Assads Autumn Offensive

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Houthi retreat in Yemen indicates Iranian limitations

Jerusalem Post, 10/10

While regional news remains dominated by the dramatic events under way in Syria, further south and east important developments are taking place in one of the more neglected arenas of the regional struggle – Yemen.

Events in Yemen are noteworthy because they counter the notion that as a result of the Obama Administration’s exit from the region and in the wake of the nuclear agreement, an unstoppable Iranian advance across the Middle East is inevitable.  In Yemen, what is taking place is the halting of an Iranian client by forces supported by the Arab Gulf states, most importantly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The Iran-supported Ansar Allah movement, more popularly known as the Houthis, seized control of the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, in September, 2014.  The government of President Abd-al  Rabbo Mansour Hadi was forced into exile in Saudi Arabia.  The Houthis and their allies then began a march to the south, intending to seize the Gulf of Aden and unite the country under their control.

Preventing this was a matter of strategic importance for the opponents of the Houthis, and of their Iranian backers.  Control of south west Yemen  would have given the  Houthis (and hence the Iranians) the ability to choke off energy supplies making their way from the Persian Gulf to the Suez Canal, via the narrow Bab al-Mandeb Strait.

Saudi and Emirati assistance to Yemeni government forces seeking to prevent this outcome began on March 26thEgyptMoroccoJordanSudan, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain also joined the coalition against the Houthis.  These countries provided air support to government forces.

The Houthi offensive, in which the Zaidi Shia tribesmen were supported by military elements loyal to the ousted dictator Ali Abdulah Saleh, stalled in the face of Saudi-supported resistance.  The Houthis came close to capturing Aden City in late March. But this was the furthest point of their advance.

In the course of the summer, Saudi and UAE supported forces succeeded in driving the Houthis out of Aden, enabling Prime Minister Hadi to return to the city.

As of now, after the death of around 4900 people in the conflict, the Houthis have agreed to adhere to a seven point plan brokered by the UN at talks in Muscat, Oman.  The plan includes a ceasefire and the return of the government to Sana’a.

It is not yet clear if the ceasefire will be implemented, and skepticism remains in order.  But if the reports are correct, the Houthi declaration follows a series of defeats they have suffered at the hands of the Saudi-led coalition in recent weeks.

Coalition forces recently secured the Bab al Mandeb area and also captured the strategic Marib Dam in Marib Province, held by the Houthis since the spring.  Saudi supported forces are currently poised to begin an assault on Taiz province, one of the last remaining strongholds of the Houthis in the south of the country.

The largely ignored events in Yemen reflect the reality of an ongoing Saudi-Iranian contest which itself forms part of the broader Sunni-Shia conflict currently bisecting the Middle East.  Success in restoring the Hadi government in Yemen, if it takes place, will be a major boost to the Saudis, who fear being ‘encircled’ by pro-Iranian forces – given Iranian influence in Iraq and in Yemen.

Other than the strategic issue of control of Bab el Mandeb, why should events in Yemen matter outside of its immediate environs?

They matter for the following reason:  in the series of Saudi-Iranian proxy wars taking place across the region, the Iranians appeared to enjoy a clear advantage.  As a revolutionary republic, possessing an instrument specifically designed for the establishment and promotion of proxy political-military organizations (the Qods Force of the Revolutionary Guards Corps), their ascendancy seemed assured.  Many rightly fear that once the Iranians begin to receive sanctions relief following the conclusion of the agreement on their nuclear program, they will be free to continue and increase their support for the long list of regional proxies they maintain.

But in Yemen, the Saudis appear to have held an Iranian proxy to a draw. The Houthis are not destroyed, but their victory and serious strategic gains for the Iranians have been prevented.

This process fits into a larger picture in which Iranian interference – in Yemen, in Syria, in Iraq – appears more usually to lead to the division of countries and ongoing civil war rather than to a clear Iranian triumph.  Only in tiny Lebanon can an Iranian proxy (Hizballah) be said to have established a position of acknowledged military superiority.  But even there, Hizballah does not seek to rule alone.

Thus, Iran finds itself in a position of involvement in a whole series of conflicts in the Middle East, supporting powerful players, while prevailing as yet in none.  Events in Yemen this week offer further proof that any notion of an Iranian juggernaut sweeping over the Middle East as a result of US withdrawal from it is exaggerated.  The Iranians and their allies are powerful regional players, but inbuilt limitations are likely to prevent them from achieving the regional hegemony they dream of.  Rather, Iranian regional machinations are set to continue and exacerbate strife and division across the region, while failing to resolve it with clear victories for  Teheran.

