Russian firepower ups the stakes in Syria

A Syrian man holding up portraits of President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian counterpart Valdimir Putin (L) joins several hundred people who gathered near the Russian embassy in Damascus to express their support for Moscow's air war in Syria Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Russia's intervention in Syria has been popular among supporters of President Assad

Just over two weeks on from its first air strikes in Syria, the tempo of Russia's air campaign has significantly stepped up and its focus has shifted.

Russian air power is now being used to support offensives by Syrian government forces and their allies on the ground.

What is the goal of this new phase of the operation?

US-based analyst Michael Kofman, of the CNA Corporation and a scholar at the Kennan Institute, says the Syrian Army is seeking to retake territory lost this year in Hama and Latakia provinces, pushing north and east towards Idlib and Aleppo.

"Ideally, they would like to move the front line back up to the city of Jisr al-Shigour and the Turkish border, blocking off access to Alawite areas, and consolidate control in the centre of regime territory around Homs," he says.

"With Iranian support, and Russia's air force, the Syrian Army hopes to make quick gains on the ground."

Dmitry Gorenburg, an expert on the Russian military at the Davis Center at Harvard University, agrees.

"The goal remains to consolidate government control of key areas in the western part of the country and around Damascus, as well as ensuring that connections between the two areas remain under government control," he says.

Intensification

This would explain the pattern of strikes, which have been primarily targeting rebels located near those areas, rather than in the country's east and north, which happen to be the parts controlled by so-called Islamic State (IS) and the Kurds, respectively.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption An air strike against what Russia says is an IS training camp in Idlib province

The Russian Air Force has significantly stepped up operations, averaging 50-60 strikes per day and reaching some 86 targets hit on 13 October.

Mr Kofman says Syrian government forces are making gains - but have taken a hit from rebels armed with US-supplied hardware.

"Earlier supplied US-made TOW anti-tank missiles, funnelled by the CIA into Syria from Saudi stocks, are taking their toll," he says.

"So far, the Syrian offensive is making progress in both Hama and Latakia provinces."

Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says the destruction of arms depots by the Russians affects the rebels' ability to fight back.

"In the end, though, the [Syrian President Bashar al-]Assad regime still lacks manpower - reports indicate that its forces are being augmented by Iran and other Shia militias."

So the Russian bombing campaign is weakening the non-IS opponents of the Syrian government, and infuriating their backers in the Gulf.

To an extent, the disparate opposition forces are being pushed to form tacit alliances as they are squeezed between the Syrian government offensive on the one hand and the advance of IS fighters on the other.

US help?

Already questions are being raised about what further assistance they can expect.

The US is stepping up ammunition deliveries to groups that it backs, though as Syria analyst Joshua Landis notes, "the real question is whether the US is committed to helping Syrian rebels win - which seems doubtful".

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption President Obama faces tough decisions about support for the Syrian rebels

He adds: "[US President Barack] Obama has already said he doesn't want to fight Russia over Syria, but he could help the Saudis escalate arms deliveries."

Mr Landis points out that stepping up arms supplies carries no guarantee as to whose hands the weaponry actually falls into.

Indeed, some analysts believe that if the Syrian government makes significant advances, then the Saudis and others may not be terribly cautious about where their weaponry goes.

Mr Kofman says: "To them, this is not about Syria; this is the most important conflict along the Sunni-Shia contestation of the Middle East, playing out in the war in Yemen, Syria, northern Iraq and elsewhere. Arguably, that fault line is more defining for the region now than the Arab-Israeli one."

The US decision to abandon its plan to train and equip thousands of so-called moderate opponents of the Syrian government is, Mr Kofman says, "an embarrassment".

But, he adds: "What is collapsing is not the programme, but what semblance of a strategy the US had in Syria.

"The CIA-run supply programmes will continue, and the funding from that $500m (£325m) Pentagon programme will likely be shifted into weapons drops for Kurds against IS and a more liberal policy of supplying Syrian rebels in general."

What about the possibility that having relieved pressure on President Assad's forces, the Russians will turn to a third phase of their campaign and step up attacks against IS?

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption There is opposition to Russian involvement from Sunnis in countries such as Lebanon

Michael Kofman thinks this unlikely

"I don't think the Russian Air Force will go after IS in any meaningful way; from Moscow's perspective this is a problem for the US and their Kurdish allies to handle.

"The ideal scenario [for Moscow] is to have no daylight in the Syrian conflict between the Syrian state and IS, clarifying it, and in effect legitimising Assad given the only other actor is IS."

Dmitry Gorenberg, tends to agree, noting that for now IS is simply not really in Russian President Vladimir Putin's sights.

"I don't think it's a big problem in the short term, but Putin will want to make sure that the narrative that his strikes are helping IS does not take hold in the international media," he says.

"So I certainly do see the possibility of more strikes against IS. Even now, it's not so much that Russia is avoiding hitting IS, it's just that they aren't in the territory that's of highest priority."

Wider proxy war

In backing the Syrian government so explicitly, President Putin risks embroiling Moscow in the broader proxy war in the region pitting the Saudis and their supporters against Iran and its allies.

The wider struggle against IS cuts across this basic fault line, adding to the complexity.

None of the experts that I spoke to believe that the Russian involvement will lead to any resolution to the conflict.

Mr Kofman says: "Syria is dead, and it cannot be revived."

Mr Landis argues current Western policy towards the Syrian government is too simplistic.

"The notion that Assad can go and the state institutions can be preserved is a fiction.

"Unfortunately, most Middle Eastern authoritarian regimes are built in the image of the ruler.

"If you destroy the man or family, you must also destroy the state.

"Think of Saudi Arabia without the Saudi royal family or of Jordan without the Hashemites."

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