Game changer

Print edition : October 28, 2016

A bus set ablaze following a reported air strike in Salaheddin district of Aleppo on September 25. Photo: AMEER ALHALBI/AFP

President Bashar AL-Assad (centre) walks with officials after performing the morning Eid al-Adha prayers in Daraya, a Damascus suburb, on September 12. Photo: AP

A year after the Russian military intervention, the Syrian Army and its allies have recaptured large swathes of Syrian territory from the jehadist forces. But the West and its allies are not keen on a negotiated settlement.

It was at the end of September last year that Russia, in a surprise move, dispatched its planes and troops to Syria at the request of the government in Damascus. The jehadi forces and their Western-backed allies were intent on delivering the coup de grace to the legitimate secular government before the end of that year. More territory and towns, including the historical city of Palmyra, had fallen to the terrorist Daesh (Islamic State) and the Jabhat al-Nusra. The United States and its allies had been waiting for the much-heralded regime change in Syria even as the country was awash in blood and suffering.

Russian President Vladimir Putin in his 2105 speech at the United Nations General Assembly used strong words to chide the West for remaining indifferent to the threat of Syria descending into chaos and becoming another safe haven for terrorists of all hues. “Do you realise what you have done?” Putin said in his landmark speech. “What we propose is to join efforts to address the challenges all of us are facing and create a genuinely broad international coalition against terrorism,” he said.

The swift deployment of Russian planes and troops in Syria took the U.S. and its allies completely off guard. The response from the West was slow in coming. At first, Moscow was warned that it was stepping into another military quagmire. U.S. President Barack Obama was among the first to issue such dire predictions. A week after Russia started its aerial operations against the Daesh in early October last year, Obama said Moscow’s military plans against the terrorist groups “won’t work”. Senior U.S. officials also started describing the Russian intervention as yet another illustration of Moscow’s “great power ambitions”.

A year after the Russian intervention, the results on the ground are self-evident. Around the same time last year, jehadi groups led by the al-Nusra Front and the Ahrar al-Sham, fighting jointly under the banner of the “Victory Army”, had captured the northern strategic cities of Idlib and Jisr al-Shigour. The Syrian government’s stronghold of Latakia had also come under imminent threat after the fall of Jisr al-Shigour. After the Russian military intervention, the Syrian Army and its allies recaptured large swathes of lost territory from the jehadist forces. Palmyra was among the first cities to be liberated from the depredations of the Daesh. Russian archaeologists and engineers are helping the Syrians repair and restore some of the antiquities that were destroyed by the Daesh.

Aleppo, Syria’s commercial capital, is also on the verge of being totally liberated, despite eleventh-hour efforts by the West and its regional proxies to rush in anti-aircraft batteries and more sophisticated weaponry. On October 2, the Syrian government offered safe passage to the opposition fighters from parts of eastern Aleppo that they were desperately clinging on to.

The Syrian Kurds, who were dreaming of establishing an autonomous state along the border with Turkey, will now have to exercise more caution. Turkey has entered the military fray in Syria, with its main focus on the Syrian Kurds. The Syrian Kurds who initially allied with the Syrian Army and Russia to push back the Daesh and the al-Nusra Front, became ambitious and turned their guns on the Syrian Army and pro-government militias.

After the Russian intervention, the Syrian Army, despite being overstretched, tightened its military cordon around cities like Douma and Harastha, while registering military victories in Idlib, Hasaka and Dara. Russian air support has been crucial to the advances made by the Syrian Army. The Hizbollah and Shia fighters from Iran, Afghanistan and other countries have also made invaluable contributions in the fight against the “takfiri” forces.

Crucial involvement

Many experts on the region admit that active Russian involvement was crucial to stave off the serious threat posed by the jehadist forces to the entire region and beyond. Syria was in danger of becoming another Libya. The horrendous refugee problem would have got worse and the lives of ethnic and religious minorities in Syria would have been in more jeopardy had Russia not intervened.

But the U.S. and its allies have been less than grateful for the Russian military intervention. The Obama administration had after a while agreed to share information on the Daesh so as to plan attacks better and to avoid mid-air accidents during bombing raids. But it has not been cooperative in the efforts to coordinate attacks on the al-Nusra Front fighters. This has been more than evident in the ongoing siege of Aleppo. One of the major reasons for the collapse of a week-long ceasefire agreed upon by the U.S. and Russia was the lack of interest or the inability of the U.S. to separate the so-called moderate fighters from the al-Nusra Front.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in late September that the al-Nusra commanders had admitted to receiving arms shipments from the West. Lavrov also told his U.S. counterpart that many of the “armed moderate groups” trained and financed by the Gulf monarchies had merged with the al-Nusra Front in Aleppo and other areas.

