Top 5 Ways Putin has won big in Syria and why Europe is embracing him

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Russia is so far winning big in Syria, and making Moscow’s projection of force in the Middle East a reality that the other great powers have to recognize. As Russia has emerged as a major combatant against Syrian al-Qaeda and against Daesh (ISIS, ISIL), it is being accepted back into a Europe traumatized by two major attacks on Paris. France is signalling that it hopes to end sanctions on Russia over Ukraine by this summer. While the Minsk peace process is going all right, the motivation here is to ally more closely with Moscow against Muslim radicals in the wake of Russia’s successes against them in Syria.

Russia’s intervention in Syria last October was in many ways a desperate measure and a gamble. It is said that in mid-summer of 2015, Iranian special forces commander Qasem Soleimani flew to Moscow with a blunt message. The Syrian regime was going to fall if things went on the way they were going and Iran did not have the resources to stop it.


Vladimir Putin, still smarting from having lost Libya as a sphere of influence, was determined to stop the fall of Syria.

The regime of Bashar al-Assad has to control a y-shaped area and set of transportation routes if it is to survive. The ‘Y’ is anchored at the bottom by Damascus, the capital. In its metropolitan area, given shifting population, live around 5 million Syrians who are afraid of the two major forces battling the regime, al-Qaeda (the Nusra Front) and Daesh (ISIS, ISIL).

The trunk of the ‘Y’ stretches up to Homs and then veers off to the left, to the key port city of Latakia. The right branch of the ‘Y’ goes up through Hama to Aleppo, a city of 4 million before the war, which is divided in half, with the west in the hands of the regime.

Controlling this huge ‘Y’ where 70% of Syrians live is a tall order. It is vulnerable at several key points, of which the rebels have attempted to take advantage.

1. Deraa province to the south of Damascus is largely Sunni and rural and its clans could sweep up and take the capital, with Jordanian, US and Saudi support. If that happened, game over.

2. The Army of Islam, backed by Saudi Arabia, has strong positions besieging the capital just to its north. If it could come down into Damascus, game over.

3. If the rebels could take and hold Homs and Qusayr in the middle of the ‘Y’, they could cut Damascus off from resupply by truck from the port of Latakia.

4. If the rebels, who took all of Idlib Province in the northwest last April, could move west from Idlib and take Latakia, they could cut Damascus off from its major port and deny it ammunition, arms, even some foodstuffs.

5. If the rebels can move from south of Aleppo to cut off the road from Hama and strangle West Aleppo, they could take all of the country’s largest city, making it difficult for the regime to survive.

Along this Y set of trunk roads, the most effective fighting force has been al-Qaeda in Syria, which reports to 9/11 mastermind Ayman al-Zawahiri. This affiliate, called the Support Front or the Nusra Front, is formally allied with other Salafi jihadis in the Army of Conquest coalition and is tactically allied with many small groups in what’s left of the Free Syrian Army. The CIA has sent medium weaponry, including T. O. W. anti-tank weapons to 30 “vetted” groups in the FSA, via Saudi Arabia. Many of these weapons have made their way into the hands of al-Qaeda and been used against regime tanks and armored vehicles to devastating effect.

So when Soleimani went to Moscow, it seemed that the road from Hama to West Aleppo had been lost and Aleppo would fall. Al-Qaeda had also made advances in the south, taking al-Sheikh Miskin just south of Damascus, and preparing for a push on the capital. Idlib had fallen and Latakia might well have been next.

So when Putin sent in his air force, it concentrated on protecting the red ‘Y’ in the map above. It mainly hit al-Qaeda, the primary threat to regime control of the Y, but also struck at Free Syrian Army groups backed by the US, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which were tactically allied with al-Qaeda. This move was necessary to defend the ‘Y’. It drew howls of protest from Washington, Ankara and Riyadh demanding to know why Russia wasn’t instead targeting Daesh/ ISIL.

The answer was simple. Except at Aleppo and at a point below Hama, Daesh for the most part posed little threat to the ‘Y’. Al-Qaeda and its allies were the big menace, so Putin concentrated on them.

