In the space of about a week, the Syria problem has been put beyond the reach of Obama’s abstract, dithering policies. The media are still pontificating about what Obama could or should be doing, but at this point, that’s all moot. A classic maneuver campaign has been inaugurated by the conventionally armed Russia-Iran-Assad alliance, and that campaign is what will shape the developments to come.
No campaign is ever preordained for success. So we don’t yet know the outcome of this one. What we do know is that it will be the condition around which all other reactions organize themselves in the Syrian theater.
Securing the urban corridor
The campaign feature the West is generally aware of is the assault on Aleppo, which was launched in earnest on Friday, and is being described by Syrians as the “most intensive” aerial bombardment of the entire Syrian civil war.
But Aleppo is just one of three major efforts to retake territory launched by the Russian alliance in the past week. The second is in Homs, where locals also describe the most intensive bombardment of the war.
Some outlets are reporting that Homs has effectively been entirely retaken now. Certainly, the Assad regime achieved a key win last weekend by getting some 100-200 rebel fighters and their families to accept safe passage out of the Homs metro. That typically happens when the rebels know they’re losing and see no better option. The rebels are relocating to Idlib Province, which we’ll get to in a minute.
The Syrian army has also been engaged in pushing ISIS-affiliated fighters back from the Homs-Palmyra road-head. (See campaign map below.) These fighters have been able to threaten traffic for months by holding a mountain redoubt east of Homs, which overlooks the road. Assad’s forces are pushing them out. Homs is to be secured.
The factional map of Syria makes clear why Aleppo and Homs are so important. They flank the main rebel-held region of Idlib Province. Controlling both cities is the key to executing a kesselschlacht maneuver – surround and annihilate – on the Idlib hinterland. (Kesselschlacht, or “cauldron battle,” is a perennial maneuver in Western warfare, taking its name from the frequent use of it by Prussian strategists Frederick the Great in the 18th century and Helmut von Moltke the Elder in the 19th.)
The Russian alliance already holds Latakia Province, cutting the rebels off firmly from the sea. If it holds Aleppo and Homs, it can prevent the rebels from outmaneuvering its forces east of Idlib. Rolling up the province will make it just a matter of time until the city of Idlib itself falls to the alliance.
Quneitra and the frontier with Israel
Quneitra abuts the erstwhile neutral zone in the Golan Heights. As the factions map indicates, much of Quneitra and Daraa is held by rebels at the moment. ISIS has a small but tactically significant presence.
That creates a two-fold vulnerability for the regime. It leaves a soft back door to Damascus, something that can’t be allowed in a fight to secure the entire western corridor. And it leaves an area where ISIS and its affiliates could draw Israel into the Syrian fight on their terms, rather than leaving control of the interface with Israel in the Russian alliance’s hands.
On a medium-term horizon, I foresee Iran and Syria wanting to build up a capability in the Golan to keep Israel out of Syria, and menace Israel on a timetable of their choosing. It isn’t yet time for them to be making the last-minute preparations for an invasion. They’ll have in mind dominance moves first, to shape the battle space; then invasion. And they won’t want to stir the hornet’s nest too soon. But they do want to shorten the timeline for such preparations – very significantly.
This will put Russia in the catbird seat Putin wants to occupy in all his dealings with the Middle East. Russia will be the broker for both sides, the great power Israel has to appeal to for holding Iran and Syria in check.
Overall, meanwhile, the map tells the tale: the campaign that has just started, with the end of the ceasefire, is a campaign to secure the western urban corridor of Syria, from Aleppo down to Quneitra. The areas requiring the major effort to be rendered rebel-free are Aleppo, Idlib, and Quneitra/Daraa.
The Russian alliance will of course get to eastern Syria as well. The alliance isn’t making big announcements about its political intentions, in part because they would be unacceptable to Turkey and the U.S.-led coalition. (This, in turn, is in part because any moves eastward will inevitably implicate the fight for Mosul. It’s not yet time to lay cards on the table in that regard.)
But the allies’ circumspection is also in part because they don’t want to have to fight the Kurds, if they can avoid it. They’re not going to make declarations that just polarize relations with the Kurds. They’ll want to be in contact with them, with the channel open to cooperation and the potential for political arrangements.
A few additional points. One, the alliance has been preparing for this for weeks now. Iranian involvement should not be doubted: alert readers will remember that a senior Iranian general was in Quneitra in July doing a military survey. Hezbollah has also been consolidating a presence in Quneitra (see here as well). As in the battle for Qusayr, on the border with northern Lebanon, Iran and Assad will rely extensively on Hezbollah for the operation south of Damascus.
