At the time of Russian President Putin’s December announcement of the partial withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria, I wrote an article for The Duran saying that the war in Syria was far from over and that the announcement should not be treated as an indication that it is over or even close to being over:
The war in Syria is not over and it is not won. Though ISIS’s back has been broken, it is still a force under arms in rural Deir Ezzor where it has recently taken the offensive against the US’s Kurdish allies.
In addition hundreds of ISIS fighters are still roaming free in the desert regions of central Syria even if they no longer control any important towns there. These bands of fighters still pose a significant security threat, and will continue to do so for some time.
Further west Syria’s Idlib province remains under Jihadi control.
Worse still, there is now growing evidence that ISIS is trying to redeploy as many of its fighters as it can from central and eastern Syria to Idlib province.
With the Syrian military as always heavily over-stretched and still not in full control of much of the countryside it seems that this apparently planned redeployment of ISIS fighters from central and eastern Syria to Idlib province is not only taking place, but that it is actually meeting with some success.
Recently there have been reports of bitter fighting in Idlib province between Al-Qaeda – previously in undisputed control of the province – and the ISIS fighters who are being redeployed there from central and eastern Syria. Moreover it seems that with Al-Qaeda severely weakened because of the massive losses it suffered last year in the Great Battle of Aleppo, it is ISIS which is gaining the upper hand in this fighting.
Whilst it is probably still alarmist to say that ISIS’s caliphate which has been driven out of Raqqa, central Syria and Deir Ezzor is now in the process of reconstituting itself in Idlib, the possibility that something like that might happen is certainly there, and the Russians cannot be unaware of it.
Elsewhere there are still significant pockets of Jihadi resistance in south western Syria, especially in the Golan Heights and near Damascus, whilst the Syrian government still faces a serious problem with the US-backed Kurds who currently control around a fifth of Syria’s territory in the north.
Last but not least there are still thousands of US troops in Syria, uninvited and potentially dangerous, with no one outside the Pentagon and CENTCOM knowing exactly how many of them there are.
If it does nothing else the recent drone attack on Russia’s two Syrian bases and an earlier mortar attack on Russia’s Khmeimim air base which killed two Russian soldiers and which caused some damage to some Russian aircraft confirms this (South Front has incidentally provided a detailed and definitive analysis of the mortar attack).
That the Kremlin is embarrassed by these attacks in light of the overly optimistic comments President Putin made at the time of the withdrawal announcement is shown by the unusually defensive language used in a press briefing following the drone attack by President Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov
The remaining contingent and military infrastructure at Hmeymim and Tartus have the necessary capabilities to counter sporadic terrorist hit-and-run raids, which will regrettably continue. This merely emphasizes the need for stepping up political settlement efforts.
[In making the decision to pull out its military personnel from Syria] Russia proceeded from the assumption there are no grounds for conducting major offensive operations.
Everybody, including the president, were aware that terrorists’ attacks would not come to an end overnight, but will continue.
The usually well-informed Al-Masdar news agency is attributing the drone attack to ISIS, and it is possible that ISIS was responsible for the earlier mortar attack also.
If so then ISIS’s attacks on Russia’s two Syrian bases are clearly intended to bring home to the Russians as well as to ISIS’s own supporters that reports of its destruction are premature.
ISIS does indeed remain a significant force in eastern Syria, where groups of its fighters remain under arms in Deir Ezzor province and where ISIS retains a residual structure and command organisation.
ISIS is also an increasing presence in the Jihadi fastness in north west Syrian centred on Idlib province, where it is taking on Al-Qaeda and making a strong come back.
If ISIS was responsible for the attacks on Russia’s Syrian bases then they would indeed show that the organisation is still a force to be reckoned with in Syria, even if the attacks themselves were no more than pinpricks.
Since the Russian withdrawal announcement in December the Syrian army has remained on the offensive, making significant gains against various Jihadi holdouts near Damascus and on the Golan heights, and slowly encroaching on the main remaining area of Jihadi activity in Idlib province.
The attacks on the Russian bases might be a sign that the Jihadis in north west Syria in and around Idlib province are coming under pressure, in which case the attacks might be intended to pressure the Russians to get the Syrians to call their offensive in north west Syria off.
However the overall picture in Syria remains extremely complicated.
The diplomatic process in Geneva and Astana remains deadlocked. Despite the devastating military defeats it has suffered the Syrian opposition continues to insist on the removal of President Assad as a precondition for it agreeing to a peace settlement. The US is now talking of arming a new Syrian insurgent group in north east Syria whilst the Turkish military – now present in northern Syria in large numbers – has been spotted installing anti-aircraft missiles on Syrian territory (aimed at whose air force?) and is said to be preparing to attack the US backed Kurds.
A successful Turkish offensive against the US backed Kurds should not be seen as a development which is favourable to the Syrian government.
Though it would pit two US allies against each other, any territory the Turks capture from the Kurds will be handed over by Turkey to President Erdogan’s Jihadi allies, not to the Syrian government. The extent of Syrian territory under Jihadi control would in that case start to increase again.
Adding to this already overly complex Syrian picture are the two ongoing geopolitical conflicts which continue to rage in Syria: the one between Israel and Iran, and the one between the US and Russia.
Part of the purpose of President Putin’s December withdrawal announcement was to reduce military activity in Russia’s Syrian bases so that they could be enlarged and converted to make them fit to be placed on a permanent footing.
Over the last few weeks scattered reports have appeared which suggest that the major building work needed to convert these bases is now finally getting underway.
Given the dramatic shift that completion of the massive planned Russian base complex in western Syria might cause to the military and geopolitical balance of power in the eastern Mediterranean it is entirely understandable that the US might be acutely concerned about this development, and might be taking steps to try to stop it.
If the US was in any way involved in the drone attack on the Russian bases – and despite strong Russian hints that has not been confirmed – then concern about the planned Russian base complex might provide the reason.
The attack would in that case be a warning to the Russians that the US will not stand by and let the base complex be completed, and the Russians will have a fight on their hands in which they must expect to suffer casualties if they press on.
If so then the open use of US technology for the attack, and the Russian reported presence of a US Poseidon surveillance aircraft near the bases during the attack, is presumably intended to tell the Russians that it is the US they are up against and who they will have to face if they disregard the warning they have just been given and press on with their plan to build the base complex.
This complicated mix of players and motives makes it difficult to say with certainty who was behind the two recent attacks on Russia’s Syrian bases and what the reasons for the attacks were.
The Russians will however be seriously concerned. Already there is information that they are stepping up security around the bases.
Undoubtedly the Russians’ formidable intelligence operation in Syria will be working flat out to establish who was responsible for the attacks and what the reasons for the attacks were, with the Russians obliged to reassess their plans in Syria in light of them.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Duran.