Putin’s Syria – An Assessment

Spearhead Special Report – 28.02.2018

By Fatima Ayub
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

The U.N. Security Council Resolution 2401 has been adopted unanimously to initiate a 30-day cease-fire in Syria, demanding parties to Syria’s seven years long conflict to cease hostilities with immediate effect. The month long hiatus was implemented to ensure a “durable humanitarian pause” to enable weekly humanitarian aid deliveries and medical evacuations of the critically sick and wounded, after the country witnessed its bloodiest trajectory of violence in January 2018, to date.

It is a striking revelation that it was Russia, the most influential player in the Syrian quagmire that resisted the temporary hiatus proposed by the UNSC for days and allegedly attempted to water down all attempts to an ‘immediate start’ to the cease-fire or for unfettered humanitarian access ‘without delay’, as put forward by the US and other states in unison. World leaders like French President Emanuel Macron and German Chancellor Merkel had to reportedly write directly to Russian President Putin, in intense negotiations with the latter to not let Russia use its veto power to blockade the temporary truce.

Initially, news of the Resolution offered a brief glimpse of relief for the inhabitants of the war-torn region but any celebration by the world community in its success to soften the onslaught of the conflict was premature. In astounding defiance of the UNSC and less than 24 hours since the passing of the Resolution, the Syrian government forces launched a brutal ground offensive, sustaining airstrikes and allegedly dropping at least one bomb laden with chlorine against a rebel-held enclave outside Damascus, dashing hopes that this latest in a long string of failed efforts to tamp down the relentless bloodshed in Syria would work. According to the U.S.-based Syrian American Medical Society, 180 people were killed in Ghouta, including 42 children, in just the 48 hours the Security Council spent debating the final language of the resolution — arguing “over commas,” according to Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
The delay by Russian counterparts has made more sense in hindsight – critics had already sensed that Russian resistance to ceasefire was to allow ally Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to continue to pursue a renewed bombing campaign in the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta,

Thus, the debacle created post-passing of the UN resolution points to two key assessments; One, the difficulties encountered by the Security Council to pass a cease-fire resolution in the face of such blatant human suffering underscored the institution’s impotence. An estimated 500,000 people have been killed over the past five years in Syria. Two and more poignantly; Any potential ceasefires, peace processes or political and military developments in the Syrian crisis are impossible or atleast impractical without Russia’s nod of approval.

Ghouta – The new Aleppo

Eastern Ghouta, the strategic town west of Damascus has been worst affected by the disregard of the UN resolution and is being dubbed one of the worst examples of a thriving humanitarian crisis in the Syrian state. Termed a ‘medieval seige’ by UN officials in light of the increasing desperate pleas of the 400,000 residents of the area, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres labeled conditions in Eastern Ghouta “hell on earth.”

MENA security analysts have cited that the cease-fire to begin with, had several loopholes. It had no specific start time, only “without delay,” and like previous agreements, excluded groups designated as terrorists like the Qaeda-linked Levant Liberation Committee, which has a small presence in Ghouta. The Army of Islam, the main insurgent group in Ghouta, called on the United Nations to broker the departure of the Qaeda group, known by its Arabic initials, H.T.S.

The presence of H.T.S. elements in the outskirts of one of the towns in Ghouta is not an excuse for burning all of al-Ghouta and killing of 400,000 citizens,” Mohammad Alloush, the spokesman for the Army of Islam, said on Twitter. “And these elements are ready to get out to stop the bloodshed of civilians in Ghouta, but the regime is still hindering their exit.”

Previous cease-fires, like ones in the northern city of Aleppo, have been lost on this issue: The opposition says the government and its ally Russia bomb wherever they like, under the pretext that Qaeda is present, while the government maintains its own stance that the non-Qaeda rebels are de facto allied with the group.

It is accepted already that the numbers involved in Ghoutta—of both fighters and civilians—are of an altogether higher magnitude than was the case in Aleppo.

