Analysis |

Russian Wind at Assad’s Back

Fortified by Russian support, Assad now has grander ambitions, and the question that remains is when will a ground offensive happen.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Russian military support crews inspect missiles attached to their jet in Syria. October 6, 2015
Russian military support crews inspect missiles attached to their jet in Syria. October 6, 2015Credit: AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Russia’s military operation in Syria is expanding. This week, international attention focused mainly on its launch of cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea at Syrian rebel organizations. This not only brought a new weapon into the picture, but showed that the Russians wouldn’t hesitate to launch missiles from 1,500 kilometers away to help their protégé, Syrian President Bashar Assad, in his murderous effort to survive. But it seems Russia’s plans for the future are even more ambitious.

Almost 1,500 Russian soldiers and military advisers are already in Syria, though it’s not clear whether Moscow intends to have them actively participate in the ground war against the rebels. Perhaps it doesn’t yet consider this necessary. In any case, at the moment, its grand plan seems limited to air strikes by Russian planes.

What’s more important, however, is what will accompany these strikes: a major ground offensive by the Syrian army and its allies, including small units of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and various Shi’ite militias.

The only ones who don’t seem enthusiastic over Russia’s sudden predominance are senior Hezbollah officials. Until now, Hezbollah has avoided cooperating with the Russians, and it’s not clear whether it will participate in a grand offensive alongside the Russian army.

Syrian President Bashar Assad, speaking during an interview with the Iran's Khabar TV, in Damascus, Syria, Sunday, Oct. 4, 2015.Credit: AP

Russia’s goal is no longer merely to stabilize the front lines in areas under Assad’s control (mainly the corridor from Damascus to Homs and from there to the Alawite regions along the coast), which comprise a mere one-fourth of Syria’s territory. Fortified by Russian support and, apparently, plans drafted by Russian officers in Syria, Assad now has grander ambitions.

First, he wants to oust the rebels from the areas where they are threatening the Alawite region from the north and east. Later, he apparently wants to take control of a broader stretch of territory along the border with Turkey to the north, from the town of Idlib in the west and perhaps as far as the Euphrates River in the east. Inside this belt lies the city of Aleppo, most of which was lost to the rebels over the last two years.

Russia would apparently like to integrate the Kurds, who control several enclaves along the Syrian-Turkish border, into this assault. A Kurdish drive eastward could help the regime recapture Raqqa, capital of the caliphate proclaimed by the Islamic State. But so far, it seems the Kurds haven’t agreed to join the Russian coalition.

Though Russian President Vladimir Putin keeps saying he sent his air force to fight Islamic State, most of the Russian air strikes that began two weeks ago have targeted other rebel groups – mainly those belonging to the Jaish al-Fatah coalition, which operates in northern Syria. This loose alliance, which has scored some fairly major victories against Assad’s forces since the start of the year, includes the Al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, but also several more moderate groups that receive Western support.

Jaish al-Fatah, rather than Islamic State, is Assad’s main rival in the north. Thus, should a major ground offensive materialize, its target will be the former, not the latter.

Russia, which has stationed more than 30 fighter jets in Syria, is supposed to provide the aerial softening up for this offensive. Russia’s planes will significantly bolster the capabilities of the Syrian air force, as the latter is composed of antiquated planes whose main activity is dropping barrel bombs.

In this photo made from the footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site on October 4, 2015, an aerial view of a bomb explosion in Syria.Credit: AP

If the ground offensive happens, it will include thousands of Syrian Army troops, hundreds of Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops and thousands of Shi’ite militiamen from Iraq and other countries.

It’s hard to predict whether such an offensive will succeed. Most of the regime’s previous counteroffensives failed, even when Iran provided the plans. But now Russia is planning and leading the maneuvers.

Russian advisers accompany the Syrian Army’s ground units at the division and brigade levels. And aside from planes, the Russian force stationed near Latakia includes helicopters, tanks, armored personnel carriers, special forces and SA-22 ground-to-air missiles.

The planned offensive also seems like a challenge to both America and Turkey. This week, Turkey complained that Russian warplanes had entered its airspace while attacking northern Syria. The Russians said it was a mistake, which may or may not be true.

Also this week, Russia’s deputy chief of staff, Gen. Nikolai Bogdanovski, visited Israel to meet with his Israeli counterpart, Maj. Gen. Yair Golan. As agreed by Putin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in September, the two generals discussed ways to prevent conflict between Israeli and Russian planes or ships operating in Syria.

Israel’s impression is that Russia wants to avoid military clashes with the Israel Defense Forces. That may be so, but the relationship is clearly unequal. Given the size of the forces Russia now has in Syria, it seems Moscow’s main goal is to ensure that Israel doesn’t interfere with Putin’s future moves.

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