What is Russia’s Strategy in Syria & Why does Egypt Approve?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Russian MiGs for the first time on Wednesday gave close air support to the Syrian Arab Army as it attacked rebels north of Homs. The Russians also continued their airstrikes against rebel-held Idlib Province. And, the Russians for the first time launched cruise missiles from warships in the Caspian Sea on rebel targets. Over the past week and a half, Russian strategy is becoming apparent.

h/t Casteneda Collection U of Texas

The US State Department says it is bewildered by Egypt’s support for the Russian airstrikes on rebels in Syria. But virtually all the rebel groups who amount to anything militarily in Syria are hard line fundamentalists, and Egypt’s generals made a coup against Egypt’s own Muslim Brotherhood in 2013. So the officers are not sympathetic to Syrian Muslim Brethren who have become more radical and are trying to overthrow a government. Since Saudi Arabia and its allies on the Gulf Cooperation Council bankroll the regime in Egypt and since they fund the Salafi hardliners in Syria, there may be some friction between Cairo and Riyadh over this difference. But the Saudis also did want the officers to crush the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Saudis see as a populist loose cannon, so the situation is very complex. Probably the Saudis don’t mind if the Russians bomb the Muslim Brotherhood groups, but do mind if they bomb the Salafis, who model themselves on Saudi Wahhabism and are loyal to the monarchy.

The Russian intervention was not provoked by Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) but by the al-Qaeda-led coalition ‘the Army of Conquest’. It groups The Support Front or al-Qaeda in Syria– which reports to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the mastermind of 9/11 — with other hard line Salafi fundamentalist groups such as the Freemen of Syria (Ahrar al-Sham). The latter rejects democracy and is willing to turn over religious minorities like the Druze to al-Qaeda, with predictable results.

Al-Qaeda and its allies took the northern province of Idlib away from more moderate rebels last November, and then this spring took the key cities of Idlib (the provincial capital) and Jisr al-Shughour, the town that serves as a gateway to Latakia to the West.

Latakia is Syria’s major port and is sort of like its mouth. The digestive track goes down to Hama, then Homs, then Damascus. If al-Qaeda and its allies can effectively move west to Latakia port, they can massacre the Alawites supporting the al-Assad regime, who predominate in that province, and then cut the capital of Damascus in the south off from resupply by port. Likely then the regime will fall. Jisr al-Shughour was taken by al-Qaeda and other groups, including a Chechen unit of hard line fundamentalists, which would have alarmed the Russians. Vladimir Putin made his bones by crushing the second Chechen uprising, which was led by fundamentalists seeking an emirate. He wouldn’t want another such emirate with Chechen high officials to grow up so close to Russia as Latakia.

So Russia has as its objective to keep Hama from falling to the rebels, which would begin the process of cutting off the southern capital of Damascus from northern supply lines. Hence Russia is bombing rebel positions north of Hama. Moreover, if the Syrian Arab Army could defeat the militants north of Hama, it could take Khan Shaykhoun, and then move on southern Idlib.

Al-Qaeda has fighters north of Hama but so do smaller, less radical guerrilla groups (though some of these have fought alongside al-Qaeda sometimes). Moscow does not care so much whether it is bombing al-Qaeda or Salafi Jihadis allied with al-Qaeda, or even what Washington is now calling “moderates,” though I doubt many genuine moderates are still in the field. Russia wants to break the northern siege of Hama by these fundamentalist rebels and by al-Qaeda and its allies, and then break out north toward Idlib. Hence it gave air support to the SAA in its offensive, though early reports are that this offensive failed to make much headway.

Likewise, Russia wants to forestall any al-Qaeda advance on the Alawites of Latakia from the east, so it is bombing Army of Conquest units and arms depots in Idlib. If Moscow can go beyond that goal and roll the group and its allies back from Idlib, from Putin’s point of view that would be all to the good.

US spokesmen and politicians who complain that Russia isn’t hitting Daesh/ ISIL don’t get it. Either they don’t understand that with al-Qaeda in Idlib, Latakia could fall. Or they are just lying. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said Wednesday that 90% of Russian strikes were not on ISIL or al-Qaeda. I do not believe this is true, since Russia is clearly bombing a lot of Support Front and Army of Conquest positions. But anyway I think if we formulated the question differently, of how many strikes were on al-Qaeda and its allies, we’d find that the majority were.

