Syria: On eve of Vienna Summit, Has Russia changed the facts on the Ground?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Writing in al-Hayat [Life] this week, columnist Walid Choucair outlined the successes he sees Russia to have had in its Syria campaign, and the goals for which it is reaching. Choucair is the Lebanese affairs bureau chief of this pan-Arab, Saudi-owned London daily, which has a generally liberal outlook and many of the staff of which are like Choucair actually Lebanese.

He says one objective of Russia was to make impossible a US-Turkey brokered safe zone in the north of the country. There had even been talk of Turkey bringing back Syrian refugees to the hinterlands of Aleppo and creating a military-defended safe zone for them. These plans did not pan out. He says Russia feared that this safe zone would be a conduit for ever more medium weaponry to rebel groups, including extremists, especially ground to air weapons. These might have been provided for deployment against Syrian fighter jets, he says, but the nations supporting the rebels would not dare supply them for use against Russia.

The second objective, he says, is the use of Russian bombardment and shelling to paralyze the forces of the Free Syrian Army and other rebel groups.

The third goal is to reorganize and rebuild the Syrian Arab Army, which has shown its inability to defend strategic sites such as Idlib Province’s capital city Idlib, a city of 80,000, which fell to the al-Qaeda-led Army of Conquest in late March this year.

In turn, Choucair says, Russia hoped that achieving these three objectives would allow it put forward a formula for a political resolution of the conflict. Russia is now more eager than ever, he suggests, for a political solution because it does not want a long drawn-out engagement in that country.

Meanwhile, Al Monitor argues that the regime’s Syrian Arab Army has in fact taken a line of villages northeast of Hama, what it calls the Umm Haratain-Atshan-Sukayk line, with Russian air support.

Screen Shot 2015-10-30 at 3.16.51 AM
Via Google Maps

These advances put the SAA in striking distance of Tamaneh and Khan Shaykhun in the northwest of Hama. It says Khan Shaykhun has symbolic importance for al-Qaeda (the Support Front) in Syria. But this region north of Hama is also the gateway to a regime riposte in Idlib Province itself, which it has lost entirely since last spring to the al-Qaeda-led Army of Conquest. The Army of Conquest coalition’s strong position in Idlib allows it to threaten regime supply lines from Hama up to Aleppo to the northeast, and allows it to menace the province of Latakia, an Alawite Shiite stronghold and the site of Syria’s major port city, to the west.

One thing is sure– Russia comes into Friday’s Vienna talks on Syria in a much strengthened position and cannot be very easily dismissed by the US and Saudi Arabia. It has also been able to arrange for Iran to join the talks, a previously unthinkable step for the US and Saudi Arabia, and one that Riyadh is warning could cause the conference to fail.

Related video:

RT: “Syria: Syrian Army secures Morek as ground offensive continues”

14 Responses

  1. Russia is acting in accord with the recognized government of Syria. That gives them the whip hand.

  2. One thing that needs to change if we want a more peaceful world for future generations is the ingrained habit the US has, and disperses like dandelion seed, of approaching everything in terms of conflict and competition. Why is this conference, for instance, viewed as some kind of stand-off between Russia and the US, the KSA and Iran, etc. instead of a genuine multinational effort to resolve a pressing problem? Over the years I’ve come to think it may be something to do with the nature of US law. A large percentage of the US elite is made up of law graduates, and US law is fundamentally confrontational; two parties facing each other in a battle designed to identify a winner and loser, a method of resolving conflict descended from the duel which colours a lot of US thinking. US law is unlike much European law which, since Napoleon, has been fundamentally investigative, Perhaps that’s a fanciful notion but it fits the emerging divide between the US and Europeans over issues like al-Assad’s future, and Russian sanctions over Ukraine. I was much taken by the translation Dr Cole provided of Gen. Husayn Salami’s claim about Syria and Iraq being the point of confrontation between Eastern and what are essentially US, beliefs, politics and security interests. Why should the Syrians not be allowed to make up their own minds about Assad? Indeed, how can elections be deemed ‘free’ if they come with externally imposed preconditions? Would it not be less equivocal if Assad were to be roundly renounced, or selected even, by the Syrian people in free and scrutinised elections?

