Thursday, January 21, 2016

Unclear On the Concept

Sure, Russia is in Syria for the long haul to save Assad. But Assad still needs a main effort.

Russia got an open-ended status of forces agreement with Assad before directly intervening in Syria:

Russia and Syria in August signed an agreement giving Moscow the go-ahead for an open-ended military presence in the war-torn country, Moscow has revealed.

The agreement was signed in Damascus on August 26, 2015, more than a month before Russia launched a bombing campaign against the Islamic State group and other "terrorists" at the request of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad.

Yet what has Assad done with this support? What has he done with the Iranian-provided manpower for the bleeding edge of their offensive efforts?

Well, the Syrian military is trying to do everything:

Last summer, Syria's regime was on the back foot after a series of military defeats, but in recent weeks it has capitalised on a Russian air campaign to recapture territory.

The gains have been limited, and have relied heavily on support from mostly Shiite foreign fighters from Lebanon's Hezbollah movement, as well as Afghan and Iraqi forces, and Iranian "advisers".

But they have allowed the regime to retake the initiative and go on the offensive after a humiliating string of defeats.

Perhaps the regime's biggest success since Russia began air strikes last September was this week's capture of Salma, a town in coastal Latakia province that became a rebel stronghold after its 2012 capture.

Simultaneously, the army is seeking to encircle the city of Aleppo, advance in the south of central Hama province and east in Homs, and is on the offensive in the key rebel town of Sheikh Miskeen in southern Daraa province.

Syria is making gains in the west, in the north, in the center, and in the south.

Perhaps it is just me, but I'm not seeing a main effort. As the article notes (and as I have), Assad lacks the manpower to secure all this territory.

And yes, as the article notes, Assad's troops demonstrate improved morale. But as I've written, that morale is a sugar rush of seeing somebody come visibly to their aid to hammer rebels and terrorists fighting them. When it becomes clear to these troops that they are still manning front lines and outposts that they have too few troops to hold, that morale will plummet again.

Assad needs to focus on holding a core Syria. That objective requires efforts in the west to hold the core Alawite area and the coast that prompted Russia to intervene (ports and air bases).

That objective requires efforts in the center to provide a buffer zone for the west and to secure lines of communication to the capital.

That objective does not need to hold the south near the Jordanian and Israeli borders.

That objective does not need to retake Aleppo. I've recently read that if Assad wants to call himself the president of "Syria" that he has to hold Aleppo. I disagree. One, Aleppo is wrecked. Two, as long as Assad holds the capital (and I think he could make the argument that he controls legal Syria even if he moves the capital from Damascus to the west) he controls the UN seat and all that goes with that authority. And three, even if Assad can recapture the city, it is a bridge too far that he cannot hold with his manpower.

And that objective does not require Assad to hold outposts still holding out in the east. Although I freely admit that Assad lacks the assets to rescue them or evacuate them. (Perhaps Russia would gain a lot of good will with the Assad faction by dropping/airlifting troops to those outposts to hold the perimeters while Russian planes fly out all those trapped troops and their families.)

In the east, jihadis slaughtered civilians in one of those outposts:

A source close to the Syrian government side said the Islamic State fighters killed at least 250 people, including pro-government fighters and their families when they attacked the neighborhoods of Begayliya and Ayash in the city.

He said some of the casualties were beheaded.

You don't need to be a fan of Assad to be horrified that civilians would be treated this way.

Assad can do more with Russia's new help. But Assad can't do everything. Assad seems to be trying to do everything under the mistaken notion that he has the troops and troop morale to control (or at least contest) all of Syria.

Main effort, people. Look into it.