ISIS closes in on Aleppo – with help from its enemy
BEIRUT - In one of the most bizarre episodes of the bewilderingly complex Syrian war, where rival rebel groups fight each other as well as the beleaguered regime of President Bashar Assad, Islamic State (ISIS) militants have achieved their most significant advances in months by closing on the strategic and much-battered city of Aleppo — thanks to air strikes against other rebel forces by the Russians, Assad’s ally.
The deadly irony is that Russia intervened in the multi-sided civil war in September with the avowed objective of blasting ISIS, which President Vladimir Putin fears is extending its self-proclaimed caliphate from Syria and Iraq to Chechnya and other largely Muslim republics on Russia’s southern rim.
ISIS forces are reported to have pushed closer to Aleppo, once the commercial heart of Syria, than they have been since early 2014 when rival rebel groups forced them out of the city. Much of the unique medieval city of Aleppo has been reduced to ruins, since the Syrian civil war began in 2011.
“ISIS has entered a golden period,” observed analyst Jalal Zein Eddine. “Its leaders… hope that dynamics on the ground will shift in favour of the group, which had begun to suffer from manpower losses and popular dissent in areas under its control. ISIS has greeted Russia’s intervention with something akin to celebration, especially after a Russian bishop said it was a holy war. This was all the group could have wished for…
“ISIS has taken advantage of Russia’s intervention through military operations in which it seized eight important rebel-held areas to the north of Aleppo in one night… It intends to swallow northern rural Aleppo whole.”
ISIS began edging back in July despite stiff resistance. Then, on October 9th, exploiting Russian air strikes against Aleppo’s western rebel-held sector, the extremist Islamist group seized a string of outlying villages. The Syrian Army holds the eastern sector.
Assad, his back to the wall due to heavy losses of manpower he cannot replace, called in the Russians to rescue his minority-Alawite regime, although it has become clear Putin was planning an armed intervention with Assad’s other key ally, Iran, months ago.
The Russians, operating from an airbase in Latakia on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, unleashed a whirlwind of air strikes on September 30th.
This was supposedly aimed at ISIS but, in fact, more than 90% of the Russian sorties targeted more moderate rebel groups such as al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s Syrian wing, and the Army of Conquest, an increasingly effective coalition of half-a-dozen groups that has come to directly threaten Assad’s regime in the convoluted struggle.
A Reuters analysis of Russian Defence Ministry data on October 21st, showed that 80% of Russia’s declared targets have been in areas held by non-ISIS forces. That supports US and NATO claims that Russia’s biggest foreign military operation outside the former Soviet Union is intended primarily to bolster Assad. As of October 23rd, Russian jets had flown nearly 1,000 sorties and destroyed 819 “terrorist installations”.
But, observed Yezid Sayigh of the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut, “The air support from Russia by itself is not enough to tip the balance in favour of the regime, since there are so many gaps and weak spots in the Syrian army’s ground forces.”
A Russian cruise missile barrage on October 7th from warships in the Caspian Sea 1,500 km to the east, the first unleashed by Russian forces in combat, signalled the start of the regime offensive, heavily supported by Russian air power and a large force of Hezbollah fighters and Iranian-backed Shia militias from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Hundreds of regular troops from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) recently deployed in Syria are also engaged in the offensives, the first time Tehran has sent them into action outside Iran.
They have reinforced units of the IRGC’s elite al-Quds Force, which usually operates covertly outside Iran. In Syria, its units have been in the thick of the fighting for three years, along with Lebanese Shia fighters of Hezbollah and Iranian-controlled Shia mercenaries from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
These forces, which regional military sources told The Arab Weekly may be beefed up with more IRGC regulars if the offensives stall, can now be seen as the “ground component” of the Russian-Iranian operation.
The regime is battling on four axes in the Latakia region, the heartland of Assad’s Alawite sect, and in neighbouring Idlib and Hama provinces where non-ISIS forces are strong. But by all accounts the regime’s progress is sluggish at best.
That is largely because the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, stunned by the unexpected Russian onslaught, are supplying rebel groups they support with large numbers of US-made TOW anti-tank missiles. These are chewing up the regime’s armour despite constant Russian air strikes.