Air support to a determined local ground force can be an effective strategy. It worked for Bill Clinton in Kosovo. It worked for George W. Bush in Afghanistan in 2001, when the US-backed Northern Alliance handily defeated the Taliban. It worked again in March-April 2003, when US air support to the Kurdish Peshmerga guerrillas, allowed them to defeat the Iraqi Baath army in Kirkuk, Mosul and elsewhere in the north.

And so this strategy has been working for Putin. He appears to have rearmed and retrained the Syrian Arab Army, which has new esprit de corps and is making significant headway for the first time in years. It is of course aided by Hizbullah, over from Lebanon, and by a small contingent of some 2000 Iranian spec ops forces (many of them actually Afghan).

So what has the Russian air force accomplished?

1. It allowed the reopening of the road from Hama to West Aleppo, ending the siege of that regime-held part of the city and pushing back the rebels from it.

2. It retook most of Latakia Province, safeguarding the port. Yesterday came the news that the major northern al-Qaeda-held town of Rabia had fallen to the government forces, meaning that Latakia is nearly 100% in government control. These advances into northern Latakia involved hitting Turkmen proxies of Turkey, which is why Turkey shot down a Russian plane last fall. Likely the next step will be to take back cities in Idlib like Jisr al-Shughour, which fell last spring to an al-Qaeda-led coalition, and which could be used as a launching pad for the taking of Latakia port.

3. It strengthened regime control of Hama and Homs, ensuring the supply routes south to Damascus.

4. It hit the Army of Islam as well as al-Qaeda and Daesh around Damascus, forcing the latter two to withdraw from part of the capital and killing Zahran Alloush, leader of the Army of Islam.

5. It hit al-Qaeda and FSA forces in Deraa Province and yesterday the key town of al-Sheikh Miskin fell to the Syrian Arab Army. This is a Deraa crossroads and its loss affects the rebels ability to maneuver in this province.

The Russian air force, in conjunction with Syrian troops and Hizbullah and a few Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps fighters has therefore profoundly braced regime control of the ‘Y’ where most Syrians live and along which the capital’s supplies flow. If in July through September it appeared that the regime could well fall, and quickly, now al-Assad’s minions are on the march, pushing back their opponents.

It shouldn’t need to be said, but I want to underline that the above is analysis, not advocacy. Be that as it may, in the past 4 months, Putin has begun winning in Syria, which means so has al-Assad. And the spillover effects on Russian diplomacy are huge.

27 Responses

    • With one exception – Serbian region Kosovo! It was without local ground forces. So, there was no ground fight. The politicians gave land to NATO, unfortunately…

      • There was ground fighting vs Terrorist who Nato support,, battle of Kosare expl… but Serbian army didin’t lose inch of terrority

  1. Thank you very much for this astute analysis, I for one appreciate it very much.

    As for judgements, I’m trying to hold back. Despite the violence and repression the Assad regime has demonstrated against its own population, it never projected that in the military realms of the international balance to any great degree. So it was actually very little of a threat to the US or Israel (or anyone else). The US has become fixated on the threat posed by “Islamic terror” in general and Daesh in particular, and has been influenced by a global human-rights movement to become fixated on the Assad regime as something to be opposed (while the cooler temperaments among the American foreign policy community have so far prevented any kind of outright call for regime change).

    For Russia, I was taking it at face value that they opposed Daesh for reasons of large Muslim minority in Chechnya and other regions of their own territory. But perhaps I was wrong, and the motives of supporting a traditional ally while slapping the figurative faces of Obama and Erdogan reign supreme in the Kremlin.

    In any case, much interesting maneuvering among the greater and lesser powers awaits our breathless attention, as many of us worry that so-called “modern civilization” is most threatened by our failure to think and act better than rats, who will not soil their own nests with their toxic waste products, if given any alternative to do so.

