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Russia and the US Change their Policies on Syria

For those who follow the Russian and US policies on Syria, it is obvious that the failure of the Geneva process and of the diplomatic approach, at least for now, led both countries to respond with differing approaches.

As recently as last week, we saw an example of how Moscow changed its position, particularly in regard to the Assad forces’ operations on the ground in northern Syria. While the Russian Air Force continued its raids against what they claim to be “terrorist” targets, even if the victims are mainly civilians, it did not interfere when ISIL – Russia’s claimed terrorist target – attacked the Russian-trained “Desert Hawks” (DH) in al-Raqqa province. ISIL not only stopped the DH forces’ advance, but also kicked them out of all positions they held in the entire province, while the Russian generals averted their eyes.

It is noticeable now that the Russian Air Force does not provide support to all the ground operations of Assad or his allies. Only selected confrontations on the ground are selected for Russian aerial or ground support. This trend started in a scattered fashion immediately after the Kremlin announced in March that it is reducing its military presence in Syria. Since the collapse of the Geneva process, however, it has become clearer and more systematic.

Russia assisted the Syrian forces in liberating Palmyra and al-Qaryatain from ISIL due to their key strategic location. But in the north, Russian forces were absent in the recent battles waged by Hezbollah, in attempted attacks on opposition strongholds in and around Aleppo city. While Russian planes bombed some US-supported opposition groups in the north in mid-June, Moscow soon announced it had been a mistake, due to lack of information the detailed map of the distribution of forces. It was reported that the Syrian government intentionally provided the Russian war-room at the Hemeimeem airbase with false information.

In the interval between the end of September last year and the end of March this year, Assad and his allies have regained their momentum and turned the situation on the ground in their favor. The initial plan had been that once this objective had been achieved – which it was at the end of March – the diplomatic process that had been initiated months before, with Assad’s advantageous tactical momentum, would reach a balanced political deal between Assad and the opposition.

However, an additional factor was added to the mix when the US and Russia reached an agreement on the parameters for a ceasefire in Syria. The opposition, under pressure from its regional backers, overall adhered to the deal. Assad and his allies violated it repeatedly.

This is when the differences between Russia on the one hand, and Assad, Iran, and Hezbollah on the other, became very clear. The trilateral alliance said that the ceasefire was used to rearm and regroup the opposition in the north. Meanwhile, Secretary John Kerry pressured his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov to fulfill Russia’s commitment to rein in its allies in Syria to save the ceasefire and the political process. Kerry warned that the alternative would be the US and its allies arming the opposition and a continuation of the war, until Assad could be defeated.

Moscow tried to convince Assad that “liberating every inch of Syria” is simply not the name of the game as planned, and that the objective is to start a meaningful political process that ends with all arms directed against one enemy: ISIL. However, Assad’s calculations were different. He believed that the Russians would have no choice but to continue their support for his forces and to participate in defeating each and every opposition group, regardless of their stance on terrorism. He also feared that a “meaningful” political process would end in his departure. The Russians do not consider the person of Assad himself that central to reaching a political solution. But Assad has always believed in the mantra: “Je suis la Syrie”.

Now, what we see before our eyes is the Russians at a crossroads. Moscow has to measure its steps in Syria in a way that fits only the initial goal of fighting terrorism and pushing for a successful political deal to end the crisis, all the while avoiding the zero-sum plans of Assad and Iran.

Moscow is convinced that this is the only way ahead in Syria. It watches with understandable worry as Washington hardens its position. It knows that the absence of an acceptable political deal sooner will result in having to accept a worse deal later. However, the Kremlin cannot shoot itself in the feet by letting Assad down completely. The Russian lines are drawn up according to the initial objective: Preserve the west of Syria and try to reach a political deal to gather all the forces, including the opposition, to focus solely on fighting ISIL. So long as Assad and Iran harbor a different agenda, differences between the two and Russia will only become more evident.

It is difficult to see how the differences in strategies between Moscow on the one hand, and both Assad and Iran on the other, will evolve. What is absolutely clear is the president Putin will insistence on acting according to the initial agreement with his allies is always proportional to what the US does in Syria. So long as the US remains passive, the consequences of Assad’s & Iran’s behavior will be clearly carved in the minds of both, and Putin’s attempts to convince them to remain within the framework of the initial strategy of reaching a political solution will have a lesser chance of working.