On the regime front, Ghouta, within six miles of the capital is one of the largest rebel-held enclaves in the country, also formerly remembered as the only part of the country that remained relatively unaffected by the war and now also the only area that the Assad government finds a direct threat to Damascus.

The number of recent gains made by rebel fighters in the area for example the fighters taking over the strategic military location of the Vehicle Management Base in Harasta, likely prompted the regime and its Russian patron to take decisive action to remove the mounting threat on the perimeter of the capital.

 The loss of territory such as this is indicative of a general weakness in the regime army’s military striking force. Political observers cite that the regime feels threatened with the loss of further vital areas will now push to impose an agreement on the opposition factions in Ghoutta.

The plan now, according to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, is to repeat the “experience of freeing Aleppo” in Ghouta – a reference to what was in fact a massive military campaign based on indiscriminate air and ground attacks in late 2016 that ended with the forceful expulsion of fleeing opposition fighters, along with thousands of civilians, from Aleppo to Idlib or Daaraa Province.

The last time the Aleppo “experience” happened, an official UN inquiry found it to have constituted a “war crime.” On the humanitarian level, the situation is catastrophic. A recent article in the Daily Beast that cited Ghouta-based civilian testimonials said that by specifically targeting the city;s infrastructure and vital points, such as hospitals, medical centers, and Civil Defense positions,” the regime and the Russians have “suspended the most basic and essential services” for civilians.

In Ghouta this time, with the loss of 250 civilians in less than a day of the UNSC resolution, UNICEF could only issue a blank statement, explaining, “We no longer have the words to describe children’s suffering and our outrage.”

However, there is reason to believe that the Aleppo precedent may not work as well as the Putin-Assad coalition believes it to. Orwa Khalife, a Syrian analyst and resident of Ghouta stated that “ In Ghouta, the number of opposition fighters is greater, and the fighting fronts have been clear and continuous for years, which has allowed the development of wider military defense mechanisms” on the opposition’s part.

Regardless of the response of opposition groups to agreeing to Assad’s proposals in their turfs, the symbolism alone of a total opposition defeat in Ghouta – one of the first regions to rise up against the regime in 2011, and the last stronghold of the rebellion in the capital’s vicinity- would be immense.

Politically, the absence of an international consensus on ways to secure a wider settlement to the conflict especially with regards to opposition-held areas, it is unlikely that Assad will halt any operations in an area considered vital to consolidating his hold on power.

Thus, there is a view that there is a truce only in the Security Council. Nothing has changed on ground. The use of chlorine bomb, which killed 10, in the immediate aftermath of the passing of the Resolution 2401 seemed only to underline the government’s defiance, because halting the use of chlorine has been a focus of the United States’ most recent efforts to influence the course of the war.

“As far as the pro-regime alliance is concerned, taking back Eastern Ghouta would seal up a de facto strategic victory and end any possible serious threat to regime sustainability.” Charles Lister of the Middle East Institute in Washington stated. “The Assad regime can literally taste strategic victory in its capital Damascus, and given that reality, it’s sadly very difficult to imagine any cease-fire in Eastern Ghouta holding for very long,”

The Bigger Picture

But the larger burden of responsibility lies with Russia. Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president is serving more as a defacto man in charge than a President. His calculation to continue operations by ground forces is a calculated risk he is willing to take, with the knowledge that its powerful ally has his back, reflecting his ideology that political gains and humanitarian negotiation must be dealt with separately.

Vladimir Putin on the other hand, has been the enabler and abettor of most of Assad’s moves. Russia’s rescue of Assad in 2015 when he was at the brink of losing the war, directly translated into Russia effectively supplanting the US as the Middle East’s mediator and firmly pitting itself as the key stakeholder in the region. Thus, while the Syrian conflict began as a popular, internal uprising against a dictator, Russias military intervention has ensured that it has now become Putin’s war, becoming Moscow’s biggest foreign military adventure since the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan

For Assad and Putin, Ghouta is the key to controlling the capital, and winning the war. But observers of the unfolding civil war have voiced their belief that both men have miscalculated.

