Why Moscow is preparing to return to Syria

There have been indications recently that the Russians are preparing to resume operations against armed factions in Syria.

al-monitor Members of Jabhat al-Nusra gather before moving toward their positions in Idlib province, Syria, May 28, 2015. Photo by REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah.

Topics covered

un security council, syrian regime, syrian conflict, sergey lavrov, russian involvement in syrian crisis, russia on syria, military intervention, jabhat al-nusra, is

Jun 3, 2016

No countdown is currently underway for [a renewed] Russian military intervention [in Syria]. This intervention will probably never be renewed, at least not with the same momentum seen in the months prior to the ever-vacillating truce. As a matter of fact, it seems that only the Russians had counted on this intervention and believe that their achievements were sufficient to successfully embark on a political process in Geneva, which also did not materialize.

Indeed, Russia keeps extending the truce [in Syria], although Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu had determined May 25 the expiry date of this truce. However, this is the first time that converging signs indicate a relaunching of part of the Russian military operation — with renewed coordination with the Syrian army — ever since Moscow unilaterally decided to halt the Aleppo operation and impose a truce, even on Damascus, which reluctantly agreed to it. It should be noted that this truce is still stirring tension between Russia and the Syrian regime.

Moreover, a feeling of bitterness prevails within the Syrian army and regime about their loss of an opportunity to achieve a great victory, particularly in Aleppo’s northern countryside, and to upset the balance of power in the Syrian war as a whole.

Despite the major achievements [of the Russian intervention] on the ground in the countrysides of Latakia and in Aleppo’s southern, western and eastern countrysides, [the Syrian regime] failed to wrest control of key cities such as Idlib or Jisr al-Shughur and achieve final victory over the armed factions.

The Russian intervention has indeed failed to achieve the operational goals announced by the Russians themselves in November 2015. The Russians had stressed the imperative need to reach the Turkish-Syrian border, setting the closing of border crossings and supply routes with Turkey as a precondition to any solution. However, the Russians renounced this approach. The Russian truce has allowed armed factions, the United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to reorganize and rearm their ranks and rebuild most of the infrastructure destroyed by the joint Russo-Syrian operations.

Thus, it can be said that for the first time the military and the diplomatic positions have converged on the need to restrengthen [Russia’s] credibility. This might pave the way for a partial re-adoption of the military option.

Yet this time around the goals of any [renewed Russian] military operation will not be as clear or as ambitious as the previous ones. This time, the military intervention will focus on isolating Jabhat al-Nusra from other armed groups. The Russians will put their Sukhoi fighter jets to the test and bet on direct ground offensives to weaken rather than defeat Syrian armed factions. It should be noted that isolating Jabhat al-Nusra from other armed factions, which is a difficult and complicated objective, would strike a painful blow to those factions since Jabhat al-Nusra’s military and ideological might form the backbone around which those factions unite.

Thus, the positions of the Russian administration’s military and diplomatic wings on the need to return to the battlefront fall in line with the position of Shoigu, which considered that the truce option has proved to be a failure and that a deadline must be given to the armed factions to distance themselves from Jabhat al-Nusra Front. This also seems to be the position of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who stated that “Moscow had not abandoned its decision to attack the armed factions that failed to abide by the truce in Syria.”

In an interview published May 31 in Russia’s daily Komsomolskaya Pravda, Lavrov said that the deadline given by Moscow to the militants was about to expire. He added, “The US asked us to extend the deadline for several days prior to the implementation of the plan we had set in advance, whereby any party that breaches the truce would become a legitimate target, irrespective of whether this party is included on the lists of terrorist organizations or not. The Americans requested us to give them a few additional days to present us with their response, but the extended deadline expires this week.”

The foregoing is an indication that helps explain the decision-making process with regard to Syria. This process is affected by a tug of war taking place between the advisers of President Vladimir Putin. The Russian military support the return to the battlefield, while a large part of Russia’s Foreign Ministry officials and officials overseeing the political process, such as Lavrov and Mikhail Bogdanov, believe that work must continue toward achieving a [political] settlement; in fact, they are banking on President Barack Obama’s desire to defeat the Islamic State (IS) in Syria.

Indeed, Russian diplomats are convinced that this is the best [political] settlement that they will get — one that will allow them to maintain a presence in Syria and reach a political solution before the end of the year when President Obama’s administration will be replaced by a new and more hawkish successor.

But Russian diplomats find themselves facing the US administration’s continued refusal of any coordination with the Russians in military operations targeting their mutual foe, IS, whether in Raqqa or northern Syria. The best possible US cooperation the United States offers is a joint US-Russian presence in Syrian airspace.

In that context, US warplanes dominate the sky over regions east of the Euphrates River, while Russian air cover blankets the region west of the river. Moreover, neither during Russia’s military operation nor after the truce went into effect did the Americans stop re-arming militant factions. The United States even supplied these factions with nearly 3,000 tons of weapons, offered them training and organized and coordinated their operations in a bid to wear out the Russians in Syria. It should be noted that this has been a clear Obama policy objective aimed to prevent embarking on any political solution as part of the United States' desire to isolate Russia. Washington, in fact, had even asked Russia not to target Jabhat al-Nusra’s positions.

Lavrov also stated that in one of their numerous telephone calls he asked his US counterpart, John Kerry, to explain why the US-led international coalition stopped targeting the terrorists in Syria, to which Kerry reiterated the same traditional justifications — which according to Lavrov are based on a bizarre [US] vision that terrorist positions are mixed with the positions of good guys who should not be targeted.

It seems that the bickering within the Russian administration on resuming the military intervention in Syria is on the verge of ending while the current US administration is entering its final months in office.

Although the mobilization of armed factions in northern Syria has not undergone any change worth mentioning, Lavrov has grown convinced that the Americans are deceiving the Russians and that the international coalition is standing idly by as terrorists and arms flow through the Syrian-Turkish border. [It seems that] Lavrov has come to believe that the terrorists are undoubtedly preparing to launch an offensive in violation of all international conventions and UN Security Council resolutions.

Without stirring a buzz similar to that of their first military intervention in Syria, the Russians this week disembarked ground forces and paratroopers in the port of Tartus to support more than 3,000 Russian volunteers dispatched to the region in the past few weeks, in a bid to revive coordination with the Syrian army.

This represents yet another additional indication that a wide-ranging operation is being prepared. This [operation] may include Raqqa, where the Russians want to have a presence on the ground to rival that of the Americans and Kurds. This may also include the countryside of Aleppo, where the Iranians are pushing for a major operation aimed to cut supply routes open to the east and retake the village of Khan Tuman, where [Iran] suffered a major setback.

In that regard, Syrian sources stated that the Russian joint command staff, which coordinated aerial support operations last fall, had returned to the Hmeimim military base in Latakia province to begin preparations for new operations.

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