It would seem that Iran is starting to read the situation as it is. But the problem there, as usual, is that one should specify which Iran we’re talking about, the IRGC or the government. A few days ago, the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, clearly reflected the position of the IRGC by announcing that the fight to take Aleppo will continue no matter what the Russians say. He hinted that Moscow does not understand that the ceasefire was meant to rearm and regroup the opposition.

The moment Hezbollah and the IRGC-led militias lose their momentum, Tehran will shift to diplomacy. For Assad and his allies to lose the momentum, the US has to be involved more actively and the opposition has to be assisted more openly. 

The US role as well has gone through a phase of some important modifications. Until March, the US military presence was almost exclusively in Ya’rabia in Hassakah province, and around Tcherin Dam. Gradually, more US special forces have started to spread, particularly after establishing the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

MH-60 and MH-47G gunships have been frequently spotted in northern Syrian skies. The SDF were given M2A1s, MK47s, and Javelin anti-armor missiles. Additional special forces from other NATO countries have arrived in the north of Syria, as there was already the platform of the SDF to receive them.

Parallel to the SDF, the US was quietly building the New Syrian Army (NSA). The NSA has developed a strategy by which it will fight ISIL until its defeat, and then turn on Assad – which is exactly what the US demands opposition forces do. This formula is obviously based on a nonsensical separation of ISIL and Assad, however, it was suitable to introduce the new force to the surrounding environment in an acceptable manner.

By the beginning of this year, the NSA was already active in the eastern Syrian desert. Later, fighters of the NSA were spotted receiving training in Jordan. Those fighters were provided with MK14EBR, M2 Browning, and M2-40B, all of which are American-made arms. Moreover, the US Air Force has been seen on more frequent operations over northern Syria, where it supported the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in many important battles with ISIL.

What we see now is obviously a US-Russia tactical approach on the ground that is a little more coordinated. When the US Air Force was bombing ISIL positions and assisting the SDF, NSA, and FSA, Russia was restraining its aerial operations over Idlib and Aleppo. Assad’s attack on Aleppo has stalled due to lack of aerial support. It is thought that the Russians refrained from supporting the DH forces’ advance towards Raqqa because a potential clash with SDF was emerging, if the trend were allowed to continue.

This new Russian stance helped abort the progress of the DH fighters towards al-Tabaqah airbase, the Hezbollah fighters’ campaign south of Aleppo, and the plan to recapture Idlib by the Syrian army. The plan to surround ISIL forces in the desert of Deir al-Zour, and in the al-Bab region east of Aleppo, was threatening a potential confrontation between the SDF and Assad’s forces. There is no appetite in Moscow to see such a confrontation. If it happens, it will push the US not only to end its coordination with the Russians, but to invest heavily in opposition groups in the north of Syria.

We have seen in all this a pattern that tells us that the Russians gauge their steps according to the degree of coherence and determination manifested by the US. 

But the US is heading towards even deeper changes in its policies on Syria. A heavyweight military strategist, Michele Flournoy, who is a probable candidate for Secretary of Defense if Hillary Clinton wins the coming presidential elections, recently outlined what she believes should be the US strategy in Syria when the costly inaction of president Obama is over next November. She wrote:

“I have argued for increasing U.S. military support to moderate Syrian opposition groups fighting ISIS and the Assad regime, like the Southern Front, not asking U.S. troops to do the fighting in their stead.  I further argue that the U.S. should under some circumstances consider using limited military coercion – primarily strikes using standoff weapons – to retaliate against Syrian military targets in order to stop violations of the Cessation of Hostilities, deter Russian and Syrian bombing of innocent civilians and the opposition groups we support, and set more favorable conditions on the ground for a negotiated political settlement”.

“In short, I advocate doing more to support our partners on the ground to make them more effective; I do

If this approach had been implemented earlier, many lives could have been saved, ISIL would have become much less of a threat, and the crisis would have been contained and solved earlier. But late is still better than never.

At last, we see a return to common sense: Change the balance of power on the ground if you want to end the Syrian tragedy and really defeat ISIL. 

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