Nearly 18 months into Russia’s intervention to prevent Assad’s defeat at the hands of rebel groups in Tartous and Latakia, it has now become increasingly unclear as to how Moscow will earn the dividends of its investment in the ‘world’s most complex and intractable conflict.’

While there is little to predict any shift in the power structure in Syria and  Assad’s hold on power, what remains of Syria looks little like the prewar country he used to rule. It was not only the opposition groups, IS terrorism, Al-Qaeda offshoots that challenged and have permanently maimed the central authority of the state but the regional players who flocked to Syria to invest in shaping postwar outcomes beneficial to their own interests,  have significantly narrowed down space for Putin – or Assad to assert their own. Russia must now make an increased effort to survive the turbulent influx of other powerful states and ensure it maintains its hegemony.

Across Syria, and in the region itself, alliances that were more or less predictable are now splintered and opaque.

The roles of Russia, Iran, and Turkey—and their increasing collaboration—stand out. Both Moscow and Tehran’s use of force in Syria is striking. After spending much of the last decade modernizing its military, Russia has used Syrian territory as its tactical and operational testing ground while propping up the Assad regime. Its efforts bought more than bases in the Middle East; they also bought Moscow a permanent seat at the table in any negotiations to end the war, and increased influence more broadly in the region.

Nevertheless, even as Assad grows confident, Russia’s role in Syria may become more uncertain. In a new era of various, deepening proxy wars in Syria, Iran, despite profound domestic political and economic vulnerabilities, has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to its mission in Syria, increasingly purchasing another strategic border with Israel. Employing Hezbollah as its reliable proxy, Tehran’s power projection in Syria and particularly the Middle East has sharply inclined, making it harder for the US now to counter the influence of so many of its rivals in one region.  Israel, on the other hand, sensing Iran-Hezbollah presence at its borders has opted for an active but caution engagement in the conflict.

Putin also exploited Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s fears, driven by the coup attempt in July 2016, and pulled him into the triangular proto-alliance with Iran aimed at enforcing a ceasefire in Syria on terms beneficial for Assad. The November 2017 trilateral Putin-Erdoğan-Rouhani summit in Sochi was the culmination of that effort, but with the military defeat of ISIS, the shared purpose was over and each party went its separate ways. Turkey has now launched its own military incursion in Northern Syria against the US-allied Kurds and has pitted itself squarely against its strongest NATO ally, the United States.

Moreover, recent events have given even more dangerous predictions –  that the conflict may now be tilting from a war between proxies to a war based on actual confrontations between state powers. In January 2018, an Israeli fighter jet was shot down over Israel by a Syrian missile, following the interception of an Iranian drone in Israeli airspace. This was followed by the recent attack by Assad forces on US-backed SDF forces in Deir al-Zour and later, reports of retaliatory US killing Russian mercenaries advancing against a US-Kurdish base emerged. These have been alarming developments for a conflict that is starting to resemble the brutish 15 year civil war of Lebanon and Syria may be at the cusp of seeing a worse and prolonged war-ground with innumerable human casualties with dizzying array of actors pursuing divergent interests in partnership with competing groups.

Putin, it is expected in 2018 will quickly learn that Syria in its present form is ungovernable. His December claim of “victory” at a Russian airbase near Idlib has been followed by a flurry of fastpaced events which, on the contrary, have drawn Russia further into the war. At the same time they have exposed the Assad regime’s near-total dependence on proxy support to hold its positions amidst the onslaught of so many other stakeholders in the Syrian war, let alone secure more gains. Now with increasing desperate attempts by the Putin-Assad coalition to attack any and all opposition forces South of Idilib regardless of the international condemnation, it shows that there is a renewed determination to portray consistent military gains to the world after Russia has invested so deeply – politically, financially and militarily. It is for this reason, that Russia’s global prestige, geo-strategic interests and political and military credibility are now inextricably linked to Assad’s continued leverage.

In the midst of this diplomatic impasse, more violence and bloodshed for ordinary civilians akin to the experience of Eastern Ghouta and Aleppo is predicted to continue.