Lavrov told the BBC that the U.S. was keeping the al-Nusra Front as a standby option to achieve its goal of regime change in Syria. “They still, in spite of many repeated promises and commitments, are not able or are not willing to do this, and we have more and more reasons to believe that from the very beginning their plan was to spare al-Nusra and keep it just in case of a Plan B or Stage Two when it would be time to change the regime,” Lavrov alleged. The separation of the so-called moderate forces from the hard-core jehadists like the al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front was the cornerstone of the short-lived ceasefire agreement in September. Lavrov also said that every time a ceasefire was put in place, the al-Nusra Front used it as a pretext to smuggle in more foreign fighters and ammunition.

Turkey has shown by word and deed that it is only interested in targeting the Daesh and the Syrian Kurds. The government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan has remained a consistent backer of the al-Nusra Front though it is no longer vocal about the departure of Bashar al-Assad from Damascus.

The Obama administration, fast running out of options in Syria, has been issuing belligerent statements accusing Russia of indiscriminately targeting civilians and the “moderate groups” that are fighting in tandem with the al-Nusra Front. The U.S. State Department issued a warning in late September that it was considering the suspension of a “bilateral engagement” with Russia in Syria “unless Russia takes immediate steps to end the assault on Aleppo”. Washington also made veiled threats about openly targeting the Syrian Army.

It was the attack on the Syrian Army by the U.S. Air Force that led to the breakdown of the ceasefire agreed in September. There are few takers for Washington’s explanation that it targeted inadvertently the Syrian Army while battling jehadi forces. Before the ceasefire agreement, the two sides had agreed to conduct joint military operations against jehadist targets.

Anti-aircraft missiles

A senior U.S. State Department official went to the extent of making the dire prediction that Russian troops would soon be leaving Syria in “body bags”. U.S. officials said the failure of diplomatic talks with Moscow would allow them to supply more sophisticated weapons to the rebels through the auspices of their Gulf allies. The American officials clarified that shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, (Manpads) would not be supplied to the rebels.

The missiles in the hands of either the al-Nusra Front or the Daesh would be a dangerous prospect for all planes, regardless of nationality, flying over the region. Manpads were reputed to be highly effective in Afghanistan. The Americans had supplied these weapons to the Afghan mujahideen, the terrorist precursors of Al Qaeda and the Daesh.

John Kerry was caught on tape advocating the use of more direct U.S. military force in Syria. Speaking to a group of Syrian opposition activists at the U.N. headquarters in New York, Kerry complained that his diplomatic efforts to help the Syrian opposition were not backed up by the use of military force by the Obama administration.

It is no secret that the Obama administration is split on its strategy for Syria. The lame-duck President does not want to be sucked into a Libya-like situation in yet another Arab and Muslim country. Influential forces in the Pentagon and the State Department have urged the U.S. President to act more forcefully on Syria in order to shore up the declining fortunes of its allies in the region.

Moscow has rejected Washington’s call for an immediate ceasefire and a halt to the operations in Aleppo. Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, reacting to Kerry’s threat to cut off talks with Moscow on the issue, said that Moscow had been consistently suggesting “48 hour humanitarian pauses” so that aid could flow into the beleaguered parts of Aleppo city. “But our American friends are totally fixated on demands of a seven-day pause for reasons that only they know,” Ryabkov told the media in Moscow. A seven-day pause, he explained, was sufficient for the jehadi groups to replenish their weaponry, regroup and avail themselves of much-needed rest.

The Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, rejected a U.S. State Department spokesman’s assertion that Russia was focussing on extremist groups in Syria because they could “attack Russian interests, perhaps even Russian cities”. Peskov said it revealed “the current American administration’s de facto support for terrorism”.

Russia, like the other backers of the Syrian government, such as Iran, is calling for a negotiated political settlement to the conflict in Syria which is now entering its sixth year. But the West and its allies do not want serious talks to begin at a time when the Syrian government has the upper hand in the military conflict. They also are aware that in a free and fair election or referendum, Assad and the legitimate Syrian government will emerge triumphant.