    • I am sorry I will have to disagree with your analysis in the second para: “…..and has been influenced by a global human-rights movement to become fixated on the Assad regime as something to be opposed (while the cooler temperaments among the American foreign policy community have so far prevented any kind of outright call for regime change). ”

      I for one do not beleive for a second that it is a fixation with human rights that has lead for the call by the Obama administration that Assad must go. If this were the case we would NOT be encouraging Assisi in Egypt, the Saudi’s in the middle east, especially Yemen. It is all about Israel and removing Iran through its support of Hezbollah as the last real counter weight to Israel. I for one have never been able to figure out why Obama is willing to spend so much (international) political capital and US resources to support Israel whose regime has repeatedly ‘kicked him’. Maybe it is AIPAC, maybe it is the Saudi money? Maybe the professor can help me out here.

      PS: maybe Obama is playing a very long game here and giving enough rope to Israel and also building up his credibility with AIPAC etc at home to give a parting blow to Israel in the UNSC. But I think I maybe dreaming here!!

      • Yeah, I think that PS is a dream, unless he wishes to ensure he is succeeded by a GOP president.

      • I’m with you- there’s no humanitarian element to American policy of opposition to Assad. It’s entirely neocon-driven.

        On the other hand, it seems possible that Putin’s support for Assad – amazingly enough- may actually in fact be humanitarian. The fall of the Assad regime to the Islamists would present some problems for Russia, but nothing to compare with the price they’re already paying, for example in terms of trade with Turkey. It may just be possible that Putin sees millions of non-Sunni Syrians on the death list if Al Queda/ISIS wins, and just won’t let that happen on his watch.

        • Putin is coming from a Russian realist perspective, not humanitarian. They supported Assad for Russia’s own self-interest. That doesn’t mean Putin was wrong. It’s just that people have to get over their sentimentality about ‘humanitarian’. Objectively, a realist perspective can end up being the one that causes less destruction. The humanitarian ‘Assad Must Go” line that Clinton preached, plus Obama’s refusal to reign in the Saudis and Turks for supporting extremist factions, has helped the death toll clime from 2300 in summer, 2011 to over 250,000 today. I don’t believe any head of state in this era does anything for ‘humanitarian’ purposes except evacuate refugees and offer food and health aid.

      • Take a larger view of American culture. Obama is not a dictator, and I did not say it was he specifically being influenced.

        I see it more as the American culture and especially the big TV and Print media which, among other mythologies, clings tightly to the pro-Israel lobby — and go into any synagogue in America and talk about politics, this is not just a few people in Washington. Both the American populist right and the populist left dislike the Assad regime, from different news sources and prejudices.

        And as for Obama not fighting too directly with Netanyahu and the Israel Lobby (or with the Saudi Lobby either), he sits with his advisers all day and they are all very convinced that for their political futures, it is not worth opposing either the Israelis or the Saudis in the ways you might wish him to do so. It’s a compromise (that doesn’t prevent them from taking other less public actions and attitudes), it’s not a conspiracy.

  2. Russia is winning in more than one way. Landing in Latakia and proving its effectiveness on the ground after Iran and the U.S. signed their agreement, is also a warning to Iran. It is telling Iran that it can not export its natural gas without Russian approval. Russia is also telling Israel that if it want to export its natural gas to Europe the cheapest way is through a coastal Mediterranean pipeline that will go through coastal Lebanon and Syria to Turkey. This will bring us to the next point. The Russian peace that will be imposed on the Middle East by Russia. This is coming after The Russian peace in Syria.
    The Middle East is already under Russian domination and Russia will impose peace between Israel and the Arabs in order to ensure its domination over the are.
    All this while the U.S. is watching helplessly.

  3. Both Russia & Israel say that Turkey has been bankrolling ISIS. What do independent analysis say?

    • I don’t know that “bankrolling would be the word. But support? Absolutely. They’ve taken no serious steps against ISIS even after having their consulate overrun and at least three bombings. Reyhanli was almost certainly some Sunni jihadis, and there’s mountains of online evidence that Turkey has been supplying weapons and other materiel to ISIS/AQ franchises. It’s what journalists Can Dundar and Erdem Gul face life sentences for publishing stories about.

      My question remains why BHO has never gotten over his mancrush on Tayyip. Or is it that he’s not allowed to? It surprises me the way he gets left out of the list of human rights violators when he reignited a civil war to secure the election results he wanted and is trowing opponents in jail like it’s the Moscow purges of old. Hope dies hard, I guess.

