Information has been published on social media claiming that Russia’s high rate of supplies shows a readiness for a return to its pre-withdrawal level of activity. Whilst this information on supplies may be accurate, it merely shows what replenishing the stocks of 1000+ personnel looks like.
As things stand, Russia is unable to up the ante in Syria due to the US’ unwillingness to coordinate their actions. Even though the Kremlin recently announced an agreement with the US for enhanced cooperation, in reality the US wants Russia to be its Air Force where it is needed. No cooperation really exists between Russia and the US. The only thing that can change this is Obama clearing his desk in November for Trump.
Russia’s campaign in Syria began on September 30th, 2015, when a contingent of military advisors, artillery, helicopters, and jets made the long journey to the Levant, setting up camp in the western province of Latakia. This would later become known as the Khmeimim Air Base, where 10 fueling trucks, refueling stations, warehouses for supplies, mobile kitchens, and even a bakery would appear. But the real reason the air base was created was to host over 50 aircraft including Su-34, Su-24M, Su-25, Mi-35m, Ka-52, Mi-24, and many others.
The first mission for the Russia Air Force was to clear out Latakia, in particular the areas surrounding the air base. This operation involved the destruction of ISIS’ oil supplies coming from Turkish territory. Russia made Turkey’s role in fueling the war in Syria perfectly clear to the world. This led to the notorious “stab in the back”, when a Russian Su-24 was shot down by a Turkish F-16 on the Turkey/Syria border. This incident was the catalyst for the deployment of the S- 400 long-range surface-to-air missile system at the air base. From this moment on, Russia had de-facto created a no fly zone in the entire region.
After Latakia had been cleared out, Russia did something that took the West by surprise – they “withdrew” the majority of their air forces. The reason why Russia did this is multifaceted:
A) Economy of Force. Russia had many idle units sitting at the airbase after the primary mission to disrupt ISIS’ funding and Turkey’s position in the region had been completed. In order to keep Russia’s operation optimized, Shoigu exchanged jets for helicopters, which would lead to the campaign in Palmyra.
B) Aiding the political process. The “withdrawal” served to show that Russia’s presence in Syria is flexible and temporary – it is not an occupation (they have Assad’s permission anyway). In actuality, Russia could bring back anything they moved, and thus it never was a “withdrawal”, just a reshuffling. But of course, the Western media liked to use the “weak Russia” analogy until exhaustion.
C) An agreement with the US. The Higher Negotiations Committee (Saudi Arabia’s faux opposition group with Salafi representatives of Ahrar al-Sham etc.) would not budge an inch unless Russia’s presence was thinned out. This worked out fine for Russia because of point A.
Shortly after the withdrawal, which annoyed Iran and Hezbollah as they were close to capturing key areas and subsequently had to reorganize and relocate, the city of Palmyra and its outskirts were fully liberated and de-mined. Russia’s helicopters would operate in groups of two so that, should one be attacked, the other one could hone in on the perpetrator. A Russian orchestra would play at the famous ruins to illustrate to the world’s media that Russia’s presence in Syria was very real, and not a farce like the US’ incursions in Iraq.
After the core of Palmyra was liberated, Russia then focused its attention on Aleppo. Turkey and Saudi Arabia issued rhetoric threatening an invasion. Iran then sent 6000 “Al-sabereen” troops to Aleppo to totally block such a possibility. By this time, the US’ proxies – both the “moderate rebels” and Al-Nusra – had started to create demarcation lines, which the US aims to use to partition the country. This resulted in Aleppo being split into two – North and South, with the latter being a source of Takfiri infighting (Jaish al Islam and Faylaq Al-Rahman). Due to Russia’s “withdrawal” and a lack of air support for the Syrian Arab Army, Jabhat Al-Nusra was able to reclaim what it had lost when Russia initially began its campaign. This created a scenario where Russia was forced to focus on North Aleppo in order to help cut the supply off to the South. Fortunately, the Syrian Army was able to capture some key areas in Aleppo such as Al-Mallaah Farms, thus cutting major terrorist supply routes.
Despite these successes, Russia now finds itself in a testing situation. The US wanted Russia to enter Deir Ezzor at the same time as its units were aiding the YPG in Raqqa. Russia was unwilling to do this as priorities change all the time, and at this moment Aleppo is the “mother of all battles”. The benefit of liberating Deir Ezzor would be securing the highway that goes to Iraq, as well as a key area near Raqqa. As a result, Russia did something that angered many – they signed a ceasefire deal with the US. It is this deal that leads us to the main point: Russia is waiting for Donald Trump’s election victory in November.
The Obama administration stubbornly refuses to cooperate with Russia; John Kerry told Lavrov in no uncertain terms that it is a pointless exercise to bomb the “moderates”, because the US will simply arm them time and time again. In other words, regardless of Russia’s progress elsewhere, it is a zero sum game. The US is actually more interested in liberating Fallujah, and soon Mosul. Both these conquests will give Obama the legacy he wanted, and it is still possible that Putin and Obama will liberate Raqqa together, since no party in Syria wants to approach the caliphate’s “capital” alone. Consequently, Russia signed a ceasefire with the US to buy time – 3 months initially to be precise. This allows some legal framework to be in force to reduce civilian casualties, to allow humanitarian aid to enter the besieged areas, and to give Russia time to badger the US to separate its proxies.
The US’ main stratagem in Syria is to blend Al Qaeda and the “FSA” Trojan Horse together so as to usurp Russia’s strict adherence to International Law. The latter’s role is to supply arms to the former. Russia is struggling to separate AlNusra from the “moderate rebels” in Aleppo, mainly due to the US’ reluctance to put certain groups (e.g. Jaish al-Islam) on the UN known terrorist organizations list. This would allow Russia to bomb them without having to worry about Washington crying “oh my god you killed our guys!” The other reason for Russia’s sticky situation is the fact that Aleppo is being organized by the US and allies for partition, and so bombing the city not only implicates innocent civilians, but also is ineffective due to the guerrilla tactics being employed by groups like Al-Nusra, whose leader al-Joulani isn’t the bumbling idiot we all think he is.
In order to progress before November, Russia will send its only aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, with 12 jets to Syria from October 2016 until January 2017. This will allow Russia to reverse the “withdrawal” and (hopefully) avoid harsh critique from self-proclaimed military experts. This also gives Russia another point of attack instead of relying on Khmeimim Air Base. If Russia can secure the use of the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, via mediation from Iran and Israel, it will open up even more possibilities for the future liberation of Aleppo. But a lot depends on the US election, and only Donald Trump is willing to actually work with Russia to end this mess once and for all.
The partition of Syria is still a very real possibility, and it could play out like it did in the civil war in Lebanon in the 1980’s, or even like Berlin post WW2. As the US is still pursuing a federalized Kurdish state, Turkey has seemingly abandoned their ambitions to annex Aleppo and reset relations with Russia. This could prove to be the deciding factor later down the line. One thing is certain – there is still a long way to go in the war, and Russia, for the sake of the multipolar future, knows that Syria and the region in general absolutely must not suffer Sykes-Picot 2.0.
The author is an editor and translator for Fort Russ – a popular independent news portal reaching more than 40,000 unique readers a day – with a focus primarily on the ‘world-island’ of Eurasia. He is a also the website manager of the Eurasianist Internet Archive – a volunteer initiative dedicated to translating into English and disseminating the works of historical and contemporary Eurasianist thinkers.