Russia gains in Syria are exaggerated

Friday 19/02/2016
Taking Aleppo will be one thing; keeping it another

Six months ago, military experts had written off Syrian President Bashar Assad and were sketch­ing out scenarios of a post-Assad period, given that whatever he seemed to do on the battlefield he appeared to lose ground.

Much of the country appeared to be in the hands of the Islamic State (ISIS), al-Nusra Front and opposi­tion forces and — critically — there were rumours within the ranks of his own military of low morale. It seemed it was the beginning of the end.

But, in fact, it was merely the beginning of the beginning, as Russia, ensuring that Syria remains off limits to a Libya-style takeover by the West, has given the Syrian leader a new gusto. In a recent in­terview, he more or less said “bring it on” when asked about Saudi and Turkish ground troops joining the battle.

Recent Russian involvement, in particular an intensified bombing campaign, has made a difference but how much? Is Assad’s remark that he was looking at taking the whole country back realistic with Russia air strikes being accom­panied by Iranian proxy fighters advancing towards Aleppo?

The city has served as a major rebel base since 2012, when the Syrian civil war really took shape. In late September 2015, Assad’s forces began a campaign to retake it. Much is being made of this as journalists created a huge story in Aleppo, with a Hollywood script probably being written in tandem.

Yet Aleppo, if taken, might be a turning point for the war against Assad. Some analysts argue that if it falls, it might refocus all opposi­tion fighting groups to galvanise their efforts against Assad forces, giving them an élan that they never previously had. Taking Aleppo will be one thing; keeping it another.

Let’s not forget that Assad’s forces were unable to do this alone. Russian air strikes combined with Iranian troops on the ground were critical to Assad’s offensive in Aleppo. Once taken, could this campaign sustain itself over months?

Russian advances are nowhere near what media reports claim. The bombing has certainly intensified in recent weeks and has thrown a spotlight on what little regard Moscow has for civilian casualties, with hospitals now apparently legitimate targets, dismissing any notion of a peace settlement being agreed to.

But in terms of actual ground overall taken by Assad forces, there has been very little, perhaps explaining the media fascina­tion with Aleppo, which is the exception. Russian bombing has allowed Kurds to advance in areas weakened by the air campaign and has rejigged the map among the constellation of various fighting groups. But hardly anything has gone to Assad’s forces so far except tiny enclaves.

Indeed, taking ground around Aleppo can be acknowledged but taking the whole city might be beyond his own forces, even with Russia pounding rebels there and a cadre of various foreign fighters working under Iranian command.

Many might argue that the no-holds-barred approach to modern warfare — high civilian casualties and holding thousands to starve — might be more the mark of a leader on his back foot, rather than a victorious one cantering ahead to take the prize.

Probably Aleppo can’t be taken militarily and the 300,000 there will starve to death, a tactic of war that the Assad regime will not consider off limits. Aleppo will be a milestone of sorts though, even for Russian President Vladimir Putin as he must be wondering just how much hardware and money he needs to put into the campaign to get something back.

For the Russians, Aleppo is im­portant as a military and financial benchmark. For Assad, it will be a historic battle to vanquish both tactically and also from a po­litical perspective. However, one shouldn’t read too much into the tough talking he is indulging in, which has elevated him to the sta­tus of an inveterate negotiator once again. He may now have collateral to bring to the table but he’s a long way from taking back the country.