I should explain that with Syria, I”m just trying to analyze. I don’t have a dog in this fight. I despise the al-Assad regime, which is genocidal and has engaged in mass torture. But I absolutely refuse to support any group allied with Ayman al-Zawahiri’s al-Qaeda or which envisions Syria as a hardline Salafi emirate where Christians, Alawites, Druze and Kurds (altogether maybe 40% of the population) as well as secular Sunni Arabs (another 45%) are second class citizens ruled by a self-appointed morals police with machine guns.

I have a sinking suspicion that my position on al-Qaeda as a red line is not shared by some high US officials. If I am right about this, they should be ashamed of themselves and go back and read about the origins of al-Qaeda in 1980s Afghanistan. US-supported jihads have a way of biting us on the ass.

Good and bad in today’s Syria is also contextual. Having the Baath Party or its goons, the Shabiha, rule religious Sunnis is bound to cause inequities. But for the fundamentalists to conquer Alawite Latakia or the Druze regions would result in an enormous tragedy.

Ultimately Syria can only be healed by democracy and the separation of religion and state. Neither the regime nor the rebels get this, and there is no guarantee they ever will.


Related video:

Euronews: “Huge explosions as Russia allegedly strikes Hama region, Syria”

26 Responses

  1. The policy – of overthrowing Assad – was not achieving its goal and that third party state sponsorships and its proxies had become the ante of continued stalemate of Syria’s civil war. Russia’s policy of military intervention – with self interest – is to torque the ante. Ultimately, Syria’s development towards democratisation should be the underlying goal.

  2. Words have different meanings to different people. This is what you said meant to me. I really really do not want the Baathist regime in Syria to be able to stay in power. I really really really do not want any of the current Islamic groups fighting the Baathist Regime to be able to achieve power.
    What this secretly means, and it could be so secret that you do not want to admit it to yourself, is that at least for a while longer you want the Baathist regime to stay in power. I am qualified to say this based on my training at H&R Block income tax school.

  3. Juan,
    Does this mean you are changing your position on the famous 2012 DIA assessment? You argued before that it did not imply that the US was among the powers to which it refers supporting AQI. Here you allow that perhaps some high officials do support them.

    • ” Here you allow that perhaps some high officials do support them.”
      David, Isn’t it more than that. Recent statements by DOD and media seem to clearly call at least a section of the ‘rebels’ as supported, trained and funded by CIA. We have also given the green-light to increased weapons shipments from SA, Turkey and Qatar. IMO, all the western support is in violation of international law, including our bombing by planes or drones of Syria; but no one seems to be bothered by it. At least, the Russian intervention has the merit of being legal (having been invited by the government).

  4. An interesting, and accurate analysis, though the unfortunate wording does make Damacus into the asshole of Syria…when Assad already has that job.

  5. U.S. warmakers are closely observing and analyzing Russian military actions and capabilities and folding this current information into its own strategic and tactical assessments of Russian power estimates and projections. The U.S. wastes no opportunity to turn lemons into shrapnel. This has nothing to do with the military/political goals of Russia in Syria – for now.

  6. These four years and whatever follows before Syria is quiet will surely have had a profound effect on al~Assad and his wife and family. By all accounts he was quite happy as an ophthalmologist and only came to this role because his brother died. His father was a man few would defy, including family. My, albeit vague, recollection is he never wanted the job in the first place and it’s perfectly possible he will be more than happy to hand over when there is an alternative pleasing to the majority of Syrians. Originally he may have taken comfort rehearsing the potential for reform but found himself swept along, if not enslaved, by a deeply rooted structure established by his father over 30 years, a structure of self-perpetuating, interlocking loyalties he couldn’t break, and which his father may have built up for exactly that reason, particularly if he felt his son might not have it in him. I don’t seek to mitigate the horrors under his rule which were a continuation of those under his father, merely to suggest he might welcome a coherent exit.

