Game-changing Russian reinforcements give Assad new hope

  • Date 28 September 2015
  • Publication The Times

By Tom Coghlan, Sofia Barbarani, Sara Elizabeth Williams

In the coastal city of Latakia, the heartland of President Assad’s Alawite minority, the Russians are becoming a familiar sight.

“Every morning, between 6 and 7, I see several Russian planes flying, and I really feel better,” said Ahmad, who lives near Bassel al-Assad airport — the base of Russia’s new operations in Syria. Their arrival has turned the war.

Since the start of the year, the anti-Assad rebels have been in the ascendancy, with IHS Jane’s analysis calculating that Assad controlled less than 17 per cent of the Syrian landmass.

In July, government troops were driven from Idlib province by the “Army of Conquest” — a confederation of mostly Islamist rebel groups backed by Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar.

The regime was also losing ground north of Damascus to Isis units pushing west towards oil fields around Homs. An implosion of the regime seemed increasingly likely.

Now rebel commanders report that their progress has halted. “We noticed a recent movement of the Russian scouting planes over Idlib, and we expect imminent Russian airstrikes,” said Hussam Salamah, a commander in the Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham yesterday.

Many analysts had predicted that Assad would lose control of Aleppo in the north and Daraa in the south as he was forced to defend a rump state from Damascus to the coast. Instead, buoyed by new Russian arms, the regime has launched an aerial blitz on rebel-held areas of Aleppo. A rebel effort to seize Daraa has been abandoned.

While the Russian president argues that his military intervention is aimed at Isis, analysts at the Royal United Services Institute point out that Russian troops are deploying to areas where they only face Syrian rebel groups. Those rebel groups are themselves fighting Isis, meaning the Russian intervention may indirectly assist the jihadists.

Spanning the Syrian-Iraqi border, Isis’s so-called caliphate has lost barely 10 per cent of its territory and is still advancing in Syria.

The US has shifted its focus to northern Syria, where Syrian Kurdish and other rebel groups have made headway against Isis. Syrian rebel groups are being prepared for an attempt to carve out a “Free Zone” north of Aleppo with Turkish and US backing. At the end of July, President Assad acknowledged that manpower shortages, fuelled by high desertion rates, were causing his forces to cede territory.

The forces Russia has moved to Syria are geared to offset Assad’s weaknesses. Close air support jets, helicopters and artillery should be able to halt further rebel advances. While Russia’s forces can prop up the regime, they are not going to alter a bloody stalemate on the ground. Putin’s next move is to try to convince the West that the fight against Isis could and should include Assad’s regime.