The Regime Strikes Back: Syrian Gov’t advances, Bolstered by Russia

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Russia’s aerial intervention in Syria is apparently yielding some modest battlefield advances for the Baath regime of Bashar al-Assad. Russia is also resupplying the Syrian Arab Army, training it in tactics, and giving it strategic advice.

The big news is that Russia airstrikes on the secret headquarters of the Army of Islam in the Damascus hinterlands killed the leader of this major militia, Zahran Alloush, on Friday. Alloush was a Saudi religious scholar. The Army of Islam has several thousand fighters around Damascus. It is backed by Saudi Arabia’s oil billions and seeks to turn Syria into a hard line Salafi/ Wahhabi state. It joined a 7-member coalition, the Islamic Front, the members of which denounced the rebel Syrian National Council for being namby pamby Westernized liberals fooling around with this democracy nonsense. (The Islamic Front also includes the Syrian Freemen, who, however, have a more important set of alliances in the northwest with al-Qaeda and other jihadi groups, under the rubric of the Army of Conquest).

Alloush hated Shiites (if you count Druze, they could be as much as 18% of Syria’s population) and wanted to see them ethnically cleansed. He also had a tactical alliance with al-Qaeda in Syria (Jabhat al-Nusra or the Support Front).

Even though the Army of Islam is guilty of war crimes and has used violence against civilians for political purposes, because of the Saudi connection the United States never declared it a terrorist organization.

Some of the regime/ Russian victory here was an intelligence coup. The HQ of the Army of Islam was supposed to be a secret. Somehow either Baath military intelligence officers managed to discover it, or Russian SVR/ GRU have developed Syrian field capabilities.

In my experience military folks put way too much emphasis on decapitating the leadership of such organizations. However charismatic and battle-hardened Alloush was, he is not irreplaceable, and the group is large enough and has enough experienced fighters to throw up another leader Moreover, the Saudi salaries are still coming in, so someone is getting a promotion.

Still, it is undeniable that this was a Russian/ regime victory of some proportions.

Another piece of good news for the regime is that it has negotiated an evacuation of 2,000 Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) and al-Qaeda fighters from three southern districts of Damascus, the population of which was being starved out by the regime. The fighters will be allowed to leave with a little personal property and one gun, and will be bussed north to an area where they are strong (al-Raqqa for Daesh, Marea for al-Qaeda).

The regime is already restoring security in these three districts, which will be reincorporated into Baathist Damascus.

This deal is similar to the one worked out for the central Sunni city of Homs, which before the war was a city of about a million (e.g. Albuquerque).

Finally, a defensive success:

West Aleppo was on the verge of falling to rebel forces, which hold the east of the city, when Russia came into the fray in October. With Russia bombardment and Hizbullah reinforcements, the SAA has reopened the trunk road over which supplies are delivered to West Aleppo, ensuring that the city did not get starved out of food and ammunition. Further, the SAA has pushed al-Qaeda and its ally, the Syrian Freemen (Ahrar al-Sham) out of the southern villages near West Aleppo, further breaking the siege and protecting the enclave. Having retaken and fortified the key southern town of Khan Tuman in the south, the regime’s troops are now moving to the west of Aleppo, where major towns such as Taftanaz and Saraqib are held by rebels.

Aleppo had a population of 4 million and was Syria’s (pop. 22 mn.) largest city before the conflict, so ensuring it does not fall is pretty central to regime goals.

At the same time, the regime has lost some districts in the eastern desert area of Deir al-Zor. But for the moment, its successes are more important.