  7. My take is that once the Russo-Syrian-Iraqi-Iranian-Hezbollan forces defeat IS-Al Qaeda terrorists, Syrians will find a way to reclaim their nation.

    • That sentence was meant to be snark, right? Lebanon got chopped to pieces by proxy militias 40 years ago and the Lebanese still don’t fully have their country back. And Syria and Lebanon are probably not “nations” by anthropological standards. The divisions in these societies may have always been too vicious to form a real nation.

  8. As the old saying goes, the only ‘moderates’ fighting the Syrian government are those who have run out of bullets. Fortunately, the Russians are not fooled by pretenses and promises and we see the effectiveness of their actions so far. The same people in the US administration who actively participated in undermining the Syrian state are still in their world of delusions in the State Dept.

    • Not only the U.S. State Department – but also members of the U.S. House Intelligence Committee – believe that Russia is targeting primarily Western-backed Free Syrian Army fighters:

      link to nytimes.com

  9. “I should explain that with Syria, I”m just trying to analyze. I don’t have a dog in this fight. I despise the al-Assad regime, which is genocidal and has engaged in mass torture.” < which the good ol usa (cheney bush rumsfeld et al) took advantage of many times by sending POWs to be tortured before chaining them up in Guantanamo Bay Concentration Camp, Bagram Concentration Camp, other Black sites around the planet, etc etc etc. ironic, no?

  10. Banais is the Golden Goose of Syria and the secret word.

    Russia and the Syrian Army have positioned the bulk of their military assets to defend Banais from everyone. It is between Latakia and Tartous (Tartus) on the Mediterranean coast.

    Why? To find out who has a “dog in this fight” see this map.

    link to theodora.com

    Zoom in a bit on Syria in the pipelines map (cited above) and compare to Professor Cole’s timely map of attacks by Russia and areas of control.


  11. Well, Russia’s “strategic aim” is pretty clear-cut, and it is exactly what Putin explained in his speech to the UN General Assembly.

    Russia wants everyone to take seriously the notion that States Are Sovereign, and therefore nobody has a “right” to dismember a sovereign state in the name of The Great Game.

    Syria is a state, and if Assad falls then Syria itself will disintegrate. It will no longer be “a state” but, instead, a number of little fiefdoms ruled by local warlords.

    That is an outcome that is unacceptable to Russia, and that’s why they have pitched in to help.

    Not because they like Assad, or that they owe him anything, nor because they think there is some advantage to be gained for Russia at the USA’s expense.

    No. None of the above.

    Assad’s Government is in charge of the Institutions Of State, whereas everyone else wants to upturn that and replace it with….. Who Knows What?

    As far as Russia is concerned there is no contest: chaos is an unacceptable option.

    • Mr. Putin knows for certain the Assad regime will perpetuate Russian “interests” in and through Syria and allow the sole Russian naval facility (leased from Syria at Tartous) on the Mediterranean Sea.

      Any other emerging faction encroaching on the Assad regime is uncertain for Russia at best.

      This is a business deal and nothing more.

  12. Professor, I’m curious about the last paragraph:

    “Ultimately Syria can only be healed by democracy and the separation of religion and state. Neither the regime nor the rebels get this, and there is no guarantee they ever will.”

    It seems that the rebels (read: mercenary terrorists) get that, but healing is not their goal. Their goals appear to be, in no particular order:

    1. Establish a radical Sunni theocracy. Oppress all who disagree, by any means handy or capricious.

    2. Whoever wins among the many fighting groups will become dictator and a trillionaire. This is war as entrepreneurship.

    3. The funders of the mercenaries are equivalent to venture capitalists. They expect a return on investment.

    4. Removing Assad will permit the completion of the planned Sunni-run pipelines from the Persian Gulf to the Med, in opposition to Iranian interests and Russian interests.

    It seems to me that national healing has nothing to do with it, just as death, destruction and diaspora are of no concern to the mercenaries and their funders.

  13. An anti-modern jihadi state which pursues expulsion or extermination of minorities will leave Syria even more anti-healed then a restored Assad and successors regime which will at least accept the principle of ethnic and confessional diversity as before in the Syria patchwork.