Qods force commander Qassem Soleimani was in Aleppo three weeks ago, according to local reporting picked up on by Long War Journal. He reportedly visited with the Iranian-sponsored international units of the Qods force, which include fighters from Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
But we can be sure he was in Syria mainly to coordinate with Russian and Syrian military planners. (He’s now reported to be concentrating on the fight for Mosul in Iraq.)
Soleimani has shown a history of fighting for maneuver corridors by investing the urban enclaves that dominate them. Securing the western urban corridor in Syria looks, in concept, much like his corridor-focused campaigns in Iraq (see here, here, here, and here). Soleimani’s hand is easy to see in this newly inaugurated Syrian campaign. Its audacity, and its concurrent rather than serial approach to securing the urban enclaves, takes advantage of the dominating assets Russia brings to the fight.
When Turkey crossed the border with military forces at the end of August, moreover, the Assad regime quickly ramped up operations to push back rebels from the suburbs of Damascus. Turkey’s move signaled an end to the old conditions. Once Turkey was in the fight, it could no longer be “about” Obama’s a-geographic abstractions. It was time to move.
Southwest of Damascus, a very important local effort went entirely unnoticed in the West: the clearing of Daraya, which was abruptly completed in the final week of August, after a lackadaisical months-long siege. (The Russian alliance knew beforehand that Turkey would cross the border; that was clear at the time it happened. Russia couldn’t control what Turkey did or when she did it, but the advisory coordination was obvious after Erdogan’s visit to Moscow resulted in the 24 August border crossing.)
Clearing Daraya out gives the regime a dominant military position all the way to Quneitra, from the commanding height of Mount Qasioun and the western side of Damascus. (The implications for Israel’s posture in the Golan are obviously significant, with these activities.)
Such clearings-out have been difficult to keep in force over the course of the civil war, but that’s why now was the time to do this one. The decisive fight has been launched. Once the western corridor is secured, rebels will have little hope of getting back into menacing positions like the ones they have occupied for years.
The regime has a clearing operation underway in the rebel enclave of Ghouta as well (e.g., here and here), on the east side of Damascus. As with eastern Homs, rebel guns and operating bases are being pushed out of range, long enough for the Damascus metro to emerge stronger from the campaign for the western urban corridor.
The Russian alliance has also communicated some very specific warnings through Russian media in the last few days. There are undoubtedly more than this sample of two, but the two are telling.
One is an extremely specific warning to Erdogan, to not interfere with Russia’s control of the territory between northern Aleppo and Latakia Province. Erdogan won’t swallow that easily, but he will probably hold off challenging that red line for now. (His pounding of the Kurds can work to Russia’s advantage, meanwhile, making the Kurds more likely to seek cooperation with the Russian alliance. But Russia is lobbing more general editorial warnings at him as well.)
The other warning is an implicit one to the U.S. coalition, about its operations in eastern Syria. I’ve actually come to agree with Samantha Power that the whole business with the “erroneous air strike” on 17 September, by coalition warplanes in Deir el-Zour, was a stunt (Power’s word) – by the Russian alliance. (The U.S. military has never said it happened; they’ve only said it might have happened, by mistake. Their forensic jury is still out on it.)
But Russia and Iran are now flogging it as an established data point, with no pushback from Obama, and building a story around it that the U.S. wants to cut the Syrian regime off from the border with Iraq.
The implied warning to the coalition is to not try to do that. But keep in mind, this theme isn’t just about affecting the U.S. coalition’s behavior. It’s also about justifying the Russian alliance’s behavior. We can expect an increase very shortly in attacks by the Russian alliance on U.S.-backed rebels, in any part of eastern Syria they choose. Soleimani’s corridor-oriented strategic vision is no doubt already at work in that regard.
The long-running tragicomedy of the U.S.-Russian negotiations has served nicely to immobilize the U.S. coalition, and Russia will probably stay in it as long as John Kerry wants to keep straining for a military cooperation agreement of some kind. Kerry has been easy to stonewall. But there is no premise now for such cooperation. The moving finger has writ, and moved on.
One final point. Those rebel families being evacuated from Homs on the pretty buses are going to Idlib Province, under a safe passage agreement with Assad. What’s going to happen to them in Idlib will not be so pretty. With the U.S. receding from the global stage, war is back to being war again. The Russian alliance intends to win this one. It will not be constrained by fears about women, children, and collateral damage.
— Conflict News (@Conflicts) September 17, 2016