Related video:

Ruptly TV: “Syria: Russian airstrikes destroy ISIS oil tankers in northern Syria”

11 Responses

  1. I am sorry to see a man of your stature and high standing in the world of journalism, using the the word, REGIME to describe the Syrian government. This expression is designed to tarnish the Syrian government and Assad in particular. You don’t refer to the Chinese government as a regime where there is no real democracy, or to the British government as a regime (my Country) where the monarchy (the queen) is head of state and entirely unelected ! Dr Assad was a surgeon here in London some years ago and is an educated man and not some kind of mad axe wielding mad man as he is so often portrayed by the media and journalists. I doubt Assad has ever killed anyone in his life any more than has the queen of England. Assad is trying to defend his Country against the West’s imported Jihads, mercenaries and terrorists. My own wretched government under prime minister, Cameron, pours arms into Saudi Arabia where democracy flourishes like fresh green lettuce in the desert, but few in the British parliament or the media in general refer to Saudi Arabia by the derogatory term, REGIME. If the hacks in the world of journalism had half the education and skills of Assad, they might be able to produce a more balanced and informed copy.

  2. “The regime is already restoring security in these three districts, which will be reincorporated into Baathist Damascus.”

    Restoring security? How depressing to hear a respected progressive scholar using the language of RT.com.

    • ISIL and al-Qaeda are not known for providing security to the quarters they kidnap. I don’t know how often I have to denounce the Baath regime to get permission to attack the former.

      • Don’t feel too beleaguered. It’s a hot topic that incites a lot of emotion. Especially as this conflict seems to have interestingly become a proxy battle between the forces of disinformation and reality within our own Western political systems at large.

      • Well said, Mr. Cole. No matter what you say you will never satisfy the likes of Proyect.

      • I think it is a proclivity of people to want to reduce conflicts to good guys and bad guys. There are very few, if any, “good guys” in the Syrian conflict. Assad’s forces have engaged in any number of war crimes. The fact that many of the opposition are no better does not erase his culpability or responsibility for these crimes. Some people want to forget that this conflict started after Assad’s security forces fired on and massacred PEACEFUL protesters.

  3. This ISIS conflict is all but out of hand. At root it is a global problem which should have been dealt with at a global level. Unfortunately its resolution is subservient to a far larger conflict, which many, particularly Americans, see as some kind of stand off between the US and Russia. But it is not a stand off between between any two groups, it is rather the US/West ‘dream’ of global authority encountering the cold light of day. It simply isn’t possible to effect a world with one set of cultural convictions however gift-wrapped in concepts like human rights. If a journalist offends authorities in Tehran or Beijing and is denied a visa or even arrested then that is what the journalist has done, that is how the authorities have responded and no amount of piety or protestation will undo it. The other day the US stopped a British Muslim family (two brothers and nine children) from boarding a flight to visit Disneyland for Christmas link to theguardian.com . Well, the US has a right to issue and revoke visas, although most of us thought such use of it would likely wait until Trump became President. In future Brits with Moslem names will simply have to go somewhere else for Christmas. It is completely unrealistic to take the view that one local set of criteria can dominate everywhere. The real conflict today is not between nations or peoples, but between ways of organising spheres of future global authority; a Western dominated single authority has not been able to establish itself while an alternative is not yet on the horizon. The resulting vacuum is where ISIS et al manage to flourish, and also why perfectly well understood commonsense changes are not swiftly found to confront issues like climate change.

  4. In the aftermath of everything that has happened in Syria I find it incredible that the US ever thought we could waltz into there and conduct “regime change”. I thought the whole Iraq mess was complicated but trying to keep up with all the actors in Syria is a full time job. You certainly cannot get even a basic sense of the situation there through the mainstream media. Speaking of intelligence sharing, I was intrigued by an article the other day about US military intelligence sharing in the Syrian war. Its by Seymour Hersh in the London Review of Books; link to lrb.co.uk. Very long and complicated, but interesting.

    • I think it is mostly Republican neocons who think we can waltz into Syria. Liberals have more sense I would like to think.

    • Thanks for the link.

      It reveals that many in the Pentagon leadership wish that the U.S. would join Russia and China in an-anti-terror coalition – in direct contravention of the Obama administration policy.

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