Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Fighting for a Post-Syria Assad

Russia announced more than a week ago that they would pull out much of their air power from Syria, which is the subject of speculation now. Clearly, Russia only cares about northwestern Syria.

The Russians stated that they completed their mission and would withdraw most of their air power. Rather quickly, about half of the warplanes were pulled out:

Just under half of Russia's fixed-wing strike force based in Syria has flown out of the country in the past two days, according to a Reuters calculation which suggests the Kremlin is accelerating its partial withdrawal.

Strategypage addresses the reduction of forces:

Russia pointed out that their troops made it possible for Syrian government forces to retake over 400 towns and villages more than 10,000 square kilometers of territory and that Russian forces can leave now. While the Russian presence reversed rebel advances that threatened to defeat the Syrian government by late 2015 the Russian assistance has not defeated the rebels. Despite still being divided (and often fighting each other) the rebels remain more powerful than the government forces. Russia cites the long-delayed peace talks as made possible because of the Russian intervention. Yet the peace talks are more about posturing than performance. One tangible result of the Russian intervention was an opportunity to give many new Russian weapons some combat experience. That is a good thing for Russia but because of continued low oil prices and sanctions Russia cannot afford to keep their Syrian operations going at their current intensity. It is no secret that Russia is running out of smart bombs and replacement parts for many of these new weapons. The elite combat and support troops Russia sent to Syria are exhausted and need some rest. Then there is the additional expense of the entire operation, something that is easier to justify back home if it is not open-ended. Russia will continue to maintain its improvised naval base and airbase operations in Syria. This is much less expensive and could be done with only a thousand or so troops. This presence also implies Russian willingness to bring back the muscle if the Assad government gets in big trouble again.

Which is more interesting than just assuming Russia won. Russia will be able to rest troops--showing they don't have the forces to rotate troops to sustain even a small force in Syria in addition to their efforts in eastern Ukraine; the Russians will save money; the Russians can rebuild stocks of weapons; and the Russians got to test out new weapons.

Further, the Russians can come back easily if the rebellion starts pushing Assad back again.

And the Russians may yet feel that peace talks can cement their win, if the Russians can again play Secretary of State Kerry to ratify the survival of Assad if not the defeat of ISIL.

Let me add some thoughts.

One, regaining 10,000 square kilometers for Assad is a drop in the bucket when you consider Syria has nearly 186,000 square kilometers of territory. So Russia helped recover a bit more than 5% of Syrian territory.

But the territory is in the west, which as I've long said is all that Russia (and Iran, for different reasons) cares about. As long as Assad controls the northwest, Russia has a port and airfields that can project Russian naval and air power into the eastern Mediterranean.

This Russian reduction demonstrates the lie of Russia's pretense for intervention that they wanted to fight ISIL. Russia has pulled back just as Syrian forces were aimed east where ISIL's stronghold is--which seemed odd to me anyway because I didn't (and still don't) think Assad has the manpower to hold what he has let alone push into rebel-, jihadi-, and ISIL-held territory to clear them out and then hold that territory, too.

And a reduction in Russian air power isn't that significant if Russia has managed to get Assad's air force and artillery back in action, as the post also notes.

And Russia seems to have shifted to artillery support as their air power has been pulled back from the fight--but not completely out of the fight.

Further, does the lack of much of Russia's air power signal that Assad's offensives are over? A reduced Russian air expeditionary force may be sufficient for flying in defense of pro-Assad forces. Recall that when we were fighting in Afghanistan, a single B-1 bomber loitering over the country loaded with smart bombs was all the air support friendly forces needed. But is it enough to sustain offensives?

Or will restored Syrian firepower be enough to take up the slack to continue the offensives?

Although really, as long as Assad gets Iranian financial support, he doesn't need to hold more than western Syria to survive (and really, just northwestern Syria, since the capital region is expendable in my opinion).

Remember, too, that a Syrian offensive to retake Palmyra, which the Russians telegraphed, is as much to establish an outer perimeter for the defense of Damascus as it is opening a path to eastern Syria.

Unless a solid agreement that joins Assad, Russia, and America to defeat ISIL is achieved, cementing American power to bolster Assad's survival, Assad has no interest in defeating ISIL and has a lot of incentive to leave ISIL intact to keep America focused on ISIL rather than on Assad.

And unless the Russians achieve another photo-op of a smiling foreign minister Lavrov shaking hands with a clueless Kerry over such a deal, will Assad's supporters suffer a critical loss of morale by seeing the Russians pull back leaving them holding the line?

Could the morale of Assad's supporters survive a major defeat that once again denies them the prospect of a victory in the near future that they and their sons survive?

Can the Syrians and their Hezbollah and Iran-sponsered Shia foreign legion endure the casualties to sustain an offensive that tries to add more territory to Assad's core Syria?

And will the rebellion regroup over the coming months and begin clawing back territory from the Syrian defenders?

So Russia turned the tide temporarily for Assad, buying time for diplomacy to cement the limited victory; and Russian forces can come back anytime if the Russian base area comes under threat from a revived rebellion in the future.

And yes, the Russians claim victory and warn they can come back quickly:

President Vladimir Putin on Thursday declared his country's Syria mission a resounding success, but stressed Russia would continue to support the Syrian government and could build up its military presence in the region again within hours if necessary.

The initial intervention beefed up the infrastructure and can now host a return of forces to Syria (REFORSYR?) should Russian objectives require it.

Oh, and under cover of Russia's reduction, according to Strategypage, Hezbollah--which is getting tired of their adventure--may have withdrawn some of their troops. We'll see how this develops.

It will be interesting to see what Turkey and Saudi Arabia do going forward.

UPDATE: Syrian forces are approaching Palymyra, supported by Syrian and Russian air power:

Syrian government forces and their allies pushed forward against Islamic State fighters to reach the outskirts of the historic city of Palmyra on Wednesday, state media and a monitoring group said.

The government lost it last May. Did Russian intervention really revive the Syrian military enough to hold it if retaken?

UPDATE: Pro-Syrian government forces may have entered Palmyra. The link wording doesn't match the article, but whatever. Perhaps recycling links reduces AP's carbon footprint.