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Toward the abyss in Jerusalem?

PJmedia, 8/10.

The first rains that follow the High Holy Days have come to Jerusalem.  As always, a blessed relief.  But no relief seems imminent from the renewed tensions that have descended on the city.  A series of brutal murders and attempted murders of Israeli Jewish civilians by Palestinian Arab Muslims have taken place over the last two weeks.  These have occurred against a backdrop of violent demonstrations and protests in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and increasingly among Israel’s Arab citizens.

For five years, Israel has lived a strange and contradictory reality.  The Arab world is in an advanced state of meltdown.  A number of formerly strong states have effectively ceased to exist.  Syria, Iraq, Yemen are today merely names for areas in which sectarian militias battle one another.  These states have collapsed along their ethnic and sectarian faultlines.  The results have been bloody and are not yet over.

Yet on the edge of all this, the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea has remained quiet.  An anomaly.  This is the only place of non-Muslim sovereignty between Europe and India.  The existence of a sovereign area successfully defended by the Jews – a group traditionally despised and ridiculed by Muslims – has long been a source of rage and humiliation for both Sunni and Shia.

Why then, at a time when religious and sectarian identity was everywhere breaking through the thin membrane of ‘national’ and ‘state’ loyalty had this area of non-Muslim sovereignty been spared major strife?

Four  reasons: Firstly, the Jewish state, despite its small size, enjoyed a vast military and technological advantage over its neighbors/enemies.  Any Islamist force wishing to make war on Israel needed to take into account that the likely result would be devastation for its own side, set against meager fruits in terms of damage inflicted on the hated enemy.  Two powerful Islamist militias, Hamas and Hizballah, have been largely deterred in recent years  through this equation.

Secondly, Palestinian Sunni Arabs watch the progress of events in the region, and this in itself acts as a deterrent against acting against Israel.  Those of them who have Israeli citizenship benefit enormously from the western levels of social organization and liberty in Israel. Those in the West Bank are themselves able to live lives of a level of tranquility and comfort quite unimaginable to inhabitants of, say, Iraq or Syria.  This gives pause for thought.

Thirdly, the Second Intifada was not that long ago.  The armed structures that prosecuted it on behalf of the Palestinians were largely broken and are only now re-building themselves.  The population remembers the chaos and suffering and again has cause to think twice before supporting a return to those days.

Fourthly, the Palestinian Authority leadership understands that it will not be the beneficiary of a turn toward the street.  Its leadership and their families live well and peacefully in Ramallah. The IDF keeps them safe from regional and local demons. The political beneficiaries of the Second Intifada were Hamas.  This time around, the forces that will emerge on the street are likely to be tied to or inspired by the example of the Sunni jihadis currently flourishing in Syria and Iraq.

These are all good reasons why Israel and the PA-ruled areas have been quiet over the last half decade.  Nevertheless, that quiet has undergone a tremor in recent weeks.  A Third Intifada is not quite here yet, but the momentum toward it is building.

What are the dynamics that are leading to this, which may yet prove stronger than the factors listed above?

Not for the first time in this country’s history, the spark that may yet be fanned into a fire is set on the area of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem.  This is the site of the Jewish Temples, the second of which was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70.   Today, it hosts the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, symbols of the many centuries of Muslim domination of the area.

The issue which is fanning the flames of the current events, repeated endlessly in Palestinian media, social media, and public discourse, is the supposed ‘threat’ to al-Aqsa.  Naïve western commentary, predictably, is convinced that this religious fury and fervor must be concealing something else, inevitably socio-economic and secular in essence.   But examples from the rest of the region show that religious and sectarian identity need to be taken seriously as forces in their own right.  If the people involved say, again and again, that its about religion, then its worth listening to them. Thus it is in Syria. Thus it is in Iraq, and in Lebanon. And thus it is among the Palestinians.

The desire of a small group of Jews to have the right to pray on the Temple Mount, far from the mosques and without troubling them, is producing the wave of murderous fury which is currently gripping Jerusalem and its environs.  Popular Palestinian newspapers such as al-Quds and al-Ayyam have been leading for months with details of this supposed threat.  Hamas and the Islamic Movement in Israel reference it constantly in their propaganda.  Social media sites affiliated with Fatah or Hamas such as the Shehab ‘news agency’ keep up the drumbeat of propaganda.