    So there is no reason to feel bad about coming around to accepting the relative betterness of a total restoration of SAR power to all of Syria or at least all those parts of Syria which have any economic, cultural, and/or hydrological value at all. ( It may be that Syria/Russia/Iran/Iraq/etc. may wish to see the jihadis backed into the near worthless desert areas and then quarantined there and allowed to fester therein. Perhaps those Syrian refugess deemed to be jihadophile will be sent into the Cordon Sanitaired Jihadistan.)

    As Yogi Berra once said, ” When you come to Hobson’s fork in the road, take it.”

  14. I have a feeling that beneath the rhetoric, all the outside powers would be perfectly happy with a despot in charge, so long as they sided with each of the respective outside power.

    Prisoner’s dilemma situation?

    Win-Lose quadrant = friendly powerful despot
    Lose-win = hostile powerful despot
    Compromise quadrant = democracy (or, more realistically, “moderate” despot?)
    Spoiler quadrant = caliphate, warlord-i-stan, ongoing civil war

  15. This, like every bit of news out of Syria, underlines my position that the US should not be involved in Syria, there are no winners, no “good guys” and no outcome which is both positive and likely. The only good from this is the purely selfish possibility that Islamic militants will shift their hatred more from the US to Russia. Also, as more and more Russians come home in body bags, Putin will undoubtedly lose support. Perhaps with another debacle like in Afghanistan, Russia will be pushed toward a more genuine democracy. We can only hope.

  16. The more pertinent question – what is the US strategy in Syria?

    After more than four years an overt strategy of finding and arming moderates has been abandoned. US support for the Kurds has been undermined by their NATO ally Turkey. ISIL is getting support from somewhere but US intelligence has not – or will not – reveal how they sell oil or how they support a population of several million. Although they have bombed ISIL for almost a year, it has not stopped ISIL from more conquests.

    The ‘covert’ CIA strategy is now becoming more clearer as the Russians bomb CIA supplied groups. Since the US can not seem to find any moderates to arm openly, it has been handing out lethal weapons to shadowy groups. Who these groups are and what these groups will do with this weapons is not being discussed openly.

    What makes US intervention in Syria possibly worse than the Iraq invasion is its ineffectiveness, a war on which has dragged for more than four years with no end in sight. And the Syrian intervention is certainly no more legal than Bush’s attack on Iraq.

    Now the strategy seems to be to allow rebel groups to call in US air-strikes. ISIL, Syrian regime troops, other opposition groups, a village full of heretics, a hospital – just name it and the US will blow it up. And we haven’t even started talking about what happens when American policy finally succeeds – the fall of Damascus.

    • “………..how they sell oil or how they support a population of several million…….”

      Answer: Via the Assad government and U.S. allies such as the Kurdish Regional Council and, also, Turkish military intelligence (who is nominally part of NATO).

      Here are some links:

      link to ibtimes.com

      link to infowars.com

      link to nytimes.com

      There has been evidence of collusion between ISIS and the Baathist regime in Damascus dating back almost to the inception of ISIS nine years ago. The motivation for current collusion is the fact ISIS is fighting Free Syrian Army rebels – not to mention Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate.

  17. Asad is now a puppet of foreigners – Iranians, Lebanese, and Russians. His survival is completely dependent on this assistance. Has anyone noticed that Alawite military age males are well-represented in the refugee stream?

    The Russian/Iranian/Hizbullah intervention will produce tactical victories for as long as those parties care to bleed, followed by strategic defeat. The opposition isn’t going anywhere and has every incentive to outlast the interventionists.

  18. Three results of invading Iraq are: lots of money for the US defense industry, chaos in Iraq, and thousands of physically and mentally maimed veterans.

  19. Al-Qaeda is the perfect example of how divorced from reality they are in Washington. You know they thought Assad would be beaten by 2013.
    Yea Assad is a butcher but compared with butchers closer to home he’s second rate because he isn’t worldwide.
    Maybe I should be grateful that the government is focusing at least some of it’s disastrous policies on foreigners this time instead of it’s own citizens but obviously I’m not.

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