Moscow is preparing to return to Syria

June 7, 2016

Mohammad Ballout  As-Safir

No countdown is currently underway for a renewed Russian military intervention in Syria and there may even never be another intervention with the same strength seen in the months prior to the ever-vacillating truce.

As a matter of fact, it seems that only the Russians had counted on this intervention and believed that their achievements were sufficient to successfully embark on a political process in Geneva, an expectation which unfortunately did not materialize.

Still, Russia keeps extending the truce in Syria, although Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu had determined May 25 the expiry date of this truce. However, now for the first time converging signs indicate a relaunching of part of the Russian military operation — including a renewed coordination with the Syrian army — ever since Moscow unilaterally decided to halt the Aleppo operation and impose a truce, even on Damascus, which reluctantly agreed to it. It should be noted that this truce is still stirring tension between Russia and the Syrian government.

Moreover, a feeling of bitterness prevails within the Syrian army and administration about their loss of an opportunity to achieve a great victory, particularly in Aleppo’s northern countryside, and to upset the balance of power in the Syrian war as a whole.

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Despite the major achievements of the Russian intervention on the ground in the countrysides of Latakia and in Aleppo’s southern, western and eastern countrysides, the Syrian forces failed to wrest control of key cities such as Idlib or Jisr al-Shughur from the Islamists and achieve final victory over the armed factions.

The Russian intervention has indeed failed to achieve the operational goals announced by the Russians themselves in November 2015. The Russians had stressed the imperative need to reach the Turkish-Syrian border, setting the closing of border crossings and supply routes with Turkey as a precondition to any solution. However, the Russians renounced their initial approach and the truce has allowed armed factions supported by the USA, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar to reorganize and refill their ranks and rebuild most of the infrastructure destroyed by the joint Russo-Syrian operations.

Thus, it can be said that for the first time the military and the diplomatic positions have converged on the need to restrengthen Russia’s credibility. This might pave the way for a partial re-adoption of the military option.

Yet this time around the goals of any renewed Russian military operation will not be as clear or as ambitious as the previous ones. This time, the military intervention will focus on isolating Jabhat al-Nusra from other armed groups. The Russians will put their Sukhoi fighter jets to the test and bet on direct ground offensives to weaken rather than defeat Syrian armed rebel groups. It should be noted that isolating Jabhat al-Nusra from other armed groups, which is a difficult and complicated objective, would strike a painful blow to those factions since Jabhat al-Nusra’s military might and its ideology form the backbone around which those factions unite.

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Thus, the positions of the Russian administration’s military and diplomatic wings on the need to return to the battlefront fall in line with the position of Shoigu, who believes that the truce option has proven to be a failure and that a deadline must be given to the armed groups to distance themselves from Jabhat al-Nusra. This also seems now to be the position of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who stated that “Moscow had not abandoned its decision to attack the armed factions that failed to abide by the truce in Syria.”

In an interview published on May 31 in Russia’s daily Komsomolskaya Pravda, Lavrov said that the deadline given by Moscow to the militants was about to expire. He added, “The US asked us to extend the deadline for several days prior to the implementation of the plan we had set in advance, whereby any party that breaches the truce would become a legitimate target, irrespective of whether this party is included on the lists of terrorist organizations or not. The Americans requested us to give them a few additional days to present us with their response, but the extended deadline expires this week.”

The foregoing is an indication that helps explain the decision-making process with regard to Syria. This process is affected by a tug of war taking place between the advisers of President Vladimir Putin. The Russian military supports the return to the battlefield, while a large part of Russia’s Foreign Ministry officials and officials overseeing the political process, such as Lavrov and Mikhail Bogdanov, believe that work must continue toward achieving a political settlement; in fact, they are banking on President Barack Obama’s [arguable] desire to defeat IS (Islamic State) in Syria.

Russian diplomats are convinced that this is the best political settlement that they will get — one that will allow them to maintain a presence in Syria and reach a political solution before the end of the year when President Obama’s administration will be replaced by a new and maybe more hawkish successor.

But Russian diplomats find themselves facing the US administration’s continued refusal of any coordination with the Russians in military operations targeting their mutual foe, IS, whether in Raqqa or northern Syria. The best possible US cooperation the United States offers is a joint US-Russian presence in Syrian airspace.

In that context, US warplanes dominate the sky over regions east of the Euphrates River, while Russian air cover blankets the region west of the river. Moreover, neither during Russia’s military operation nor after the truce went into effect did the Americans stop re-arming militant factions. The United States supplied these factions with nearly 3,000 tons of weapons, offered them training, organized and coordinated their operations in a bid to wear out the Russians in Syria. It should be noted that this has been a clear Obama policy objective aimed to prevent the realization of any political solution as part of the United States’ desire to weaken Russia. Washington, in fact, had even demanded that Russia must not target Jabhat al-Nusra’s positions.

Lavrov also stated that in one of their numerous telephone calls he asked his US counterpart, John Kerry, to explain why the US-led international coalition stopped targeting the terrorists in Syria, to which Kerry reiterated the same traditional justifications — which according to Lavrov are based on a bizarre US assertion that terrorist positions are mixed with the positions of good guys who should not be targeted.

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It seems that the bickering within the Russian administration about resuming Russia’s military intervention in Syria is on the verge of ending while the current US administration is entering its final months in office.

As the arming of rebel factions in northern Syria has not undergone any reduction worth mentioning, Lavrov has grown convinced that the Americans are deceiving the Russians and that the international coalition is standing idly by as terrorists and arms flow through the Turkish-Syrian border. It seems that Lavrov has come to believe that the terrorists are undoubtedly preparing to launch an offensive in violation of all international conventions and UN Security Council resolutions.

Without stirring a buzz similar to that of their first military intervention in Syria, the Russians this week disembarked ground forces and paratroopers in the port of Tartus to support more than 3,000 Russian volunteers dispatched to the region in the past few weeks, in a bid to revive coordination with the Syrian army.

This represents yet another additional indication that a wide-ranging operation is being prepared. This operation may include IS capital Raqqa, where the Russians want to have a presence on the ground to rival that of the Americans and Kurds. This may also include the countryside of Aleppo, where the Iranians are pushing for a major operation aimed to cut supply routes open to the east and retake the village of Khan Tuman, where Iranian militias suffered a major setback.

In that regard, Syrian sources stated that the Russian joint command staff, which coordinated aerial support operations last fall, have returned to the Hmeimim military base in Latakia province to begin preparations for a new air and ground offensive.

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