Thus a non-existent threat becomes the trigger for violence. Then, when Israel’s efforts to combat this violence produce deaths among the Palestinians, these too are added fuel to the flames.

We are not quite beyond the point of no return.  The PA leadership is trying now belatedly to turn back from the course of confrontation. The factors listed above have not vanished.  But the Palestinian Arab Muslim population of the West Bank is closer to a new uprising than at any time over the last ten years.

This time around, the ‘uprising’ has so far taken the form of nihilistic and barbaric attacks on individual Jews (including a small child in the case of the attack in Jerusalem’s Old City).

In 2000, the model for Palestinian armed activity was Hizballah. This time, the current model of local successful ‘resistance’ is obvious.  It is the Islamic State.  There is still time for the Palestinians to turn back from the course of collision. Hopefully they will choose to do so.  The monsters likely to surface west of the Jordan River in the course of a new Intifada  will serve the interests of neither people.

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Moscow Rules in the Eastern Mediterranean


Targeting the jihadists. Source: TheAustralian

The Australian, 2/10

On Wednesday, Russian aircraft carried out the first bombings of rebel positions in Syria. The operation was not a surprise. It was the latest, most dramatic episode in a significant increase in Russian support for the beleaguered regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and has been under way since the beginning of last month.

This sharp increase in Moscow’s aid to Assad has brought the marines of Russia’s 810th Independent Naval Infantry Brigade to the port of Latakia, Syria’s principal port city.

At least 500 of these elite troops are assembled close to the Russian naval depot at Tartus, on Syria’s west coast, having arrived from their base with the Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol, on the disputed Crimean Peninsula, in the past month.

Moscow is sending hardware as well as troops: 28 combat aircraft at the last count — four Sukhoi Su-30 fighters, 12 Su-25 strike aircraft, 12 Su-24 attack fighters — along with numerous attack helicopters, seven state-of-the-art T-90 tanks, surface-to-air missile systems and advanced artillery.

Infrastructure work is under way, too. The focus is on the Bassel al-Assad air base outside Latakia city. But the naval depot at Tartus is also being expanded.

Satellite imagery recently published by IHS Jane’s Intelligence Review (in an article co-written by this reporter) shows additional infrastructure development at the Istamo weapons storage complex near al-Sanobar, also in Latakia province. Newly paved surfaces at Istamo were apparent. Temporary housing for up to 2000 personnel, of a type used by the Russians, also was visible near al-Sanobar.

All this represents a strategic move by President Vladimir Putin, of wide import and profound implications. The Assad regime is a longstanding ally of Moscow. This alliance goes back to the 1960s, when radical and pro-Soviet Arab nationalists first took power in Damascus. Putin has been backing the regime in its war with the rebellion against it since 2011.

Russia’s help has already proved invaluable. Moscow’s veto power at the UN Security Council made sure that no co-ordinated international action against the regime could take place in the early, optimistic days of the uprising. The continued supply of Russian weapons made sure that Assad’s armouries remained well-stocked.

Nevertheless, the present move is of an unprecedented scale. So why is it happening, why now, and what is Moscow seeking?

Saving an eroding regime

The most immediate reason for the sharp increase in Russian assistance to the Assad regime is that the dictator has been losing ground to the rebellion in recent months. Worse, from Moscow’s point of view, the rebels’ gains were bringing them close to the parts of Syria whose retention by the regime is essential for Russia.

Assad’s main problem, throughout the civil war, has been the shortage of men willing to take a bullet for him. This shortage of manpower was a product of the regime’s narrow support base. The Alawi sect, to which the Assads belong, comprises only about 12 per cent of the population of Syria.

The rebellion, meanwhile, was based among the country’s Sunni Arabs, comprising about 60 per cent of the population. (Kurds, Christians, Druze and Shia make up the bulk of the remainder.)

The increasingly Islamist rebellion found its ranks further strengthened by foreign volunteers. Assad had no similar line of support from young ideologues committed to his cause. But he did have assets and a strategy. His main asset was the loyalty of his allies. In contrast to Western countries that ostensibly supported the rebellion but did little practically, Assad’s Russian and Iranian allies did all in their power — diplomatically, politically and militarily — to keep their client in his seat.

The Iranians mobilised regional assets, including the capable Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, to join the fight and lessen the manpower problem. The Russians were there with weapons and diplomatic backing.

