Vol. XL No. 47 November 20, 2016

Syria: First Anniversary of Russian Military intervention

Yohannan Chemarapally

IT was at the end of September last year that Russia in a surprise move dispatched its planes and troops to Syria at the request of the government in Damascus. The jihadi forces and their western backed allies were intent on delivering the coup d'grace to the legitimate secular government before the end of that year. More territory and towns, including the historic city of Palmyra, had fallen to the terrorist Daesh (IS) and the Jabhat al Nusra Front. Washington and its allies were waiting for the much heralded regime change in Syria even as the country was awash in blood and suffering. President Vladimir Putin in his 2015 speech at the UN General Assembly had used strong words in chiding the West for remaining indifferent to the threat of Syria descending into complete chaos and becoming another safe haven for terrorists of all hues. “Do you realise what you have done”, President Putin had said in his landmark 2015 speech at the UN.

“What we propose is to join efforts to address the challenges all of us are facing and create a genuinely broad international coalition against terrorism”, the Russian president had said. The swift deployment of Russian planes and troops on Syrian soil took Washington and its allies completely off-guard. The response from the West was slow in coming. At first, Moscow was warned that it was stepping into another military quagmire. The American president, Barack Obama was among the first to issue such dire predictions. A week after Russia started its aerial operations against the Daesh in early October last year, Obama said that Moscow's military plans against the terrorist groups “won't work”. Senior American officials also started describing the Russian intervention as yet another illustration of Moscow's “great power ambitions”.




A year after the Russian intervention, the results on the ground are self evident. Around the same time last year, jihadi groups led by the al Nusra and the Ahrar al Sham, fighting jointly under the banner of the “Victory Army” had captured the northern strategic cities of Idlib and Jisr al-Shigour. The Syrian government's stronghold of Latakia had also come under imminent threat after the fall of Jisr al-Shigour.  After the Russian military intervention, the Syrian army and its allies have recaptured large swathes of lost territory from the jihadist forces. Palmyra was among the first cities to be liberated from the depredations of the Daesh. Russian archeologists and engineers are already helping the Syrians to repair and restore some of the ancient antiquities that were destroyed by the Daesh zealots.

Aleppo, Syria's commercial capital, is also on the verge of being totally liberated, despite eleventh hour efforts by the West and their regional proxies to rush in anti-aircraft batteries and even more sophisticated weaponry. On October 2, the Syrian government offered safe passage to the opposition fighters out of parts of eastern Aleppo that they are desperately clinging on to. The Syrian Kurds, who were dreaming of establishing an autonomous state along the border with Turkey will now have to exercise more caution. Turkey has now openly entered the military fray in Syria, with its main focus on the Syrian Kurds. The Syrian Kurds who had initially allied with the Syrian army and Russia to push back the Daesh and the Nusra Front, had become more ambitious and had started turning their guns on the Syrian army and pro-government militias.

After the Russian intervention, the Syrian army, despite being overstretched, has tightened its military cordon around other cities like Douma and Harastha while registering military victories in Idlib, Hasaka and Dara. Russian air support has been crucial in the advances made by the Syrian army. The Hezbollah and Shia fighters from Iran, Afghanistan and other countries have also made invaluable contributions in the fight against the “takfiri” forces. Many experts on the region admit that active Russian involvement was crucial to stave off the very serious threat posed by the jihadist forces to the entire region and beyond. Syria was in danger of becoming another Libya. The already horrendous refugee problem would have worsened and the lives of ethnic and religious minorities in Syria would have been in more jeopardy.

But the Americans and their allies have been less than grateful for the Russian military intervention. The Obama administration had after a while agreed to share information on the Daesh so as to better plan attacks and to avoid mid-air accidents while on bombing raids. But the Americans have not been cooperative in the efforts to jointly coordinate attacks on the al Nusra Front fighters. This has been more than evident in the ongoing siege of Aleppo. One of the major reasons for the week long cease fire collapsing was the lack of interest or inability of the United States to separate the so-called moderate fighters from the Nusra Front. The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov told the American secretary of state, John Kerry, in late September that the al Nusra commanders were openly admitting to receiving arms shipments from the West. Lavrov also told his American counterpart that many of the “armed moderate groups” trained and financed by the Gulf monarchies have merged with the Nusra Front in Aleppo and other areas.