  4. This is one of my favorite websites, so I kind of hate being so contrary at times, but Professor Cole here is guilty of missing the forest by concentrating too much on the trees. The positive or negative effects of foreign policy decisions cannot be discerned after a few months, or even after a few years. Often a decade or more is required before one can see for sure if a certain foreign policy initiative works out well or not. We can rely on historical precedent and look at international trends to make an initial judgment, but foreign policy must be looked at strategically and long term. Was the alliance with Cuba a good thing for the Soviet Union? Well, at first it looked like it because it gave the USSR a chance to tweak the US and provided a base for Soviet ships and then military advisers, and then missiles. However, it eventually turned out to be a millstone, first with the missile crisis and after that the USSR had to send hundreds of millions of dollars every year to keep the Castro regime afloat. Many other examples could be cited. Russia has been allied with Syria for several decades. What benefit has that given them? While they have kept Assad from falling, what comes after that? So, if Assad survives and the rebellion is defeated, you will then have a country that is almost totally prostrate that will requires tens of billions of dollars to reconstruct. Where is that going to come from? They have very little oil or other natural resources. Iran can help some, but will Russia then be required to take on that burden, all for a decent naval base in the Mediterranean? Remember that Russian ships can always be shut out of the Mediterranean during conflict by the Turks at the Dardanelles. I say if the Russians want a Syrian alliance, let them have it; it is of little value to the US or the West.

  5. Air power no matter who does it is not surgical and the collateral damage is too frequently very bad. Air power relies on good intelligence, and in an unstable nation it is too common for sources to have multiple agendas. The other main area I have commented to on his blog, and that is that when a city that has been taken by a military force is retaken, what you have retaken is a city that has been at war twice, bombed twice, had its citizenry killed or displaced twice, and therefore the civic management personnel largely changed twice, no reconstruction made throughout, and a long string of refugees headed anywhere but home that act to destabilize areas on the periphery. You have a 1943 Stalingrad reduced to ruins, over which the front lines of war continue to move back and forth, and no large, well funded , cohesive population to come back in in force and begin to rebuild, even that under a Stalin. You have widening destabilization even after a victory has been declared and a city “won back’.

  6. Good analysis, Juan. Two things, though, since you wanted this to be analysis and not advocacy:

    Putin is not “smarting” over the destruction of Libya as an RF sphere of influence. I’m sure that aspect of what has taken place doesn’t make him happy but he’s angry about the total destruction of the country, the murder of it’s leader, along with tens of thousands of innocent Lybians and it being delivered, on a platter, to the control of vicious takfiri freaks. As an American, so am I. It’s WAY beyond any ideas of political spheres of influence. It’s an utter and total catastrophe.

    The other thing is your calling Syrian forces “minions”, a derogatory term. The only “minions” in Syria are the insane jihadi proxies backed by outside actors. Syrians fighting for their country, IN their country, are not “minions”, nor are Syria’s legitimate allies.

  7. There is no question that Russia is the short term winner, the recent history tells you that Russia invaded Afghanistan in matter of days, but what was the end?. What is the policies of USA toward Syria and Russian occupation I don’t know for sure, it could be an attractive trap to all the parties (Iran, Hezb Allah, and Russia)

  8. A couple of points:

    1: Russia generally sees DAESH as pretty overhyped. This has a couple of reasons:
    A) Joining DAESH means bowing or kneeling to Al-Bagdadi. Anyone with experience in the North Caucasus will tell you that the people there arent into kneeling or bowing before anyone. There are Chechens (because Chechens like Al-Shishani run things in DAESH to an extent) who join it as well as ethnic Russian convertites. For Jihad minded Dagestanis/Lezgians etc., Al-Nusra is the prefered option.
    B) The Russian services are quite well versed on Salafist ideology, and are aware that DAESHs salafist ideology has a couple of points (they are ideologically forced to accept a pitched battle at Dabiq for example, also, their Kalif doesnt have the proper number) which could be easily exploited.
    Nusra does not share these weaknesses, because Nusra is not claiming to be a Caliphate.
    C) DAESH itself is a pretty factious coalition. You have an agglomeration of Sunni tribesmen, former Baath specialists, Chechens, other foreigners and professional Jihadists. One reason why DAESH commits such public massacres is to create cohesion between its various factions, after all, if you massacred prisoners together on live TV, you are stuck with each other because the rest of the world wants to kill you. Despite that, these factions can be played against each other, and frictions can be gained and exploited by some proper disinformatsiya.