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.

A new, more effective rebel coalition called the Jaysh al-Fatah (Army of Conquest) declared its foundation on March 24. Backed by Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, this alliance achieved a string of battlefield successes against the regime in the vital northwest of the country this past northern spring and summer.

On April 25, this force took the strategic town of Jisr al-Shughur. This raised the possibility for the rebellion of moving the frontline into the populated areas of Latakia province. This would have brought the rebellion close to the Mediterranean, including to Russia’s naval depot at Tartus. It also would have called into question Assad’s ability to defend any of the remaining areas under his control.

This had to be stopped. The Russian deployment is part of a concerted effort to stop it. Moscow is set to shore up the regime’s crumbling defences.

In his speech at the UN General Assembly this week, Putin spoke of Assad’s armed forces as those who were fighting “terrorism face to face”. But it should be understood that the immediate danger to Assad’s regime in Syria’s west is represented not by Islamic State but by the rebel Jaysh al-Fatah coalition. Since Russia’s goal is the preservation of the regime, Moscow’s efforts to protect Assad are set to be directed against the Syrian rebels rather than Islamic State, whose main forces are located farther east. This was reflected in the choice of targets in the bombing raids on Wednesday.

So Russia’s intervention represents a sharp increase in the dimensions of a longstanding policy rather than a radically new departure for Moscow. Putin’s intention throughout has been to demonstrate the value of alliance with Moscow by showing how he protects his friends (and, while he’s doing it, to hold and expand Moscow’s only naval base outside of the former Soviet Union). 

How far will Putin go?
According to Sergey Ivanov, head of Russia’s presidential administration, the goal of the Russian deployment is “strictly to provide air support for the (Syrian) government forces in their fight against Islamic State”.

Putin undoubtedly is concerned about Islamic State’s rise and what its proliferation could mean for the restive Caucasus region and central Asia. One of Islamic State’s main military commanders, Abu Omar al-Shishani, is of Chechen-Georgian origin, and volunteers from the Caucasus are among the most brutal of the jihadi fighters in Syria.

But the deployment of the Russian forces in Syria indicates beyond doubt that the main concern of the Russians is to defend Assad against the rebels. The proclamations against Islamic State are a feint to add moral authority to the defence of the dictator.

In so far as Islamic State represents a threat to Assad, it does so in the Damascus area and in the Homs province. Islamic State ­forces are pushing across the desert, past Palmyra, nudging against Homs province and in some parts of Damascus, including Qadam and the Yarmouk camp.

But the Russians are not deploying in any strength in this area. Their deployment is on the western coast, a considerable distance from Islamic State but close to the lines of Jaysh al-Fatah (and taking in Russia’s naval assets in Tartus). The Russians have begun flights of Pchela-1t unmanned reconnaissance vehicles out of Latakia. These UAVs are conducting patrols over rebel-held territory to the immediate east of Latakia, not over Islamic State-held areas.

Given the scale of the deployment, there are no indications that Russia is set to take part in a major campaign to reconquer areas lost to the Assad regime. Rather, as it appears, the Russian intention is to prevent the rebels from pushing further into regime-held areas.

This will enable Moscow to preserve its assets in western Syria (it has little interest in or need for land farther east). No less important, it will enable the Russians to keep the Syrian war going.

Putin sees the eastern Mediterranean as the back yard of the West. In strategic terms, maintaining assets in an ongoing conflict in the West’s back yard is a natural goal as a means to offset the West’s holding of assets in Russia’s back yard: the former states of the western Soviet Union, most importantly Ukraine. So Russia’s determination to keep Assad in the game has a logic far beyond Syria. But almost certainly it does not include the costly and probably unachievable goal of winning complete victory for Assad.

The bear is back

The intervention is the latest bold move by a Russian President who perceives a strategic vacuum in the eastern Mediterranean, deriving from the US desire to avoid major commitments in the area. The failure to act following the regime’s use of chemical weapons in 2013 and half-hearted efforts by Western countries on behalf of the rebels reflect this Western determination to stay out as much as possible. In such a situation, Putin is likely to have calculated that a firm move on his part on the regime’s behalf in Syria would be without negative international consequence for Russia.

Framing the intervention in terms of the joint opposition to Islamic State would further contribute to lessening any chance of Western objection. As of now, this assessment seems to have paid off. The West appears to be backing off from its previously stated goal of demanding Assad’s departure. The result of Putin’s move and Western acquiescence to it is to introduce a new and powerful strategic player into the Middle East.

