Russia’s scorched earth tactics change Syria war
DAMASCUS - Russian air strikes and artillery bombardments have pulverised rebel forces entrenched in northern Syria, opening the way for the Syrian Army and its allies to recapture large reaches of territory that President Bashar Assad’s regime lost three years ago.
This fast-moving offensive sweeping across the Latakia and Aleppo governorates has turned the 5-year-old war on its head, greatly strengthening Assad’s position and shooting down any prospect of a UN-backed peace settlement in which the Syrian leader’s future was in considerable doubt.
Amid the regime’s victories, conditions for hundreds of thousands of civilians have deteriorated sharply, with 60,000-70,000 fleeing Aleppo and camping out along the Turkish border seeking sanctuary from the Russian-led maelstrom, according to the UN and relief agencies.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, addressing a fund-raising conference in London, said that, due to increasingly intensive Russian air strikes, “300,0000 people living in Aleppo are ready to move towards Turkey”.
The Netherlands-based PAX aid group reported on February 9th that more than 1 million Syrians are trapped in besieged cities and towns, a worsening humanitarian crisis that was at the heart of UN-brokered peace negotiations in Geneva, which collapsed with the Russian blitzkrieg in northern Syria launched just as the talks began on January 29th.
The regime’s northern offensive, which has cut many of the rebels’ vital supply lines from Turkey and kept them from getting reinforcements, and a smaller offensive in the south towards the Jordanian and Israeli borders, have changed the complexion of a conflict in which rebels backed by the United States and Saudi Arabia were making steady gains against the regime.
The turnaround has been entirely due to merciless Russian air strikes, including cruise missiles and attacks by strategic bombers flying out of northern Ossetia, and highly effective long-range artillery bombardments that have smashed rebel positions.
The recent regime advances have underlined the explosive power of the Russian intervention initiated in September to prevent the downfall of Assad, Moscow’s key Arab ally, as part of President Vladimir Putin’s ambition to restore Moscow’s strategic reach.
The regime’s advances have coincided with a half-hearted US effort to boost its forces in Syria and Iraq in the war against the Islamic State. They have also spurred Saudi Arabia and other Arab powers opposed to Assad to state that they would send combat troops to Syria, a step that, if taken, would add another layer of complexity to an already perplexing conflict.