    • A nice theory, but it has a major flaw. The vast majority of US court cases, both civil and criminal, are settled out of court, through pre-trial negotiations. Going to trial is really a pretty uncommon event, despite what you may see on TV.

  3. It is a good thing that Russia now has “skin in the game”. Instead of sitting on the sidelines disrupting any and all peace efforts without cost, it is now a real party to the conflict and thus a real participant in any resolution.

    I was gratified to read this in this morning’s New York Times report on the Vienna negotiations because It neatly summarizes the end game I had in mind.

    From the NYT:
    ““If there is to be a deal,” Aaron David Miller, a former State Department official now at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, wrote on Thursday, the United States and Russia “must create a center of gravity to pull the other players together.”

    American officials say they think they have a shot at that, because Russia’s alternative is to be bogged down in the Syrian war. But the Saudis seem to think a far more active military role to counter Iran is imperative.'”

    As Jimmy Carter urged months ago, resolution of this conflict without the involvement of Assad, Russia and Iran is a pipe dream.

  4. Russia does not want to be bogged down in Syria. The Saudi want Russia bogged down and arm Al Qaida to the teeth — with American weapons. The role of the USA here is key. If it wants peace in Syria, it must join Russia and rein in Saudi Arabia. If it does not want peace — and I suspect Obama’s USA only wants chaos because chaos keeps enemies out of the fray that matters, Israel in primis — it will sabotage the peace talks or do nothing to make them work. At that point Russia must decide whether its alliances in the region are really worth the candle. I do not believe Russia is in Syria for the long haul, it would be very damaging and counterproductive for Russia and I think Putin is no fool. I hope so at least.

    • You are assuming that the US can force Saudi Arabia to do something that Saudi Arabia may not want to do. Whether it is this or invading countries and changing their political systems, too many people believe that the US is capable of bringing about whatever change it wants when history shows that often is not the case. Even when we had a lot of troops in the country and have poured hundreds of billions into that country, we find that leaders like Karzai in Afghanistan and Maliki in Iraq would defy the US.

      • Gary, you are right of course. However, the USA can exercise pressure on Saudi Arabia. It could threaten withdrawing arms sales, or arming Iran, or bringing Saudi Arabia disgrace in the international arena on human rights issues. Yet, so far, it has chosen to do nothing of the above. The haste with which Obama flew to the burial of the latest king is a sign of unnecessary genuflections to these brutal dictators.

  5. When was the last time Israeli planes violated Lebanese or Syrian airspace? Obviously not very often during the past month, at least there are no news about them. The reason for Israel staying suddenly on its own side is?

      • ??? Russia at risk? By Israel? Well before Russia changed the “enviroment” there were reports almost daily of Israeli planes and drones in Lebanese airspace. Now suddenly also Lebanon is a obvious no fly zone for Israel (as it should have been for decades).

  6. This Vienna conference is a ” desideratum clearing-house” for the stakeholders. Agreeing to disagree at this juncture.

  7. Perhaps the powers that be in Israel finally realize the bonfire needs no more fuel…survival instinct kicking in? Don’t think they are getting popcorn during intermission, but who knows?

  8. I’ve been around too long and read enough history to be skeptical of any claims that Russia or any outside power can impose its will on a situation like Syria. The statement that Russia does not want a long drawn out war and is ready for a negotiated settlement is, I think, an irrelevancy. Look what happened when they invaded Afghanistan. Or the US in Afghanistan and then Iraq. Israel can’t get rid of Hezbollah no matter how many times it invades Lebanon. Vietnam, civil war in China pre-1949, and on and on. Russia can probably prevent Assad from losing, but I really doubt they can bring about his victory. It will probably require something like a negotiated settlement that results in a coalition government. And that will happen only if the rebels decide to give up fighting. I don’t see that happening any time soon.

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