Russia appears to be making additional moves to consolidate its co-operation with other forces aligned with Syria. This week, Iraq announced an agreement with Moscow for sharing intelligence on Islamic State. Supporters of the so-called resistance axis in the region (which includes Iran, Iraq, Assad’s Syria, Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad) are depicting the Russian intervention as part of a larger process in which Moscow is concluding an overall alliance with this axis. One of these, Ibrahim al-Amin, editor of pro-Hezbollah newspaper al-Akhbar , has named the new alliance as the 4+1 bloc (Russia, Iran, Iraq, Syria plus Hezbollah).

Moscow certainly would deny the establishment of any such alliance. And it is notable that Russian diplomacy in the region has included an attempt to keep channels of communication and co-operation open with the enemies of Iran and Assad, including Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The precise contours and implications of Putin’s intervention into Syria are not yet clear. Russia’s economy is weak and this may well prevent Moscow doing much more than keeping its allies in the game. But what may be asserted with certainty is that Russia has returned as a determined and visible player on the ground in the Middle East for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Moscow looks poised to call the next round of shots in the contiguous area that once comprised the now collapsed states of Iraq and Syria. This represents a new strategic reality in the Middle East. For now, it’s Moscow rules in the eastern Mediterranean.

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Is Syria on the way to becoming a ‘frozen conflict’?

Jerusalem Post, 25/9

The latest moves on the regime side in the Syrian war suggest an effort by the regime’s allies including Russia to ‘freeze’ the conflict, rather than to continue it to victory.  This is because victory in the form originally conceived – of the reconquest of the entirety of the country by the Assads – is clearly no longer achievable.  To ‘freeze’ a conflict in this sense does not imply that the conflict will become inert or inactive, but only that it will continue to smolder on without resolution.

The newest statements by leaders and mouthpieces of the various elements supporting the dictator, meanwhile, offer clues as to how the ongoing conflict is to be presented by Assad’s allies – as a fight against ‘terrorism,’ as exemplified, they claim, by both the Islamic State and its rivals, Jabhat al-Nusra.

In terms of the situation on the ground, the arrival of Russian personnel and equipment to Latakia Province is intended to bolster the regime enclave in the western coastal area.  There are no indications, however, of a Russian strategy to take part in a ground campaign to claw back the large swathe of northern Syria lost to the rebels and IS.  Rather, the deployment suggests a limited ground component, with a greater focus on air capacity.

Images first published in an article by this author and Mark Galeotti in Janes’ Intelligence Review offered evidence of infrastructural improvements and ferrying of materiel by Russia to the Basel al-Assad International Airport in Latakia.  Russia is flying Pchela 1t unmanned aircraft from this site, and looks set to begin flights of fixed wing aircraft from there in the near future.  These air operations look set to back the beleaguered government forces, assisting them in their fight against the rebels and relieving pressure on Assad’s own overstretched air force.

Further south, the Beirut Daily Star reported this week that Hizballah is to end offensive operations in Syria, following the indecisive conclusion of the Qalamoun offensive, launched in July.  The purpose of this offensive was to clear the Sunni Islamist  rebels from the area north west of Damascus and just east of the Syria-Lebanon border.  The going was slower than expected, and Hizballah losses were high. The final stage of the offensive was the re-taking of the town of Zabadani.

However, it now looks as though Zabadani will be secured for the regime not through military conquest, but by a quid pro quo with the rebels.

Reuters reported this week on negotiations between representatives of the rebels via third parties with Iranian and Hizballah officials. The agreement concluded would allow for safe passage for remaining rebel fighters from the center of Zabadani. In return, the rebels would allow  the departure of remaining civilians from the Shia villages of al-Foua and Kefraya. These represent the last areas of government control in Idleb Province in the north west of the country.

Announced on Sunday, the ceasefire that accompanied the negotiations has so far held.  Having secured its objectives, albeit at a heavy cost and partly by negotiation, Hizballah now looks set to seek to hold these areas, as part of a larger effort on the part of the regime and its allies to consolidate control over the roughly 20% of Syria that remains to Assad.

The propagandists and spokespeople of the pro-Iranian regional bloc have already begun to frame this policy  as a  campaign against ‘terror.’ No doubt the increased use of air assets will be compared to the coalition air campaign against the Islamic State.  The latter in turn is likely to find itself also a target of increased regime attention, to make this comparison plausible.  But the real fight will be to defend the existing regime enclave against the rebels.

