On 30 September, Russian aircraft began bombarding rebel and Islamic State targets in Syria, heralding a new phase in Syria’s long and bloody civil war. The Russian attacks were accompanied by an assembling of pro-regime ground forces for a renewed offensive to reverse recent rebel gains in the northwest of the country.
The Russian air intervention and the ground offensive by Syrian, Iranian, and Iraqi and Lebanese Shia forces has removed any immediate threat to the regime enclave in Syria’s western coastal area. Yet these latest developments don’t appear close to bringing the war to a conclusion. Rather, the variety of inter-locking conflicts that now constitute the Syrian war appear far from resolution, with some movement on the ground but nothing suggesting a final coup de grace, or indeed a political process which could bring the conflict to an end.
The civil war in Syria, it should be remembered, is no longer a single conflict. Rather, there are no fewer than five separate but interlocking wars taking place on Syrian soil. Those are: the ‘original’ war between the Assad regime and the largely Sunni Arab rebellion against it, the war between the Kurdish YPG (Peoples’ Protection Units) and the Islamic State organisation, conflict between the rebels and Islamic State in the north and south of the country, clashes between the Islamic State and the Assad regime in Homs and Aleppo provinces, and finally Turkish attacks on the Kurdish YPG (most recently in the town of Tel Abyad) because of that organisation’s links with the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party).
The Russian intervention is of direct relevance to only one of these conflicts—that between the regime and the Sunni Arab rebellion.
The regime/Russian/Iranian offensive against the rebels is currently making some progress in the southern Aleppo countryside. While Russian and regime bombing in the Ghab plain area prevents any further significant move forward by rebels, pro-regime forces are seeking to encircle Aleppo city, and eventually to link up with two Shia villages northwest of it, Nubl and Zahra.
If the encirclement is completed, this would be of high significance, because it would serve to cut off the rebels in Aleppo from their supply lines across the Syrian–Turkish border. Aleppo, Syria’s second city, has been contested between the rebels and the regime since the summer of 2012.
The Russian intervention was an emergency response to rebel advances in northwest Syria in the preceding months. A new rebel alliance, the Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest), declared in March 2015, had made considerable gains in the months prior to the intervention. This new bloc brought together a number of the most powerful rebel militias in Syria’s north, including the Syrian franchise of al-Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Salafi Ahrar al-Sham.
Those forces captured Idlib city and the strategic town of Jisr al-Shughur in the spring of this year. This left the way open for a rebel push into the regime controlled Latakia province on the western coast. Latakia contains the Russian naval depot at Tartus, the only Russian naval facility outside of the former Soviet Union.
This would have spelled potential disaster both for the Assad regime and its Russian patron. The Russian intervention was intended first and foremost to prevent this. This is clear—despite the hollow claim by Moscow that its intervention was intended to help the regime in its fight against Islamic State.
This is confirmed by the pattern of Russian bombing in Syria—overwhelmingly directed not against IS, but rather against rebel targets adjoining regime-controlled areas at vulnerable points. While Russian spokesmen have claimed from the outset of the bombing campaign on 30 September that Moscow was targeting IS positions as well as those of the rebels, it’s an observable fact that the great bulk of the attacks have targeted Idlib, Hama, Latakia and Homs provinces. These are the areas immediately adjoining the regime’s vulnerable western coastal enclave. The IS presence in them is minimal to non-existent. So the goals of the Russian offensive are clear.
But while Moscow can save its client from immediate destruction, it can’t resolve the key strategic dilemma facing the regime. From the outset of the war, Assad’s problem has been an insufficient number of men willing to engage in the fighting on his behalf. This derived from the narrow sectarian basis of the regime. Assad’s own Alawi sect accounted for only about 12% of Syria’s population (compared with around 60% for the Sunni Arabs who formed the core of the rebellion against him). This absence of manpower is what lies behind the retreats from large swathes of territory that the regime has undertaken in the course of the last three years. The regime has sought to reduce the area under its control in order to govern it effectively.
But what this means is that the air assistance of the Russians can do little but preserve the regime enclave. Assad can’t afford to advance far from his current area of control, because the acquisition of new areas to rule would then revive the original problem of manpower shortages that made the retreat necessary in the first place.
The Iranians, of course, are providing the manpower for the current regime offensive. But unless Teheran envisages placing Sunni areas of northern Syria under permanent occupation, this is only a temporary solution.
The Russian intervention has been accompanied by diplomatic moves from Moscow, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov saying after a surprise visit by Assad to Moscow that Russia supports preparations for ‘parliamentary and presidential elections’ in Syria, and that it would even be willing to offer air support to rebels in combat against Islamic State.
Given that Moscow envisages a continued role for Assad throughout this projected political process, however, it is unlikely to have much purchase with rebels, who have been fighting for four years to bring down his dictatorship.
The Russian intervention into Syria, while undoubtedly significant, doesn’t appear to be a ‘game changer’ in the Syrian war, presaging its early conclusion. Rather, Moscow took the decision to double down on its support for the Assad regime at a time when it was experiencing extreme difficulty.
The Russian intervention isn’t of a type and scale which can deliver victory to Assad. Nor will it impact significantly on the other conflict systems currently under way in the land area that was once Syria.
Reprinted with author’s permission from Middle East Forum