (air, sea, ground, armoured and irregular forces).
- It has forced the government in Damascus to create a National Defence Force (NDF) and 16 more Special Forces Brigades who go through one and a half years of training, capable of using all kinds of weapons: equipped also with robust ideology and the enthusiasm to face ideologues very similar to Hezbollah. This force will, doubtless, be used to claim the return of the occupied Golan Heights from Israel.
Are Iran and Hezbollah ready to attack Israel?
Russia won’t intervene between Iran and Hezbollah if they direct their guns against Israel or attack the Israeli Defnce Forces from the southern Syrian front. Russia is not concerned about this struggle; therefore, no sudden attacks are expected on the Syrian-Israeli borders as long no Hezbollah casualties are registered by Israeli strikes against Hezbollah ammunition targets in Syria.
Nevertheless, Assad may consider claiming his land back since he enjoys today similar potential forces to Hezbollah. Assad no longer needs chemical weapons, which create disproportionate noise worldwide. Long-range missiles with enough destructive power and a force capable of operating guerrilla warfare Hezbollah-style: these two elements have created a deadly combination, triggering serious worries for Israel and the US.
The war is not over yet
The Syrian war is not over yet; nevertheless, its course becomes clearer with the determination of Russia to win the war regardless of any possible changes or complications. The death or removal of Assad becomes irrelevant to the course of events in the long-term future.
Russia won this round in Syria. If the newly elected President Donald Trump follows his declared policy to avoid overthrowing governments and to fight terrorism, it means the US didn’t lose. In this case, the Russian-US objectives will meet: this after the deaths of hundreds of thousands, and the displacement of millions of refugees, caused by the US interventionist “neocon” administrations throughout the years. When two superpowers fight in the Middle East, there are no winners in that part of the world only the destruction of the land and of people losing their lives and property. At the end of the day, Syria has become a territory divided between Russian and American influence and a platform for their dispute to settle.