The Russian foreign minister told the BBC that Washington is keeping the al Nusra Front as a standby option to achieve their long nurtured goal of regime change in Syria. “They still, in spite of many repeated promises and commitments, -- are not able or are not willing to do this, and we have more and more reasons to believe that from the very beginning their plan was to spare al Nusra and keep it just in case of a Plan B or Stage Two when it would be time to change the regime”, Lavrov alleged. The separation of the so-called moderate forces from the hard core jihadists like the al Qaeda affiliated al Nusra Front, was the cornerstone of the short lived cease fire agreement in September that was brokered by the joint efforts of Moscow and Washington. Lavrov also said that every time a cease fire was put in place, the al Nusra used it as a pretext to smuggle in more foreign fighters and ammunition. Turkey which has openly entered the conflict has shown by word and deed that it is only interested in targeting the Daesh and the Syrian Kurds. The government of Recep Tayip Erdogan has remained a consistent backer of the al Nusra Front though it is no longer very vocal about the departure of Bashar al Assad from Damascus.




The Obama administration, fast running out of options in Syria, has been issuing belligerent statement accusing the Russians of indiscriminately targeting civilians and the “moderate groups” that are fighting in tandem with the al Nusra Front. The US state department issued a warning in late September that it was considering the suspension of “bilateral engagement” with Moscow in Syria “unless Russia takes immediate steps to end the assault on Aleppo and restore the cessation of hostilities”. Washington has also made veiled threats about openly targeting the Syrian army. It was the attack on the Syrian army by the American air force that led to the breakdown of the ceasefire agreed in September. There are very few takers for Washington's explanation that the Syrian army was inadvertently targeted while it was battling the jihadi forces.

Before the September cease fire agreement, the two sides had agreed to conduct joint military operations against jihadist targets.

A senior US state department official went to the extent of making the dire prediction that Russian troops will be soon leaving Syria in “body bags”. US officials have said that the failure of diplomatic talks with Moscow could allow them to supply more sophisticated weapons to the rebels through the auspices of their Gulf allies. The American officials have clarified that shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles, (Manpads) will not be supplied to the rebels. The missiles in the hands of either the al Nusra or the Daesh would be a dangerous prospect for all planes, regardless of their nationality, flying over the region’s air space. The Manpads were reputed to be highly effective in Afghanistan. The Americans had supplied the Afghan mujahedin, the terrorist precursors of the al Qaeda and the Daesh, with these weapons.

The secretary of state, John Kerry, was inadvertently caught on tape advocating the use of more direct American military force in Syria. Speaking to a group of Syrian opposition activists at the UN headquarters in New York, Kerry complained that his diplomatic efforts to help the Syrian opposition were not backed up by the use of military force by the Obama administration. It is no secret that the Obama administration is split on its strategy for Syria. The lame duck American president does not want to be sucked into a Libya like situation in yet another Arab and Muslim country. Influential forces in the Pentagon and the state department have been urging the American president to act more forcefully on Syria in order to shore up the declining fortunes of its allies in the region.

Moscow has rejected Washington's call for an immediate cease fire and the halt to the operations in Aleppo. Russia's deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, reacting to Kerry's threat to cut off talks with Moscow on the issue, said that Moscow has been consistently suggesting “48 hour humanitarian pauses” so that aid can flow into the beleaguered parts of Aleppo city. “But our American friends are totally fixated on demands of a seven day pause for reasons that only they know”, Ryabkov told the media in Moscow. A seven day pause, Ryabkov explained, was sufficient time for the jihadi groups to replenish their weaponry, regroup and avail of much needed rest. The Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov rejected a US state department spokesman's assertion that Russia was focusing on extremist groups in Syria because they could “attack Russian interests, perhaps even Russian cities”. Peskov said that the statement revealed “the current American administration's de facto support for terrorism”.

Russia, like the other backers of the Syrian government like Iran, are all calling for a negotiated political settlement to the conflict in Syria which is now entering its sixth year. But the West and its allies do not want serious talks to begin at a time when the Syrian government is having the upper hand in the military conflict. They also are aware that in a free and fair election or referendum, Bashar al Assad and the legitimate Syrian government will emerge triumphant.