Wednesday, November 11, 2015

What Kind of Victory is This?

Syrian troops--supported by the Russians, Iran, and Hezbollah--have broken the siege at an air base east of Aleppo. Now what?

After being isolated for two years, this is a big deal:

Syria's army broke a more than year-long jihadist siege of a military air base in the country's north Tuesday, scoring its first major breakthrough since Russia's air campaign began.

Troops, backed by pro-government militia, broke through the Islamic State (IS) group's siege of the Kweyris military airport in northern Aleppo province, a photographer working with AFP said.

Assad's ground forces are staggering under the weight of casualties. What have they stripped from other parts of government-controlled territory to achieve this?

Yes, Hezbollah and Iran's forces have spearheaded the operation, backed by Russian air power. But how does Assad now hold this corridor to the air base? And to government-held Aleppo?

I still expect this operation to be a rescue mission rather than a reconquest of territory. I just don't see Assad's forces being able to hold the ground.

As this article notes at the end:

The breaking of the Kweires siege stood in stark contrast to Islamic State's capture of Tabqa air base in Raqqa province in the north of the country last year, when militants killed scores of soldiers.

The families of soldiers under siege in Kweires had staged protests urging the government to do more to take it back.

Getting those guys out is the big deal. Will Assad really try to hold the ground taken to sustain the base and risk the enemy surrounding the base again when scarce government troops are called away to other areas in danger? And repeating the Tabqa debacle?

UPDATE: Two effects of Russia's intervention are that Assad's supporters are encouraged and rebels are discouraged:

[A] growing number of rebels are becoming discouraged and desertions in all rebel factions are increasing. Some of the Islamic terrorist rebels groups (especially ISIL) forbid desertion and punish (often with death) those caught trying to leave. At the same time the Russian intervention has reduced desertion in the government forces and encouraged more deserters to return. The government was always rather lenient with deserters, except among officers, especially senior officers. That policy is now paying off. Russia, despite its own economic problems back home, has brought more cash to Syria and that means more pay for government forces and that is a another major incentive. The rebels, in contrast, have less cash and that hurts because even the rebels have expenses, including paying many of their fighters.

I imagine the positive effect on Assad's backers will erode as they discover that there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Remember, the chemical weapons deal was supposed to buy time for the government to defeat the rebels. And that deadline passed long ago. The facts on the ground are not changed much by Russia's initial intervention, and so the morale boost will fade unless Russia (or Iran) wants to escalate their commitment to the fight for another boost of local morale.

As for the rebels? I figured their morale took a hit with the chemical deal, too. But they've kept on fighting. As the rebels adjust to the new capabilities that Russia's assets bring to Assad, I assume their morale will recover.

Of course, the war has been going on for about 4 years, more or less, depending on when you want to mark the transition from protests and oppression to open warfare. Somebody's morale will eventually take a hit that it can't recover from. Given the heavy toll the Syrian military has endured, I'll guess they break first. But you never know.