Syrian war: It took time, but Russia was game-changer for Assad

Thousands of rebel fighters are on the verge of being surrounded by pro-regime forces in Aleppo, Syria's largest city. For that, Assad can thank Russia's intervention.

Abdalrhman Ismail/REUTERS
Stalls are seen on a street beside damaged buildings in the rebel-held al-Shaar neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria, February 10, 2016.

With Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and former economic hub, on the verge of being surrounded by Syrian troops and their allies, President Bashar al-Assad appears to have finally gained an upper hand against an array of rebel forces.

For that, Mr. Assad can thanks his allies – Iran, Hezbollah, Shiite militias from Iraq and Afghanistan, and, most of all, Russia, whose military intervention last August and intense aerial bombing campaign has allowed regime forces to recover valuable territory in the north of the country.

Since the beginning of February, the Russian-backed offensive around Aleppo has killed more than 500 people, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. And when the Syrian Army and its allies cut the last rebel-held road connecting Aleppo to the Turkish border, which appears inevitable, some 300,000 civilians and 30,000 rebel fighters will be bottled up inside the city. That will put them at risk of a prolonged siege.

The prospect of a victory for Assad represents a dramatic turnaround in a war, soon to enter its sixth year, that has driven around 11 million from their homes and left more than a quarter-million people dead.

Only months earlier, analysts say, with territorial losses mounting, Assad’s hold on his country seemed to be slipping toward creation of a rump state encompassing the capital, Damascus, and a swath of territory linking it to the Mediterranean coast. His position was faltering despite the rebels’ built-in weaknesses resulting from a lack of unity, a chronic shortage of heavy weaponry, and tenuous international support.

But Russia’s intervention appears now to have been a game-changer.

The recent advances by the Syrian regime could also sound the death knell for any meaningful peace negotiations between the warring parties. Last week, the UN-sponsored peace talks in Geneva were suspended just days after they had begun with both sides blaming each other for the failure. The talks are scheduled to resume Feb. 25, but a Syrian opposition demand Wednesday for an end to regime-imposed sieges as a precondition for its attendance could yet scupper fresh negotiations. And with Assad's forces prevailing on the battlefield, he has little incentive to offer any concessions to his beleaguered opponents at the negotiating table.

“I believe that, at the very least, the regime was on a trajectory of collapse as of mid-2015, and Russia halted that trajectory… [in fact] I think it more likely that this is a turning point in the regime’s favor,” says Faysal Itani, resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Impact of Russian bombing

The Syrian regime was in trouble in the first half of 2015 when a new rebel coalition, Jaysh al-Fatah, emerged in northern Syria and quickly captured almost all Idlib Province and parts of Latakia Province. A regime offensive launched in last February in southern Syria fizzled within weeks, and the Western-backed Southern Front rebel coalition gained more ground.

But in late August, Russia delivered military hardware, including jets, to an airbase near the port city of Latakia, and at the end of September, Russian aircraft commenced aerial bombing raids. Moscow said they were directed at the extremist Islamic State (IS), but US and European officials said that the bulk of the firepower was aimed at anti-Assad rebels.

Progress was initially slow, but the combination of intensifying aerial bombing by Russia in coordination with Syrian troops and Hezbollah fighters on the ground has allowed the regime to claw back territory around Aleppo. Last week, Syrian troops and Hezbollah broke a rebel siege on two Shiite villages north of Aleppo as part of the encirclement of the city.

“There is no doubt that the Russian intervention has significantly changed the military dynamic in Syria,” says Jeffrey White, a defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Concentrated and effective air strikes are the most obvious element in this, but Russia has also increased the firepower of regime ground forces by providing more weapons, weapons systems, advisers and I believe some combat/special forces personnel.”

There have been numerous reports of Russian combat troops serving in Syria, which have been denied by Moscow. Russia has delivered to the Syrian Army T-90 tanks, 152 mm artillery guns, mobile multiple rocket launchers, and unmanned reconnaissance drones.

Rebels face 'long decline'

Rebel factions are struggling to confront this increased regime firepower. There have been unconfirmed reports that arms deliveries to rebel groups have dwindled. Longstanding appeals for anti-aircraft missile systems to defend against Russian jets continue to go unheard amid international concerns that the weapons would end up in the hands of extremist groups like IS or Al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra.

“Traditional rebel weaknesses in unity of command, strategy and operations have been exacerbated by the concerted regime [and] allied operations,” says Mr. White. “The rebels are facing a long decline, faster or slower depending on the ability of the regime [and its allies] to sustain operations.”

Last week, Saudi Arabia, a supporter of the anti-Assad opposition, said it was willing to send ground forces to Syria to battle IS, a statement that was widely interpreted as a possible attempt to save the anti-Assad rebellion from total collapse. Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates also said they were prepared to deploy forces to Syria under Saudi leadership.

Walid Muallem, Syria’s foreign minister, warned that any ground intervention without the government’s approval would be an “act of aggression that has to be confronted.… Any aggressor will be sent back to their country in wooden boxes.”

The prospect of Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies staging their own direct military intervention in Syria looks doubtful. But for the rebels to regain the initiative, it will take either a considerable increase in military support, including a means of confronting Russian air power, or a decision by Assad’s allies to withdraw their backing for Damascus, White says.

“I don’t see either of these things happening,” he adds, “so rebel prospects look bleak.”

Assad concessions unlikely

The Syrian opposition can expect little from the faltering UN-brokered peace process. US Secretary of State John Kerry is pushing for a comprehensive cease-fire and increased humanitarian access to besieged areas ahead of a meeting Thursday of the International Syria Support Group. But outgoing French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius criticized the US role in Syria, saying "there are words, but action is something else."

"Obviously, as the Russians and the Iranians sense that, they have understood ... and Bashar Assad is regaining strength," he said.

“The regime has no reason to make concessions and has had no reason to do so since the Russians intervened,” says Mr. Itani of the Atlantic Council. “The insurgency can’t compel it to do so, and its own patrons have no reason to.… I honestly don’t see how the insurgents can win this one in the long run.”

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