Britain said on Tuesday Russia could be trying to carve out an Alawite mini-state in Syria for its ally President Bashar al-Assad by bombing his opponents instead of fighting Islamic State militants.
Assad has too few loyal troops to control all of Syria if actively resisted in those areas. I've long said Assad has to retreat to a core Syria in the west. And I looked at the numbers here.
Even if Assad wants to reconquer all of Syria, it has to start with securing the west to build a military capable of fighting for all of Syria.
And Assad would need help, I wrote, because he was short troops to control even just the west:
So he's short. But not dramatically so. Perhaps with a realistic plan to survive, Assad could get Russia to commit a marine regiment to hold a base region on the coast and a parachute division in the north to help deter Turkey and help hold the front south of Aleppo. Call that 10,000 troops. Maybe Iran can toss in half that in irregular plain clothes thugs. Perhaps Hezbollah tosses in a thousand men. Surely, Assad could mobilize 18,000 local defense forces from Alawites and loyal minorities worried about the Sunni majority.
Russia's ground troop presence is smaller and emphasizes air power, but Russia did intervene and Assad has called on Hezbollah, Iran, and militias for troop strength.
Although I think Assad needs to focus on what he needs rather than what he wants in the west.
And while ISIL has the mantle of jihadi control of the abandoned parts of Syria, I was also spot on (in that post on securing the west) with this speculation in that post about a Syrian government focus on a western core state:
And perhaps with enough chaos in the abandoned parts of Syria, Assad could even count on Western and regional forces to move in and fight al Qaeda. Even if foreign troops move in just for humanitarian or WMD reasons, the possibility that mission creep will take place as jihadis attack foreign troops (the temptation will be great for al Qaeda types) could turn foreign troops into de facto allies against the jihadis, or at least weaken the jihadi fight against Assad's forces by spreading jihadi attention.
And yes, Russia has little interest in anything but the west where they have air and navy bases. Iran, too, really just needs the west to have access to an Israel Front through Lebanon and Hezbollah.
I mentioned that narrow focus even as I feared John Kerry would eventually save Assad:
We should let Putin flail in his military adventure in Syria. But no, John Kerry will help Russia achieve their objective of keeping a pro-Russian entity on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea where Russia can have a port and air bases; and Iran's objective of maintaining an outpost to support Hezbollah in Lebanon.
But since Assad formally steps down, Kerry will be able to pretend he is a brilliant diplomat.
Why would Russia want to help the West defeat ISIL in a more expansive fight that helps tie us down while Russia is more active in Europe and which has put pressure on Europe to back down by sending refugees and migrants to Europe in large numbers?
Strategypage has more on Russia's faux effort to fight ISIL and other issues regarding Syria.
One part of that fight for a core Syria seems to be Aleppo:
The commander of a U.S.-supported Syrian rebel group said on Friday the northern countryside of Aleppo province was completely encircled by Syrian government forces and its allies and heavy Russian bombardment continued.
Yet I continue to believe the city is a bridge too far for Assad, who can't afford to hold that city even if he manages to finally take it--especially given the casualties Assad's supporters have endured thus far. Russia is supplying air power to advance. But Assad still has his small ground force--which has sustained amazing casualties since I first judged the city a bridge too far--to hold the region and supply lines to it.
And if we defeat ISIL in Syria without building up Syrian rebels to defeat Assad (and no, the Kurds of Syria will no more storm Damascus than the Kurds of Iraq will storm Mosul), we will have unfortunately bolster the Russian-Iranian-Assad objective of securing an Alawite mini-state in the west, of a size still to be determined.
I'm so old that I remember when we didn't want to intervene in support of non-jihadi rebels because we didn't want to "militarize" the conflict.
"The kingdom is ready to participate in any ground operations that the coalition (against Islamic State) may agree to carry out in Syria," Brigadier General Ahmed Asseri, who is also the spokesman for the Saudi-led Arab coalition in Yemen, told the Saudi-owned al-Arabiya TV in an interview.
I assume the Saudis mean their special forces and not combat brigades.
But if the Turks move into northern Syria in force, who knows?