Thursday, April 21, 2016

Syria War Still Up For Grabs

Russia's intervention restored Assad's fortunes--a bit. Assad still has major problems to overcome before he can sleep easily at night.

Yes, Russia's visible air intervention has stemmed rebel (including terrorist rebel) momentum.

But Assad is still in deep trouble.

Assad continues to fight despite the public downgrading of Russia's expeditionary force because Russia left a lot of stuff for Assad to use:

Despite the withdrawal of most Russian air support government forces continue to advance. In part this is because Russia has sent enormous quantities of military supplies to Syria since late 2015. This includes lots of spare parts for Syrian Air Force aircraft along with hundreds of Russian technical personnel to get aging and worn out Syrian warplanes (almost all of them Russian built) back into service. There were apparently some deliveries of new or used Russian warplanes. It is also believed that Russia has “loaned” the Syrian Air Force some military pilots and helped train additional Syrian pilots. The Syrian Army has received a lot of new Russian weapons and equipment. Syrian artillery support is noticeably more plentiful and accurate than it was a year ago.

Assad has restored his firepower edge with this aid. But then we have the enormous casualties that Assad's forces have endured in the war so far, which dwarf the casualties we endured in Iraq that so many charged were "breaking" our Army.

A report on what Iran is doing to put boots on the ground for Assad should make it clear that Assad's Syrian ground forces are pretty shaky:

As the five-year conflict in Syria grinds on, BBC Persian has found evidence that Iran is sending thousands of Afghan men to fight alongside Syrian government forces.

The men, who are mainly ethnic Hazaras, are recruited from impoverished and vulnerable migrant communities in Iran, and sent to join a multi-national Shia Muslim militia - in effect a "Foreign Legion" - that Iran has mobilised to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Used as shock troops, these men are ordered to do jobs that Syrian men are unwilling to do--advance through the last 100 yards toward enemy fighters and drive them from those positions.

That initial Strategypage link also notes that Iran is increasing its own role in addition to providing a Shia foreign legion:

Iran has increased its manpower in in Syria since Russia began withdrawing forces in mid-March. There are now close to 4,000 Iranian troops in Syria.

This now includes regular Iranian army forces in addition to the Revolutionary Guards (Pasdaran) that have been there.

Strategypage also notes that Russian special forces (Spetsnaz) are still active in Syria, helping to call in that firepower on enemy forces.

And those enemy forces may have been battered by the temporary Russian surge and the escalation of Iran's involvement, but the rebels still hold most of Syria's territory. Fighting continues around Aleppo, in the south, and around Damascus and Palmyra.

And in the east, an Assad outpost could go from Rorke's Drift to Dien Bien Phu at any time:

The Islamic State group has tightened the noose on a regime-held enclave in eastern Syria, overrunning part of the city of Deir Ezzor and advancing on its vital airbase, a monitor said Wednesday.

"IS seized the Al-Sinaa neighbourhood of Deir Ezzor on Tuesday evening and fighting is continuing on the edge of the airport," the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

An estimated 200,000 civilians are believed to remain in government-held districts of Deir Ezzor, where they have been living under siege by IS since March 2014.

Russia's intervention didn't win the war for Assad. Assad's forces may have gotten a morale boost from that high-profile intervention, but as that intervention has receded, the Syrian troops find that they are still fighting the same old war with no end in sight to secure their northwestern bastion let alone reclaim the entire country.

And in the east, an ISIL success that overruns Deir Ezzor could well shake the morale of Assad supporters who will not be happy that Assad could not protect his backers.

I continue to believe that Assad's best hope of success is to get John Kerry to join Russia's Lavrov in some sort of "peace" deal (Nobel Peace Prizes all around!) that continues to bring America into the war on Assad's side against all of Assad's enemies (and not just against ISIL and al Qaeda types), which could start to deprive the non-jihadi rebels of outside support that sustains them.

UPDATE: Naturally, this confuses our administration:

"We've been concerned about reports of Russia moving materiel into Syria," Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser to President Barack Obama, said at a news briefing in Riyadh, where Obama was at a summit with Gulf Arab leaders.

"We think it would be negative for Russia to move additional military equipment or personnel into Syria. We believe that our efforts are best focused on supporting the diplomatic process," Rhodes added.

The notion that Putin is trying to help Assad win the war seems alien to our brain trust.

The outcome of the war is up for grabs but only ISIL and the Russians (and their Iranian and Assad allies) are trying to win.

UPDATE: Confidence among Assad's supporters is higher based on the Russian intervention, and core Syria from the capital up to the coast is more secure. The ceasefire, uneven as it is, helps maintain the illusion of success. This is natural. And Russia (and Iran--and the American anti-ISIL alliance, too) did enable Assad to make gains.

But I think that a renewed conflict and casualties could shake the morale of Assad's supporters by showing that the light at the end of the tunnel is no such thing.

And since Assad wants Aleppo in his shrunken realm, the war will go on even if his enemies--who are also growing tired--aren't eager to renew the war to full throttle. I still think that city is a bridge too far to hold even if Assad can take it.

Can supporters endure endless war and even more death and destruction for Assad's sake?

Or will these supporters finally make a break for the exits?