Russian intervention in Syria: significant, but not a ‘game changer’

The Strategist, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 29/10

On September 30th, Russian aircraft began the bombardment of 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 north west 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 do not appear close to bringing the war to a conclusion.  Rather, the variety of inter-locking conflicts which 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 the soil of the country.  These 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 organization, 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 organization’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 north west 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 summer, 2012.

The Russian intervention was an emergency response to rebel advances in north west 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.

These forces captured Idleb 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 spelt 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 September 30th that Moscow was targeting IS positions as well as those of the rebels, it is observable fact that the great bulk of the attacks have targeted Idleb, 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 cannot 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 which 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 not 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 which 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 would even be willing to offer sir 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.

What all this means is that the Russian intervention into Syria, while undoubtedly significant, does not 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.  But the Russian intervention is not 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.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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2 Responses to Russian intervention in Syria: significant, but not a ‘game changer’

  1. Yonatan Karmi says:

    The main question now is how long Russia, Iran and Hizballah will be prepared to prop up the regime and the Syrian Army. As JS says, expanding the area under regime control is pointless. Eventually, I think Assad will have little choice but to relinquish Damascus, Aleppo and the other cities in order to fall back into Latakia and Tartous provinces. The main fight will then be over who controls the rest of Syria, ie. the great bulk of it.

  2. Ruth Hirt says:

    It is perceptive, the brothers-at-arms of Assad, Iran and Russia have been keeping the world on its toes, surely, these ”helps” won’t come free, they are self-serving. Don’t you think so ?

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