Russia strengthens Assad but not decisively

Submitted by Matthew on 5 October, 2016 - 11:41 Author: Simon Nelson

It is five years since the birth of the oppostion to Assad's regime in Syria. There are now 4.8 million refugees. Of these a mere 10% have gone to Europe.

An additional 6.5 million Syrians have been “internally displaced”. 13.5 million rely on humanitarian aid. This is a country, and a population that has changed beyond all recognition.

Bombardment by Russian jets and the combined force of the Syrian army and Iranian controlled Shia militias continues to starve and brutalise areas still governed by different rebel factions. This brutality goes far beyond the siege of Aleppo which has so shocked the world. The effect of these actions has to substantially increase the power and dominance of the Government, and for the rebels to suffer a series of defeats, and to splinter. The US has only given wavering support to the anti-Assad forces, and that is very dependent on strict conditions that the rebels break links with Fateh al Sham (formally affiliated with al-Qaeda). Yet these same groups are often the most highly organised and have the best access to funds (much of which flows in from the Gulf States).

Russia's military, it is clear, have intervened to bolster the Assad regime. They have transformed the conflict in the regime’s favour. Russia's intervention is much stronger than that of the US. The US have focused on targeting and policing the extreme end of the jihadist spectrum — Daesh and Fatah al-Sham — rather than supporting any other section of the opposition. The US intervention is about preventing the rise of something worse than Assad. Russia’s intervention is about ensuring that Assad wins and that the entire opposition is crushed.

As the Syrian army has seen mass desertions since the outbreak of the conflict in 2011, it is in no position to wage this war alone. Indeed, that weakness presents a problem to the Russian state, implying that only a much heavier Russian intervention could secure victory for Assad. A retired senior Russian officer writing (anonymously) on a semi critical but Kremlin controlled news site, Gazeta.ru, has called for Russia to end its military engagement as he believes that Assad cannot win the war with the armed forces he has. He says the rebels are better organised, more dedicated and are more militarily experienced then the worn out conscripts of the Syrian forces.

“At the start of the civil war, the government troops enjoyed a quantitative advantage in everything… Assad could reasonably hope for a swift success in fighting irregular armed groups of the rebels.
“However, the Syrian Civil War… confirmed that a numeric and technical advantage is not enough to achieve victory.

“To win a military conflict, just like in old times, one needs a strong spirit, an unyielding will for victory, trust in oneself and one’s troops, decisiveness, bravery, inventiveness, flexibility and an ability to lead others. All this lacks severely in Assad’s army.”

Talks in Geneva in February 2016 produced no agreement between the big external powers, but lots of argument as to who could be seen to legitimately represent which groups on the ground. The short-lived ceasefire in September was dramatically shattered by the Russian bombing of a UN aid convoy attempting to bring relief to Aleppo.

For the residents of eastern Aleppo the ending of the ceasefire was incredibly quick. The city suffered over 100 deaths recorded in the first 24 hours after the end of the ceasefire. 250,000 remain in need of humanitarian aid.

The end of the conflict, and of the suffering, is not imminent. The corollary is that Assad may not stay in power and he may yet not retain control of Syria. He certainly will be unable to do so without the support of Russia and Iran.

Russia's responsibility for the breaking of the ceasefire is clear, notwithstanding the attacks against Syrian troops by coalition forces, purportedly by mistake. This is never acknowledged by the left “peace movement” in the UK, the Stop the War Coalition.

Chris Nineham’s article on the StW website on 20 September denies the attack on the UN convoy was the direct cause of the breakdown of the ceasefire and it makes no mention of Russia’s ongoing role in the war. The UK left ignores Russian imperialism because it does not want to undermine its opposition to the US, UK and other western power's role in Syria and wider area. This is crass, discredits the left, and undermines its ability to provide any meaningful solidarity or support to the people suffering under Assad’s regime.

Without whitewashing the reactionary Islamist politics of militias that dominate the Syrian opposition, the main perpetrator of deadly terror against the Syrian people is Assad and his Russian backers. The left has to be very clear on this point.

The US’s role is not benign, but is characterised more by its inaction then any aggressive attempt to bomb Syria into oblivion. In a recording picked up by the New York Times, John Kerry is heard telling a Syrian (opposition) delegation to the UN that diplomacy had failed because he has been stopped by others in the US administration from backing up negotiations with the threat of military action. It is clear that Kerry is frustrated with the current US policy towards Syria. He confirms the US is concerned with fighting the extreme jihadists as they have “basically declared war against us” and that there is no prospect of action being taken against Hezbollah or Iranian backed militias. Those forces are not a direct threat to the US. Kerry believes since the Iraq war the US public has largely turned against direct “boots on the ground” interventions in the Middle East. The rapprochement between the US and Iran plays a role in shaping the US's attitude to other militias involved in the fighting.

Kerry asks the Syrians if they believe the only solution is for some kind of intervention to remove Assad. He asks who will undertake this. One activist replies that three years ago they would have thought the US likely to do so but now they are not so sure. As long as the US has a “hands off” attitude to Syria, and no more than verbal condemnation of Russian military action, Russia will not back off from their support for Assad.

But there are other forces involved in Syria. The Guardian (23 September) interviewed Abu Yousef, a former teacher from the Bustan al-Qasr district of east Aleppo, about the conditions there. He claims the newest recruits to the government side of the conflict are Shia Iraqis taking orders from Iranian military commanders with the Syrian army following behind.

The Turkish state has also begun to increase its direct involvement in Syria. Relations between Erdogan and Putin had been tense after Turkey shot down a Russian jet in November 2015. Russia imposed trade sanctions on Turkey. However, operation Euphrates Shield, the setting up of a “security zone” at the Turkish-Syria border, has brought the Turkish state closer to Russia. Turkish and Russian interests have begun to converge.

The Turkish forces are now encroaching into Kurdish held areas. They have been warned against striking the Kurdish YPG fighters and the US-backed Arab and Kurdish coalition the Syrian Democratic Forces. But Turkey looks about to take the town of Manbij which had been freed from Daesh by the SDF in June this year.

Erdogan has continued to condemn the US for supporting the PYD/YPG, saying “if you think you can finish off Daesh [Isis] with the YPG and PYD then you cannot do so. Three days ago America dropped two plane loads of weapons in Kobani for these terrorist groups.”

A sustained by campaign by Turkey in northern Syria against the Kurds will mean less Turkish support for the FSA and the variety of oppositional Sunni militia, particularly around Aleppo. That's a development Russia would welcome.

Daesh's territorial control looks increasingly fragile. This is one factor behind Daesh's move to Al Qaeda style recruitment and operations, focusing on recruiting young Muslims across the globe to make deadly attacks in their own states. The recent bombings in New York and New Jersey are part of this shift. Further encroachment on Daesh territory or the eventual destruction of Raqqa will see their fighters disperse, perhaps back to their countries of origin.

The main impact on Daesh will be the loss of oil revenues and the lucrative smuggling channels that it currently draws on. It will also lose the expenditure associated with running their “Caliphate”, an area with six million people.

The high profile killing of Abu Muhammad al-Adnani's was another blow to the group, but the propaganda influence of Daesh will not be so easily countered.

An article on the Syria Deeply blog questions what kind of society can eventually emerge from the conflict. The authors argue that any role for the international community would be have to be modest as the number of peacekeeping troops available to effectively “police” Syria are non existent. Such a force would also be unwelcome.

In such a situation parts of the existing infrastructure constructed by the Kurds in Rojava, the scattered but nominally functioning opposition councils, but also the structures built by Daesh and the regime, may survive and shape a future Syria, or Syrias.