    Nusra meanwhile effectivly acts as a Jihadi foreign legion equivalent (it is in the name even, “Front of assistance”), they do not claim to be a Kalifate, meaning that accepting their support does not neccesarily mean subordination under them (in practice, Nusra is running a lot of stuff, but part of that is because of increased levels of military competence compared to other Syrian rebel factions), they can thus pretty easily interface with restive moslem populations, quickly set up shop elsewhere and cannot be forced into pitched battles for ideological reasons.

    This is a major reason why Russia is bombing Nusra far more heavily then DAESH, they simply regard them as vastly more dangerous.

    The Russian campaign by the way has major other aspects. Quite a number of surrenders, retreat and reconciliations of rebel groups, or of “neutral” groups such as Armenian militias in Aleppo, were negotiated with Russian involvement. In this case, the involvement likely took the shape of Russia guaranteeing that Assad will honor comitments to amnesties etc. he makes to individual rebel groups. Assad isnt exactly trusted (and for quite legitimate reasons) and having Russia as a third party in such regime minor rebel negotiations is a faciliator.
    Many of the “neutrals” are often in a desperate position, being between the loyalist Skylla and the Jihadi Charybdis. Being able to assure Russian guarantees in return for yielding to the loyalists can make such yieldings (the actual terms vary wildly) far more attractive then fighting to the death.

    Russia also has pretty good relations with the Syrian Kurds, and in some cases, may have negotiated the switch of a minor rebel group from being islamist to going under the Kurdish umbrella. The Kurdish formation of the “Union of democratic forces” is very usefull in this regard.

    I also wish to echo the dismay at using the term “minions”.
    The Assad “loyalists” often dont fight for Assad, they fight for their own survival. Defeat for them will mean nearly certain genocide, and most Alawites were, as a matter of fact, not privileged compared to Sunnis.
    Being Alawi mattered for very high positions (Ambassador, Colonel etc.), but not for the kind of careers most people would actually enter.
    If you end up in the hands of Nusra, being Alawi means death.
    The ascension of the Assad clan meant the end of the Alawites centuries long status as third class citizens, and so one can argue that they did benefit from the Assad clans rule, but this “benefit” is not something the deserve being murdered for.

    Apart from that, I can understand why Hafez Al Assad and the Alawites couped. Put yourself in their shoes, Alawis did not have enough money to bribe themselfs out of the military, so they were overwhelmingly drafted and used as Cannon fodder in a number of lost wars against the might of the IDF. Alawi lifes were wasted with reckless incompetent abandon by their Sunni superiors, and while I am far from whitewashin Hafez, Syrian military performance in the Yom Kippur war under Assad was vastly improved compared to Syrias performance vs. Israel under Sunni leadership.

  9. Russia supports the al-Assad regime due to long-standing agreements involving the Russian Tartous naval facility lease (the primary Russian port on the Mediterranean Sea) and the vital terminal(s) near Banais. Mr. Putin knows he can work with the al-Assad regime but cannot be certain with some of the assorted rebel factions in this conflict should al-Assad be removed from power.

    One of the primary reasons Russian airpower has not been priority targeting a certain rebel faction is because the leadership of those forces originate from within former Soviet republics. So, Mr. Putin may have influences to maintain current arrangements should they prevail?

    Russia can maintain the hold on Syria and the assets being protected no matter the outcome.

  10. I wish I could learn more about the role of Gulf countries esp. KSA in the conflict. Although Assad’s repression was brutal – what else you expect from a dictator? – the Gulf countries turned the “Arab Spring” quickly into a brutal civil war by arming the extremists groups. It seems like they bear a great responsibility in the current spiral of death and destruction. Some day they will be held accountable.

