SYRIA: Fading hopes of an end to the stalemate

Russia is charging into its second year of armed intervention in the com­plex Syrian war battered by accusations of war crimes. It has saved the regime of its ally, Syrian President Bashar As­sad, from imminent collapse with brutal firepower but has become locked in a deadly stalemate that means Russian forces will not be able to withdraw in the foreseeable future.58712

The intervention on September 30th, 2015, came after four-and-a-half years of civil war in Syria and as rebel groups thrust deeper into government territory. It dramatically changed the dy­namics of this perplexing, multi­-sided war. An expeditionary Rus­sian air wing dispatched by Russian President Vladimir Putin gave As­sad a powerful offensive capabil­ity that his lacklustre air force had never had.

Putin has used this ruthlessly — in sharp contrast to the hesitant, zig­zag policies of US President Barack Obama — to ensure that long-time ally Assad, now totally dependent on Russia and Iran for his survival, stays in power. But there seems to be no end to the conflict in sight.

The large influx of foreigners, ostensibly to support a widely de­spised regime, has had the opposite effect, as the numbers greatly bol­stered jihadist forces, among the most effective of the rebel groups, and brought increased aid from the United States, Turkey and the Gulf monarchies led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to the opposition.

With the latest ceasefire plan brokered by Russia and the United States wrecked in a surge of vio­lence, the signs are that Putin has decided to abandon diplomatic ef­forts that could end the conflict and stepped up the offensive to re­capture urban centres held by the rebels.

This bodes ill for Syria, with an estimated 400,000 dead from a war in its sixth year, its cities in ruins and half its pre-war population of 23 million turned into refugees.

The entire region faces danger as it is being torn apart by a cluster of conflicts that seem to be melding into one huge conflagration while a tidal wave of refugees threatens to swamp Europe.

It is not clear whether the Rus­sians had factored this demograph­ic disaster, heightened by refugees from the war in neighbouring Iraq, into their military planning but it has played into Putin’s efforts to disrupt the European Union and NATO, which have extended east­ward to Russia’s doorstep after the 1990 collapse of the Soviet Union.

In Putin’s worldview, all this af­fords Moscow an opportunity to restore its Cold War power, chal­lenge the United States as Obama disengages from the Middle East and force Washington to treat him as an equal instead of dismissing post-Soviet Russia as a second-rate “regional power”, as Obama once did.

With Russia expected to capi­talise on the strategic vacuum in Washington policymaking that will likely last until Obama’s successor takes office in January, Putin will seek to strengthen Russia’s position in Syria.

“It is well-nigh impossible to solve any issue in Syria without Russia or against its will,” observed Margarete Klein of the German In­stitute for International and Secu­rity Affairs in Berlin.

Russia has established an airbase near the Mediterranean port of La­takia, close to a naval depot at Tar­tus that is being expanded while a submarine base is reported to be planned nearby, all bolstering Rus­sia’s long-term military presence in the eastern Mediterranean. For Syria, the shape of things to come may already be unfolding with the latest aerial blitz on the battered city of Aleppo, once Syria’s largest city and its economic heart.

The eastern rebel-held sector of the ancient city, now the strategic epicentre of the war, has been un­der constant bombardment by Rus­sian and Syrian warplanes since a week-long ceasefire brokered by the US and Russia collapsed on Sep­tember 19th following a pulverising air strike on a UN aid convoy. The West has blamed Russia but Mos­cow denies responsibility.

Western military sources and Syrian activists say whole blocks of the eastern sector have been flattened in the air strikes. Russian Su-25 fighter-bombers, recently redeployed in Syria months after withdrawing as part of a so-called drawdown of forces, are stepping up raids on rebel command centres and concentrations.

The air strikes are the heaviest yet mounted by Russian and Syrian air forces against an urban popula­tion. This underlines just how im­portant it is for the Assad regime to complete the conquest of Aleppo and Russia’s willingness to ignore a growing international outcry over the civilians it is slaughtering.

The sources report the Russians are using 500-kilogram BetAb-500 bunker-buster bombs, designed to destroy deeply buried military facilities built with reinforced con­crete, on civilian centres, including medical facilities. These bombs penetrate bunkers before exploding, which means the maze of tunnels and shelters the re­bels have built under the streets of Aleppo since the city was divided in mid-2012 are vulnerable.

During an unusually stormy ses­sion of the UN Security Council on September 25th, British Ambassa­dor Matthew Rycroft declared: “It is difficult to deny that Russia is partnering with the Syrian regime to carry out war crimes.”

Staffan de Mistura, the UN spe­cial envoy for Syria, accused Russia of using “bunker-busting bombs” and incendiary bombs against ci­vilian centres in Aleppo, including underground shelters.eff1e40d9b8736d5a72c785e5d85ad8f

“We’ve heard the words ‘un­precedented’, in quantity and also in scale and type, in the types of bombs,” he told the session dur­ing which Russia was widely de­nounced.

He said he had “seen videos and pictures of reported use of incen­diary bombs that create fireballs of such intensity they light up the pitch darkness in eastern Aleppo as though it was actually daylight”.

Russia admitted using these weapons against Islamic State (ISIS) command centres soon after its Syr­ian intervention began but no con­clusive proof that they are being dropped on civilians has emerged. The Russians have steadily es­calated the intensity of their air strikes since its forces began oper­ating in Syria. This included several long-range attacks by its strategic bombers, Tupolev Tu-22M3s and Ilyushin Il-28s, and broadsides of Kalibr-NK cruise missiles launched from Russian warships in the Cas­pian and Mediterranean Seas, the first time these long-range weapons have been used in combat. Some missions were flown from Iran.

Putin has deployed a squadron of Black Sea Fleet warships in the eastern Mediterranean, a challenge to US and NATO forces in the re­gion and a marker for the Russian leader’s drive to restore Moscow’s global standing. He is expected to strengthen this force in November with the addi­tion of Russia’s only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, which will carry out air strikes in Syria. The 43,000-tonne Kuznetsov, the Rus­sian navy’s flagship, was designed for anti-ship operations and carries 12 long-range P-700 Granit cruise missiles along with 15 multi-role Su-33 and MiG-29K fighters and ten Kaman attack helicopters.

They will be expected to conduct air strikes against Syrian rebels. The fixed-wing jets are also air superior­ity fighters.

The Syrian Observatory for Hu­man Rights, which monitors the Syrian war through a network of activists across the country, report­ed that Russia has recruited some 3,000 of its nationals to support As­sad’s dilapidated ground forces. These are heavily reliant on the support of a Tehran-backed army of Shia militias from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan led by Lebanon’s Hez­bollah and stiffened by command­ers from Iran’s elite Islamic Revolu­tionary Guards Corps.

The British-based observatory said reports from “several reliable sources” indicated the mercenar­ies who had arrived “in the past four weeks” are now concentrated in the As-Safira region south-east of Aleppo to participate in a major ground offensive aimed at driving rebel forces out of the city.

There has been no independent confirmation of the observatory re­port but if it is correct, this would be the first sizeable ground force Russia has committed to the Syrian battleground, a deployment that would mark a major shift in Putin’s strategy.

Small groups of Russian special forces have been reported in Syria but it has long been apparent that Assad’s war-weakened army is in­capable of building on the gains made by Russia even with Iranian support. The fighting in Aleppo has made that very clear.

Putin may have decided to up the ante — although analysts do not believe he wants an operation of the scale of Russia’s disastrous intervention in Afghanistan in 1979 or the equally catastrophic US inva­sion of Iraq in 2003.

This article by Ed Blanche was originally published by The Arab Week

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