Syrian Swamp May Demand More Russian Boots on the Battleground

Killing of three Russian soldiers and limited support by Iran and Hezbollah could indicate that it would be difficult for Putin to see immediate results, Israeli official say.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Syrian regime soldiers in Achan, Hama province, October 11, 2015.
Syrian regime soldiers in Achan, Hama province, October 11, 2015.Credit: AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The military assault Russia is preparing in northern Syria, in an attempt to assist the Assad regime, is expected to run into some trouble, Israeli defense officials say based on last week’s events in Syria. Despite the Russians’ extensive aerial campaign, the complementary ground assault, which requires substantial reinforcements from Iran, Hezbollah and Shi’ite militias, may take a long time.

Sunni rebel groups are preparing for it and showing a determination to fight, and there are now reports of the first Russian casualties, with three soldiers killed near the city of Latakia.

In August, Russia’s air force deployed roughly a squadron and a half in northwestern Syria, including combat helicopters and newer models of Sukhoi jets. In late September it launched airstrikes, mainly in northern Syria, targeting rebel groups despite the declared intent of attacking the Islamic State, which is also under attack by a coalition air forces led by the United States. Since mid-October, small expeditionary forces of Assad’s allies have been arriving in Syria, a move designed to enable a ground assault to complement the airstrikes.

The planned Russian assault is meant to remove rebel military pressure on areas controlled by Assad, mainly from the north. The Russians want to focus on an area north of Homs toward Aleppo, as well as in an area between Aleppo and Idlib.

In this region, a coalition of rebel groups called Jaish al-Fatah has overrun areas previously controlled by the regime, coming dangerously close to the Alawite enclave that’s so vital to Assad near Tartus and Latakia. There are also plans for ground assaults in the Zabadani area, closer to Damascus and the Syrian-Lebanese border.

Putin shakes hand with Syria's Assad in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, October 21, 2015.Credit: AP

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last week that thousands of soldiers were landing in Syria from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. Further reinforcements are coming from Shi’ite militias in Iraq and Afghanistan, in addition to Syrian troops that have been moved to the north.

On Tuesday there were reports that Russian helicopters scattered leaflets in the Aleppo region, calling on residents to evacuate ahead of heavy Russian airstrikes in the coming days.

Iran’s support for the Russian assault appears limited at this stage, with Hezbollah unenthusiastic about direct cooperation with Russia, whether due to reservations about collaborating with a mainly Christian country or because of heavy losses already sustained in Syria. According to the Israel Defense Forces, 1,500 Hezbollah fighters have died in Syria since the summer of 2012, with 5,000 wounded.

Thus the Russian plan is ambitious, but its success is still questionable despite the heavy airstrikes and the fact that the newer-model jets have improved the Assad regime’s position. Russian President Vladimir Putin declared last week that his country was not using ground forces in the Syria fighting. A lack of boots on the ground may make it difficult to yield immediate results.

Meanwhile, Washington is looking do to better in Syria after its resounding failure to train Sunni rebel groups. The plan was finally shelved last month after it turned out that the Obama administration had spent hundreds of millions of dollars to train only a few dozen combatants, most of whom were no longer fighting. This contrasts with the Islamic State, which provides its volunteers short basic training but manages to chalk up significant military achievements.

It seems Washington now wants to increase arms supplies to Sunni groups. So far the United States has delivered thousands of antitank missiles and is considering sending anti-aircraft missiles as well.

There may be an additional hidden motive at play. The administration has been considering arming Kurdish militias in Syria, hoping to incorporate them in the fight against Assad following successes like lifting the siege on Kobani. So far this hasn’t been done due to Turkey’s perennial clash with the Kurds.

Delivering missiles to more moderate rebel groups linked to Washington and the Kurds will let some of this equipment reach the most effective “end users,” the Kurds. The accurate antitank missiles have already hit many of Bashar Assad’s tanks in battles in northern Syria.

More weapons deliveries might improve the U.S. allies’ fighting and serve as a counterweight to Russia’s efforts. Moscow’s moves have angered the Americans and left them without an appropriate response. The struggle for the support of the Kurds, now wooed by the Russians as well, shows how complex the war has become, with multiple sides fighting together or against each other in different sectors.

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