  11. Good article, but this assertion bugs me:
    “The CIA has sent medium weaponry, including T. O. W. anti-tank weapons to 30 “vetted” groups in the FSA, via Saudi Arabia. Many of these weapons have made their way into the hands of al-Qaeda and been used against regime tanks and armored vehicles to devastating effect.”
    Is there really any evidence that “many” TOWs have been used by Al-Nusra? Last time I checked just 2-3 systems were in their hands, of a total of maybe 60 or more in all Syria being used by vetted moderates.

    • There was an article in regards to this fact, that JaN controls the traffic through Bab-al-Hawa crossing and take 20% of ‘entrance fee’ for all commodities. Some TOWs were delivered via Turkey for FSA = some of them may have been taken by Nusra. In my opinion the most dangerous thing about this was a killer combination of: JaN suicide bombers and FSA usage of TOWs in hilly Latakia/Idblib/North Hama terrain + a stubborn usage of tanks without much cover by SAA…

  12. One small but important addition: The arrival of Russian anti-aircraft systems (especially the most advanced ones after the shoot-down of the Russian jet) meant that a western no-fly zone would no longer be possible without risking war with Russia.
    The no-fly zone has been the major tool for the West’s imperial designs for years now.

  13. Living in Europe and following the news in this part if the world, I see very little evidence of “Europe embracing him”, conceding that wishy-washy Hollande has been making some pro-Putin noise. The ex-Soviet countries that are now members of NATO and the European Union will certainly use their influence to keep Putin at arm’s length. Those countries are well versed in Russia’s imperial designs, past and present. Wishful thinking, prof.

  14. I personally think the game plan is switching from protecting the Y to outright crushing the rebellion and ending the civil war.

    Before the Russian intervention Syria’s army was being bled white by the constant flows of men and material entering from Turkey. Without this line of support the life span of the opposition would be measured in months. The downing of the SU-24 has permitted Russia to take a gloves off approach to the border which has profoundly effected the rebels. Now they are the ones hurting for munitions and manpower. Cracks are beginning to show, with the most telling being how easily Salma fell and how quickly Latakia has been rolled up in the last couple of weeks. Note that Latakia is the hardest area in Syria for which to conduct an advance owing to the mountainous terrain. I would be surprised if Kinsibba lasts the week and the remainder of Latakia more than two weeks. The rebels will then have lost all border access in this region and have Idlib threatened on three sides from Latakia, Hama and Aleppo. When the offensive begins on Idlib I don’t give it more than three months and with it will be the loss of this border region with Turkey as well. All that leaves is the Western region of Aleppo to the South of the Kurds and the Northern region of Aleppo sandwiched between the Kurds. The Kurds are poised to strike from the East and large Syrian army forces are building in the Aleppo area. If the border is sealed or close to it, only direct military intervention from Turkey could change the course.

    Although there is a level of support for the rebellion, the Islamification of the resistance has made Assad much more palatable, if not desirable by the large majority of the population. The Russian military has illustrated a night and day difference of skill just from its engagement in Georgia in 2008. The coordination with the Syrian army will continue to get better and better speeding up the situation whereby every rebel region is presently receding. In the Syrian region, ISIS is wilting and when the border is sealed and Al-Nusra and company are dealt with in the West its demise will come quickly. Hence I am going to make the prediction that all but mop up operations will remain in 2017 fro the Syrian army. (Feel free to mock me harshly next January!) The biggest grey area in my mind is how the Kurds and the Syrian government will settle their differences.

  15. OK, so we already knew that Putin supported Assad, basically out of habit (Russia already has a bunch of leases and contracts with Assad). This is probably a bad move long-run, but Putin probably can make Assad into a puppet, and probably feels that he can replace Assad if necessary.

    The reveal for me in the article was this:
    ” It is said that in mid-summer of 2015, Iranian special forces commander Qasem Soleimani flew to Moscow with a blunt message. The Syrian regime was going to fall if things went on the way they were going and Iran did not have the resources to stop it.”

    *Iran* is unwise to support Assad. Are they doing so out of naive Shia-Sunni thinking, knee-jerk hostility to the Kurds, or what? Support for Assad is not particularly in the national interest of Iran, and they have no capability of making Assad into a puppet.

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