Ibrahim al-Amin, editor of the pro-Iran and pro-Hizballah al-Akhbar newspaper in Lebanon,  announced the arrival of a new bloc that he called the ‘4 + 1’ alliance against terror.  The ‘4’ are Russia, Iran, Iraq and Syria.  The additional ‘1’ is Hizballah.  According to al-Amin, this new alliance constitutes a ‘strategic shift’ in the Syrian situation, and is set to include the ‘sending of Russian and Iranian special forces to the areas controlled by President Bashar Assad.’

Amin, whose writing has a slightly overheated style which recalls the Arab nationalist propaganda of earlier decades, also predicts a major  ground role for Russian forces on the Syrian battlefield. The Russians, he asserts, will  ‘“play a prominent role on the ground and will participate in combat on the battlefield with their advanced weaponry by leading operations and taking part in artillery shelling, air raids and otherwise, alongside the Syrian army and Hezbollah.”

A rival, and less sanguine interpretation of Russia’s activity in Syria was authored by  Abd al Rahman al-Rashed, in the pro-Saudi Sharq al Awsat newspaper (of which al-Rashid is a former editor).

Al-Rashed speculated that the Russian build up in Latakia might presage a decision by the Assad regime to pull out of Damascus, and finally establish the long discussed Alawi enclave in the western coastal area.  He referred to the Russian and Iranian doubling down on support for Assad as a ‘lost game.’

But if Ibrahim al-Amin errs in depicting the ‘4 +1’ initiative as a matter of grand historic import, al-Rashed is perhaps excessive in tentatively suggesting that a regime retreat from the capital may be imminent, and in depicting Assad’s cause as hopeless.

The most beleaguered area for the regime in recent months has been the western coastal area itself, rather than Damascus.  As of now, the most immediate task facing Russia, Iran and the other allies of the regime is to solidify the regime’s hold precisely on the western coast.  Damascus, by contrast, is witnessing clashes between rebels and regime forces, but appears somewhat more solidly in the regime’s hands.

In recent weeks, the most notable dynamic in the Syrian war has been the absence of major changes in possession of ground, along with a sharp uptick in regime air activity and shelling.  This, combined with the local ceasefire in Zabadani and the Idleb front, suggests that the immediate goal of Assad’s allies is the preservation of the regime enclave as currently constituted, rather than the grander ‘war on terror’ painted by regime and pro-Hizballah propaganda or the more desperate retreat depicted by al-Rashed.

If this goal is achieved, might this in turn lead to Syria becoming another of the ‘frozen conflicts’ which are the speciality of Russian strategy as presently constituted?  Given the balance of forces on the ground and the diplomatic deadlock, this possibility should by no means be ruled out.

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Appearance on CNN, to discuss Israel-Russian relations and Syria

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The bear steps in

Jerusalem Post, 11/9

Moscow doubles down on support for Assad with military buildup in northwest Syria

The current increase of the Russian military presence in northwest Syria is a function of the declining military fortunes of the Assad regime. It represents a quantitative, rather than qualitative, change in the nature of the Russian engagement in Syria.

Moscow’s goal throughout the conflict has been to keep Syrian President Bashar Assad in power by all means necessary. The ends remain the same. But as the situation on the ground changes, so the Russian means employed to achieve this goal must change with it.

Since the outset of the Syrian civil war, the key problem for Assad has been manpower. Against a Sunni Arab rebellion with a vast pool of potential fighters from Syria’s 60 percent Sunni Arab majority and from among foreign volunteers, the regime has been forced to draw ever deeper from a far shallower base.

At the outset of the conflict, the Syrian Arab Army was on paper a huge force – of 220,000 regular soldiers plus an additional 280,000 reserves. But the vast majority of this army was unusable by the dictator. This is because it consisted overwhelmingly of Sunni conscripts, whose trustworthiness from the regime’s point of view was seriously in doubt. Since then, the army has shrunk in size from attrition, desertion and draft dodging.

The story of the last four years has been the attempt by Assad and his allies to offset the reality of insufficient manpower for the task at hand. This has been achieved by two means.

First, the regime has chosen to retreat from large swathes of the country, in order to be able to more effectively hold the essential areas it has to maintain with its limited numbers.

