On December 11th 2017, five days after he announced his expected intention to run for the fourth time for Russia’s presidency, Vladimir Putin visited Hmeimim air base, met Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, and declared that Russia’s military mission in Syria had been “accomplished.”
That was undoubtedly intended to be a pre-election message of success for both domestic and international public, which should have bolstered Putin’s image of an effective warlord-peacemaker. However, Putin’s statement put serious limits on Russia’s future activities in Syria, concerning its deployed air force units and other regular forces. The Russian military remains entrenched in the Middle-Eastern country and officially inactive (not participating in combat operations), in spite of repeated official announcements of “pull out” of troops.
Additionally, Russia’s major air base in Hmeimim, deep in the Syrian-government-held territory, came under repeated attacks by armed drones in Mortars earlier this year. Other bases in Latakia and Tartus were also attacked. Mysteriously, no major opposition group claimed responsibility for the attacks. Russia denied material losses, although there were reports of a significant number of damaged Russian aircraft, including advanced Su-35 fighters. The vulnerability of Russia’s military bases in Syria becomes evident. Al-Assad’s regime cannot offer sufficient protection, whereas the Kremlin hesitates to deploy more forces to Syria after the latest pull-out. The sustainability of Russia’s gains in Syria becomes questionable.
By now, the so-called Islamic State (IS) controls just a few desert enclaves in Syria. It has lost virtually all its main strongholds and it is not a serious contender on the ground. Most recently, the Idlib province became IS-free after the mass surrender of the terrorists. The US-led coalition, which supports anti-Assad Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), including the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), has crushed the IS in eastern and northern Syria. In the past months, Al-Assad’s regime and its supporters, Russia and Iran, became increasingly concerned about the rapid and successful advance of Western-backed (mainly Kurdish) forces and turned their focus from fighting anti-regime “terrorists” to “liberating” areas in central and eastern Syria from IS. In fact, the Astana-format actors were desperate to stop the other side’s advance, retake the initiative, steadily push the US and its western allies out of Syria and regain control over Kurdish and Kurdish-occupied regions.
Thus, the game has clearly changed. The Syrian conflict -far from coming to an end- has entered into a new and significantly different phase. The war is no longer about al-Assad’s and Putin’s fight against rebel “terrorists,” and the western coalition struggling against IS, which were largely non-intersecting activities. Rather, it is about (zones of) influence in Syria, which will determine the real role of the great powers and their respective supporters in a future political settlement. The future of Syria (and al-Assad’s regime) looks much more complicated than ever before. The US shows its might, Russia cannot pretend any longer to be the master of the situation, and the confrontation of the two powers on the battlefield has become evident and even direct.
The clearest expression of this development is the incident that occurred on the night of February 7th, 2018. Forces of Al-Assad’s regime, including hastily mobilized peasants, in cooperation with hundreds of fighters of the Russian “Wagner Group” (WG, a private military company) launched an ill-advised offensive against the SDF headquarters near the town of Khusham, also aimed at taking over the Omar oil and gas field in the province of Deir ez-Zor, in eastern Syria. US protected its Kurdish YPG allies and destroyed the attackers’ columns with aerial (AH-64 Apache, AC-130, and F-15) and artillery (including High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems) fire. Different (including witness) reports indicate up to 200 WG casualties.
WG is led by Dmitry Utkin, a retired GRU lieutenant-colonel. Many of his mercenaries who are now fighting in Syria, were also fighting alongside “separatists” in Ukraine’s troubled Donbass. There are reports indicating that WG fighters train on grounds adjacent to GRU training areas in the Krasnodar region. On the other hand, it would be hard to believe that the Kremlin or the General Staff of Russia’s Armed Forces has no idea of WG’s whereabouts and activities, including the preparation of the attack on Khusham. WG is “private”, and therefore the Kremlin takes no responsibility for the fighters (and their families) and their deeds. Therefore, WG acts, in fact, as a secret mercenary army, which spares Russia’s regular forces in Syria and saves Putin’s face (mission “accomplished”).
America’s resolute response to the attack on Kusham backfired on Putin. The US forces got –before responding- official confirmation from Russia that no Russian forces were involved in the attack. Thereafter, the Russian Ministry of Defence did not say a word about the incident for a whole week, and only admitted the “possible” death of “up to five” Russian citizens, not military. President Putin gambles in Syria, the only place where he can test directly the strength of the US administration under President Donald Trump. Putin sought to check America’s determination and got a disastrous response ahead of the presidential elections in March. The WG, just as Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear, as well as other Russian “non-governmental” actors, are increasingly compromised by Kremlin’s fig leaf of denial. Russia and its proxies were hit hard, and now they seem to prepare for a new offensive.
Turkey’s main concern regards Kurdish areas south of its borders, controlled by YPG, especially in Afrin region. Russia has made great efforts to improve its relations with Turkey after the incident that occurred in November 2015 (when Turkey shot down a Russian Su-24M attack aircraft), and to attract Ankara into its anti-US/Western coalition. Russia conveniently retrieved its “military advisers” from the Afrin area, inviting Turkey to invade the region and settle scores with YPG. A Turkish-US military clash on the ground could have become imminent, and from the Kremlin’s perspective –quite likely- also desirable.
The Turkish ‘Operation Olive Branch’ in Afrin has raised serious concerns in the US. However, remarkably the incident in Deir ez-Zor, has been the only recent clash between the United States and another foreign power on the ground in Syria in recent weeks. The US and Turkey are allies, there are American nuclear weapons in Turkey, and therefore it is entirely natural that the two countries seek ways to accommodate each other in the area and avoid meaningless incidents. A durable agreement between Washington and Ankara would essentially make Turkey defect the Astana-camp and worsen considerably Russia’s already precarious position in Syria.
However, the YPG has decided –in anticipation of an American-Turkish agreement- to make a deal with al-Assad’s regime and allow convoys of Syrian government militia to come to their rescue. This switch of allegiance by YPG could result in direct fighting between Turkish and Assad forces in Afrin, and casts serious doubts on YPG’s reliability for Western allies, especially the US. The situation complicates by the hour.
Israel has persistently kept a low profile on the Syrian crisis, with very few exceptions. The Jewish state has now prominently entered the game, after the alleged downing of an Iranian spy-drone in Israel’s air space, and the retaliatory attack against “Iranian targets” in central Syria. Reportedly, Israel was set to crash Syria’s air defences after an Israeli Air Force F-16 was subsequently shot down by a Syrian S-200 missile, but President Putin allegedly intervened and possibly abstained serious escalation in the conflict, which could have resulted in more Russian casualties.
President Trump has made significant overtures vis-à-vis Tel Aviv, most notably by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and pledging to move the US embassy to the city. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu literally echoedPresident Trump’s narrative on Iran at the Wehrkunde Security Conference in Munich (16 to 18 February 2018). Consequently, Israel may take a more active and visible role in supporting the US efforts in Syria, putting additional pressure on al-Assad’s regime and its allies, especially in the case of further Iranian provocations.
In conclusion, the Syrian crisis has entered a new phase, which may be long, difficult and bloody. The US gains political ground, shows formidable military strength and lack of hesitation to respond to any threats against both the American military and their allies. Russia’s role in Syria is in visible decline. Turkey’s concerns will be hopefully somehow accommodated by the US and its allies, especially in the light of the upcoming NATO summit meeting in July (in Brussels). Syria could become partitioned effectively between the Western/Turkish/Kurdish and Damascus/Russian/Iranian camps with persistent skirmishes at the lines of contact.