Suddenly Russian planes filled the Syrian skies and carried out 2,300 sorties within two days this week, while ships fired missiles from the Mediterranean and Caspian seas and elsewhere. Such a heavy barrage of Russian fire had not been seen in Syria since September 30, when Moscow confounded the West and became an active partner in the war.
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This time it has new goals – most of this week’s attacks targeted Islamic State bases and only a few struck rebel groups.
On Wednesday Russian news agencies reported the destruction of 500 ISIS petrol tankers heading from Syria to Iraq. The rebel sites in Syria report Russian strikes around the Islamic State’s Syrian capital Raqqa and north of Aleppo.
What made Russia change its strategy? Was it the Islamic State’s blowing up of the Russian airliner in Sinai or the half-hour meeting between Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama in Turkey? Or maybe it was the Vienna summit where Washington agreed to leave Bashar Assad as Syrian president until an interim government was formed?
A Syrian opposition source believes the turning point was linked to what Obama told Putin on the plan to ramp up sanctions against Russia for its intervention in east Ukraine. Putin allegedly wants the U.S. and EU sanctions lifted if Russia actively fights the Islamic State.
ISIS’ photos of the explosive that allegedly brought down the Russian plane and the Paris attacks probably contributed to Moscow’s turnaround. The announcement that the plane was indeed sabotaged already signaled a change.
Raqqa on the defensive
In any case, Washington was pleased with the result including the cooperation between the two countries’ air forces. Washington and Moscow may still not agree about Assad’s future, but the United States can take credit for significantly expanding the coalition in the war against the Islamic State.
Turkey has also changed its tune; its foreign minister said this week Ankara and Washington were planning an operation to rid the Islamic State from the Syrian side of the Turkish border. An alleged safe zone would be set up – an idea Washington has opposed.
ISIS isn’t blind to these developments. While it reports military victories against the Syrian army and rebel forces, rebel-militia news sites describe a mass flight of civilians and Islamic State combatants and their families from Raqqa toward Mosul in Iraq.
ISIS isn’t stopping people from leaving but has issued mobilization orders compelling young males from 14 up to join its ranks. Recruits are paid $200 a month and get money for living expenses, weapons and training. As a result, some families that can’t or won’t abandon their homes send their sons to war. The call-up is intended to refill the ranks depleted by deserters.
The Islamic State is also preparing Raqqa to go on the defensive. The group reportedly has kerosene-filled pipes and tires smeared with flammable materials to set on fire and envelop the city with smoke to make it hard for attackers to identify targets. The city appears to be the main target of the Western coalition, which is assisted by Kurdish forces that have taken a key passage on the road between Raqqa and Mosul.
But even the massive airstrikes can’t replace a ground force that can conquer Raqqa. The available forces are mainly those of the Kurds and other militias. One militia that was set up in recent days to protect local people from ISIS isn’t keen on cooperating with the Kurds for fear they’ll take advantage of the campaign to conquer the city themselves.
The Kurds, who have been gaining against the Islamic State on the outskirts of their territory in Syria, are in no hurry to join the battle on Raqqa or the planned drive on Mosul in Iraq. The Kurds demand that the coalition forces protect the Kurdish towns along the border with Turkey and that Turkey stop attacking Kurdish targets in Iraq.
They also want the United States to provide them with weapons and funding. Washington has recently given arms to an Arab-Kurdish militia set up especially to get around Turkey’s opposition to arms for the Kurdish militias. But it’s not enough to establish a military infrastructure for taking over Raqqa, whose population numbers around 800,000.
“The United States has no clear strategy on how to fight and certainly not on how to defeat ISIS,” a senior Kurdish government official in Iraq told Haaretz. “We also don’t know what their ultimate goal is. Who will rule Raqqa? What will happen to the Kurdish districts in Syria? Will they be allowed to set up autonomy like we have in Iraq?”
A Western diplomat agrees. “The Kurds aren’t wrong; the Western coalition has no strategy or endgame,” he says. “One thing is clear – we need a significant victory over ISIS now. The attack on Paris needs an appropriate response, but a response isn’t a strategy.”
In the absence of a military strategy, the Vienna agreements remain the only possible infrastructure to solve the war in Syria. By January the UN envoy to Syria will have to submit a list of acceptable groups and militias to negotiate with Assad’s people over the formation of an interim government.
At the moment this mission seems impossible in view of the deep disagreements among the militias and mainly between Russia and Iran on one side and the Western countries on the other. The issue: Who should represent the side negotiating with Assad.
Also, Assad hasn’t accepted the Vienna plan yet and is in no hurry to do anything. First let the United Nations put together a united Syrian opposition entity, then we’ll see.