The abandonment of the country’s east and north led to the emergence of the areas of control held by Kurdish, Sunni Arab rebel, and later al-Qaida and Islamic State forces in these areas.

But of course retreating in order to consolidate is a strategy that can be pursued only so far. At a certain point, the area remaining becomes no longer viable for the purpose intended – namely, the preservation of the regime in a form that can guarantee the needs of its Russian and Iranian backers, and the relative security of the ruling elite itself and to a lesser extent of the population which relies on it and upon which it relies.

To offset the arrival at this point, Assad and his friends have striven in ever more creative ways to put sufficient men in the field, and to maintain the edge in military equipment which could hold back the masses of the lightly armed rebels.

There were the hastily assembled Alawi irregulars of the “shabiha.” Then an increasing commitment of Iranian regional assets – including the Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqi Shi’ite militia forces. Then there was the Iranian-trained National Defense Forces. In recent months, northwest Syria has witnessed the arrival of “volunteers” from as far afield as the Hazara Shi’ite communities of Afghanistan (paid for by Tehran).

Despite all this effort, the rebels have, since the spring, been pushing westward toward Latakia province.

If the rebels reach Latakia, there is nowhere left to retreat to. The regime and its allies must hold the province or face defeat. The appearance of apparently Russian-crewed BTR-82A APCs on the Latakia battlefield appears to be testimony to Russia’s awareness of this – and its willingness to dig deeper for Assad – even if this means the direct deployment of Russian personnel on the battlefield in a limited way.

The apparent deployment of a growing force of the Russian army’s 810th Independent Marine Brigade at and around the naval depot of Tartus in Latakia province offers further evidence of this commitment, as well as a pointer to the interests in Syria that Moscow regards as vital.

The bolder claims of Russian Pchela 1T UAVs and even Sukhoi Su-27 fighter jets over the skies of the Idlib battlefield are not yet confirmed. But the respected Ruslanleviev Russian investigative website found the evidence regarding the APCs and the marines around Tartus to be persuasive.

There is a reason why the rebel march toward Latakia cannot simply be absorbed by the regime as a further tactical withdrawal, analogous to earlier retreats from Hasakah, Quneitra, most of Deraa, Aleppo, Idlib and so on.

Latakia province is the heartland of the Syrian Alawi community. It is a place where regime supporters have been able to convince themselves for most of the last four years that here, at least, they were safe.

If the rebels break through on the al-Ghab Plain, and the front line moves decisively into the populated areas of Latakia, this will be over.

The loss of Latakia province would render the hope of keeping a regime enclave intact no longer viable. It will raise the possibility of the regime losing its control of Syria’s coastline (vital for Assad’s Russian and Iranian backers).

This, in turn, could mean rebel capture of the Tartus naval depot. Hence the deployment of the marines, who, according to information available, have not yet been placed in forward positions facing the rebels. Rather, they are gathered around Tartus for its defense.

So the steady rebel advance in the direction of Latakia is producing a Russian response of a volume and nature not before witnessed on the Syrian battlefield.

Russian weaponry and Russian diplomatic support have been the vital lifelines for Assad throughout the last four years. Previous levels of support are no longer enough. So more is being provided.

Still, the current indications do not appear to suggest or presage a major conventional deployment of Russian forces. That would go against the known pattern favored by President Vladimir Putin.

Rather, Russian assistance, while on the increase, is likely to be limited to an active support role, perhaps extending to the use of some air power, along with behind-the-scenes advisory and training roles and the use of some specialized personnel in combat or combat support roles.

Meanwhile, as the Russians arrive in Latakia, the rebel mopping up of remaining regime enclaves in Idlib province adjoining Latakia is continuing. A force of the Jaysh al-Fatah (Army of Conquest) this week captured the last remaining regime air base in the province, at Abu Zuhour.

Jaysh al-Fatah is a union of the northwest’s most powerful rebel groups. Prominent among its components is Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian franchise of al-Qaida. This coalition, supported by Turkey and Qatar and armed with advanced weapons by Saudi Arabia, is altering the military landscape of northwest Syria.

In the weeks ahead, the fighting in northwest Hama and Latakia provinces looks set to intensify, with the Sunni rebels seeking to push further toward the coast.

Assad’s benighted regime, aided by its Russian and Iranian friends, will be throwing everything into the effort to stop them. It remains to be seen if the Russian bear’s increased pressure on the scales will prove again sufficient to maintain the balance.

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