0

Comments

Facebook

Twitter

Google

send


Haid Haid

Looking to lock it down

Syrian men check the destruction following a reported airstrike by Syrian government forces on the rebel-held town of Douma, on the eastern edges of the capital Damascus, on 1 November 2015. Douma is part of the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta area, which is regularly targeted by regime shelling and bombardment and has been under a suffocating siege for nearly two years. (AFP/Sameer al-Doumy)

ISIS has captured a number of villages near Aleppo in recent weeks, most of which had been under regime control. The group’s attacks against the Assad regime have increased significantly since the Russian intervention began. Purportedly meant to fight ISIS, many see the group’s recent victories as having been enabled by Russian airstrikes that have primarily targeted moderate rebels — the US State Department putting the figure at 90%.

 

This may explain ISIS’s victories against rebels, but it doesn’t explain its victories against the regime. If Russia’s goal in Syria is to bolster the regime, how does its military strategy differ from Iran’s, and how effective is it?

 

 

Iran’s strategy

 

Iran’s strategy, from the beginning of the Syrian revolution in March 2011 has been to provide the Assad regime with everything it needed: military advisors, funding, militias and other support. But the length of the conflict and Assad’s significant losses in territory and manpower, among other reasons, has prompted a clear shift in Iran’s strategy to preserving resources and prioritizing the security of strategically important areas that will ensure the survival of Assad and Hezbollah. In practical terms, this guarantees an Iranian-controlled corridor that stretches from the coast to Homs, Damascus, and all the way up to Lebanon’s border.

 

This strategy was in evidence earlier this year, when Assad’s troops lost both Idlib Governorate to rebels and Palmyra to ISIS without putting up much of a fight. Assad also admitted in July that his army was facing a shortage of manpower that forced in him to cede certain areas to insurgents so as to hold on to more important ones. 

 

 

Russia’s strategy

 

Russia’s strategy has been to weaken rebel groups as quickly as possible in the hopes of securing better leverage in a political settlement. Moscow was expected to deploy the Syrian Army while providing it with air support both to gain that leverage and to demonstrate that the Syrian Army is capable of reestablishing stability. However, when the first ground battle was launched with Russian air support, it was clear that a decision had been made to involve pro-Assad militias. Hezbollah fought in this battle alongside regime forces, which was confirmed by news sites close to the party.

 

It’s worth noting that when this ground attack failed to achieve a quick victory, pro-regime forces and militias simultaneously launched attacks in various areas of Hama, Homs, Aleppo, Quneitra, Latakia, etc. Many experts saw this move as part of Russia’s new strategy, both because of the timing and because it was the opposite of Iran’s focus on resource preservation and corridor building.

 

Russia’s blitzkrieg approach increases the chances of a speedy victory: it undermines the rebel groups by taking advantage of their lack of central command, which makes it difficult for them to react quickly. Additionally, it gives the impression that this intervention is a game changer and that the forces rebels must contend with are no longer content with merely holding regime territories, but now intend to recapture rebel-controlled areas. 

 

 

Impact

 

The battles are still ongoing and it’s not yet clear whether Russia’s strategy is effective or not. What is clear is that it failed to achieve its first aim — a quick victory over the rebels while maintaining strategic positions. Some experts have even referred to the modest achievements by the recently increased Iranian military presence in Syria, which was confirmed by Brig. Gen. Hossein Salami, deputy commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

 

Moreover, the recent attacks and increased Russian and Iranian support to the regime has prompted Assad’s foes to increase their support to rebels, which has significantly impacted rebel ability to resist. The Free Syrian Army has enjoyed recent achievements, boosting their morale and popularity, and challenging expectations that they would collapse under pressure and merge with other conservative groups. These achievements have also helped FSA groups receive more funds and more sophisticated weaponry, including anti-tank missiles. Additionally, this opening of many fronts simultaneously has meant pro-regime forces have been spread thin, making it easier for ISIS to advance.

 

Meanwhile, that Russia used Assad’s secretive visit to Moscow on 21 October to initiate the Vienna talks may indicate that its strategy has not been as effective as it hoped. It seems Russia is trying its best to find an exit strategy from Syria through political talks before it’s too late. 

 

Haid Haid is a program manager at the Heinrich Böll Stiftung’s office in Beirut. He tweets @HaidHaid22

Syrian men check the destruction following a reported airstrike by Syrian government forces on the rebel-held town of Douma, on the eastern edges of the capital Damascus, on 1 November 2015. Douma is part of the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta area, which is regularly targeted by regime shelling and bombardment and has been under a suffocating siege for nearly two years. (AFP/Sameer al-Doumy)

Pro-regime forces and militias simultaneously launched attacks in various areas of Hama, Homs, Aleppo, Quneitra, Latakia, etc. Many experts saw this move as part of Russia’s new strategy, both because of the timing and because it was the opposite of Iran’s focus on resource preservation and corridor building."