Pro-government forces have seen a row of defeats and setbacks in the weeks after the breakdown of the Cessation of hostilities (COH). Their offensive on Handarat failed, Khan Tuman has been taken, IS made gains on the road to Palmyra, they lost Tal al-Eis and the Alawi town Zara1 has been taken. They also showed a lot of problems in their counter-attacks, which seemed headless and badly planned, like in the early days of the war. If we contrast this with the SAA’s offensive on Palmyra which, while heavy in casualties (on both sides), was fast, controlled and decisive, they don’t even look like the same army today. What happened?
[the_ad_placement id=”news”] There are several things that we need to take in consideration. At Palmyra the best SAA units were used. While the regular units often didn’t perform very well, the Tiger, Desert Hawks and Republican guard units are some of the best in the conflict. The reliance on them is also their weakness, they are overworked and overused and regular units aren’t capable to replace them in the slightest way. These units also can’t be used on all fronts, especially since the end of the COH opened up a lot of new fronts.
The second thing is the reduced Russian role. The lower amount of sorties flown by the Russian Airforce is obvious, but at least during the Palmyra offensive they took a leading role in the planning and commanding of the offensive. Their importance for the performance of the ground troops comes to light, if we take a look at the recent (counter-)offensives where they aren’t helping.
The re-armament and training by rebel forces during the COH is another problem for government forces. The proliferation of MANPADS (even though still small) is a problem for the Syrian Airforce, less so for the Russians. Especially the Jihadist factions within the rebels look extremely sharp in their fast offensive manoeuvres. They are well supplied, motivated and have a strong command structure, they are pretty cohesive units.
As said, the end of the COH led to an increase in open fronts. This is hard to tackle for government troops as they are pretty strapped for manpower. Pro-government forces are increasingly relying on Iranian and Iranian backed ground forces. These forces vary extremely in their usability. Hezbollah is one of the strongest fighting groups within Syria, but they are too few for wide scale deployment. Afghani Hazaras and Iraqi Shia militias have mixed motivation but are all badly trained. The IRGC lack strong leadership and command, their losses aren’t helping this problem.
The Russians are the ones who can provide strong command and devastating support (CAS), but they are still very reluctant in their engagement since the capture of Palmyra and the COH. What are their reasons for their reluctance?
Iran and Russia disagree on Assads future position, Russia doesn’t care per se who’ll rule Syria as long as they are pro-Russian and they can work with him. Iran on the other hand has a nested interest in Assad. Assad has proven that he stays with Iran, even in the face of GCC money. He is from a Salafi targeted minority and is still strongly anti-Israel in his position. A future Sunni leader for example might be more inclined to ease the relation with the Saudis, which is inacceptable for Iran.
Further they disagree on Rojava, the autonomous region in Northern Syria. Russia worked together with them in Afrin canton and gave them diplomatic backing during the Vienna negotiations. Russia sees that they can use Rojava against Turkey. Iran on the other hand has its own problems with its kurdish minority, PJAK2 is organized in the KCK3, the same as the Syrian PYD. They fear that a victory in Syria will incite tensions in their own Kurdish provinces. That fear is probably reasonable.
Both points above tie into the problem that Russia isn’t willing to carry Assad to total military victory. A military victory would mean a long and hefty insurgency, similar to Iraq post-2003. Without some kind of compromise, Russia fears that they’ll still have to bomb people in 2026. Also Russia can live with a frozen conflict in Syria, as soon as their interests are threatened they can again start a short campaign. Iran on the other hand needs eastern Syria too for a clear route to supply Hezbollah in Lebanon.
An Iranian full engagement with their whole military would be unwise, as it would lead to a complete escalation of the conflict. The USA too would be forced by internal politics to counter this move, no matter if the president wants to or not. For now Russia has no problem letting the Iranian troops in Syria bleed, while they are keeping a low profile. The recent setbacks strengthen Russias position over Irans.
As it seems the USA and Russia found some understanding over their positions in Syria. Both want to continue the COH and negotiate a solution or compromise. A future US president might take a tougher position on Russia, but it is improbable that he/ she is going to enact a one-sided escalation (e.g. No-fly-Zone). So for now it seems that Assad and Iran need to better their combat record fast, or they will have to go back to Russia and accommodate their wishes. The recent weeks haven’t exactly inspired confidence in their military capabilities.
1https://twitter.com/archicivilians/status/730851390466195458 Including massacres on Alawi civilians https://twitter.com/sayed_ridha/status/730898507989540868