Assad’s Russia-won gains create US dilemma
BEIRUT - The Syrian regime’s offensive against the Islamic State (ISIS) along the country’s northern border with Turkey and the eastern frontier with Iraq has put the Americans in a geopolitical quandary: whether to join the Russians, whose air force has given the Damascus regime its powerful military edge or focus on forcing Moscow’s tyrannical ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad, out of power.
The Americans have wanted Assad to go pretty much since the March 2011 protests for political reforms to which the Syrian leader so ferociously responded by gunning down his own people in the streets and triggering the war that has left Syria in ruins, with at least 260,000 dead and half the population homeless.
But Russia, for its own strategic imperatives that include reviving Moscow’s power in the Middle East, has thwarted every effort to unseat him in the United Nations along with Assad’s other foreign ally, Iran. Both have supported him with military forces and arms.
There are signs that despite US dismay at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s no-holds-barred military intervention on September 30th, 2015, to save Assad as he appeared to be going under, that the two powers are cooperating in a pragmatic manner to crush ISIS.
They appear to be focused particularly on driving the jihadists out of Raqqa, the northern Syrian city that is the de facto capital of the Islamic caliphate proclaimed in July 2014 by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
On March 30th, Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Oleg Syromolotov as saying the Kremlin and the White House are discussing “concrete” military coordination to liberate Raqqa, which has been heavily bombed by US, French and Russian air forces in recent months, albeit in largely separate Russian and US-led coalition campaigns.
Raqqa has been under ISIS control since January 2014 after heavy fighting between the jihadists and Syrian rebel groups that had driven out Assad’s forces in March 2013, the first Syrian city the anti-Assad rebels had captured.
The noose tightened around Raqqa on March 27th when Assad’s army, heavily supported by Russian air strikes, recaptured the important northern city of Palmyra, the jihadists’ first major strategic loss of territory to Russian-backed government forces since the Kremlin intervened in the Syrian war.
The Russians, the true architects of Assad’s recent string of battlefield successes, want to capitalise on the strategic gains they have notched since their intervention. These have thrust Moscow back onto the global stage, forcing Washington to make common cause with the Kremlin and Damascus against ISIS.
The constant Russian air strikes and the withering weight of firepower Moscow has brought to bear on those opposed to Assad easily surpass the US-led air campaign in Syria, which is primarily directed at ISIS.
While the Americans dither about committing ground troops to support Syrian and Iraqi state forces fight the jihadists, Russia’s Spetsnaz special forces were reported to have been heavily involved in the battle for Palmyra. Russian reports have bolstered the belief that Spetsnaz units are operating in Syria alongside Assad’s forces.
The Russians sought to draw the Americans closer to a partnership by inviting US troops to help clear Palmyra of thousands of landmines and booby-trap bombs left by ISIS. But that would mean Americans would have to deploy in territory held by the Damascus regime.
The Americans have sent in special forces groups, largely to aid Kurdish fighters, and in recent weeks established an airbase in Kurdish-controlled territory on the east bank of the Euphrates, their first in Syria.
But, in terms of firepower and ability to dictate events on the battlefield, Russia leaves the Americans standing flat even though their diplomatic cooperation is increasing.
“Both the Syrian government and the Kremlin used Palmyra’s symbolic significance to amplify the message to Washington and the world: The Assad government is part of the solution against the Islamic State,” the US-based global security consultancy Stratfor observed.
So far, the Americans have rebuffed Moscow’s offer, in large part because they know that accepting the Russian proposals would threaten its fragile links with Turkey and Arabian Gulf monarchies, led by Saudi Arabia, which fervently want Assad out of the way to impede Iranian ambitions.
“Washington is aware that… outright collaboration with the Syrian government would further strain the relationship between the US and its regional allies,” Stratfor noted. “Even more pressing for the United States, however, is to ensure progress in negotiations before loyalist advances force Washington to cooperate with Assad’s fighters against the Islamic State, conferring legitimacy onto his government.”
Moscow has gone to great lengths to stress that Assad’s army, despite its serious shortcomings and poor combat record, is its primary partner in what it deems “the war against terrorism” and the Russian military has said it will use Palmyra as the springboard for a wider assault on ISIS strongholds in the north and east, particularly Raqqa and the oil and gas field of Deir ez- Zor to the east.
The Americans are worried that if Assad’s Russian-backed forces can push into ISIS’s last holdings in Syria before US-supported Arab and Kurdish rebel forces can, Moscow will be able to call the shots at the Geneva III peace negotiations, due to resume April 9th, that were a consequence of Russia’s earlier successes in Syria that left the Americans in the shade.
A victory by Assad’s army, engineered by Russian air power, in Raqqa “will most likely melt the glue holding the fragile anti-ISIS coalition together”, observed Michael Stephens of the Royal United Services Institute, a London think-tank.
“With the current political negotiations about the future of broken politics making slow headway in Geneva, President Assad will no doubt use the advance in Palmyra to strengthen the argument that he is the only player in Syria that is truly ‘fighting terrorism’ and that he must be allowed to stay to finish the job properly…,” he said.
“The galvanising effect the reconquest of Palmyra will have on the beleaguered Assad regime will be significant and unfortunately we should expect no significant progress in peace talks as the regime looks to cement its legitimacy, politically and militarily.”