How the Bear Saved Bashar
By ENRIQUE PEREZ | June 1, 2017
Despite the combined efforts of Turkey, the Gulf States, the United States, and other allies of these countries, the government of Bashar al-Assad has withstood attempted revolution. As of this writing, government forces are advancing across the Syrian desert, have retaken East Aleppo, and thwarted a large rebel assault on the Hama province. This situation is opposite not only to the scenario of regime change predicted in the beginning by western pundits but also to the situation the government had found itself prior to the intervention. While factors such as the persistent loyalty of minorities, the urban population, and foreign allies such as Iran can explain the government’s continued survival, it is the direct military intervention of the Russian Air Force that has paved the way for the government’s current success and momentum.
The Syrian government by September of 2015 was reeling from various recent and costly defeats. To the north, the government suffered a catastrophic loss in Idlib that meant near complete military withdrawal from the province. Jaish al-Fateh’s offensive had not only successfully retaken the namesake city but advanced further down the government salient until it seized the highly strategic city of Jisr al-Shughur. To the east, ISIS was threatening to bisect government territory; the capture of Palmyra had allowed them to seize most of the Homs province with al-Qaryatayn captured and Mahin threatened. And to the northeast, Aleppo remained bleak. The Kuweiris Airbase was still encircled by ISIS forces, the government had lost the Scientific Research Center, and the February offensive to encircle rebel Aleppo produced no results.
Granted, this situation was not as grim as it was in 2012 and early 2013 when most of Deir ez-Zor was abandoned, Operation Damascus Volcano by the rebels threatened to take the capital of the country, and control of al-Raqqah crumbled away in a mere month-long offensive. However, the military misfortunes of 2015 were severe enough to force the government to seek assistance from Russia. The Western analysts predictably expressed skepticism of the Russian air campaign and deemed it a failure not even three months into it. However, the many political and military benefits the intervention provided has demonstrably borne fruit.
The political benefits of the intervention were made manifest in the mere presence of the Russian planes themselves. Any hopes at a No-Fly Zone were dashed as enforcing it meant that the planes would have to be shot down. As Syria is not worth a military confrontation and/or war with the Russian Federation, this meant that the government was shielded from any direct interventions from the West. Even the Turkish intervention and the creation of Euphrates Shield required significant closed-door agreements between Turkey and Russia. The result of such was significant limitations on Turkey’s ability to act against the YPG. As the NATO bombing was one of the key factors in the collapse of Gaddafi’s forces in Libya, the Syrian government is very fortunate to avoid a repeat of it.
Even before the intervention, The Syrian Air Force was a shell of its former self. The loss of several key bases throughout the war such as Taqba, Kshesh, and al-Qusayr meant the loss of dozens of aircraft like the MiG-21. Most of these very aircraft also dated to the Cold War and were meant for retirement until the war forced their use. The economically disastrous effects of the war provided great difficulty in replacing the losses. Dependency on aid from Russia to provide maintenance had already existed by the time of the intervention.
The weakness in the air went hand in hand with a weakness in the land. Many of the losses on each front can be blamed on a crippling manpower shortage. While on paper the government could mobilize a force large enough to outnumber and overwhelm the insurgency, such a force would be ineffective in reality. Low morale and high desertion would result as government loyalty is tenuous. The solution the government instead utilized was having the frontlines manned significantly by loyalist militias organized under the umbrella of the National Defense Forces (NDF). While effective when fighting in areas they live in that effectiveness is reduced the farther away these men are deployed. The 2016 Hama offensive by the rebels demonstrates this with NDF militia routing quickly when hit hard by a lightning rebel attack. It is therefore a significant help when Russian planes assist the ground forces, acting as a force multiplier that reduces the amount of men needed for an assault.
The airstrikes themselves are devastating to the insurgents. They have killed or destroyed many convoys, vehicles, commanders, and ground fighters. Two demonstrations of their deadliness can be seen with the deaths of Zahran Alloush and Basil Zamo by airstrike. Alloush was the leader of the most powerful insurgent group active in the East Ghouta pocket, the largest rebel pocket in the Damascus area and a big threat to the government. Basil Zamo in turn was leader of the First Coastal Division, the rebel group that threatened government control over Latakia and threatened to connect the insurgents with the Mediterranean coast.
The fruits of the intervention are best scene in four distinct theaters of the conflict. Rebel control over eastern Latakia was significantly diminished with a push into Idlib from government forces based there now a distinct possibility. The Hama front has remained stable with the rebels left incapable of making lasting gains against the government anymore. The previously mentioned recent rebel offensive was reversed within a few days in contrast to prior times where a complete reversal took months.
The Homs front has showcased rapid government progress with the securement of Palmyra and the repossession of the desert areas from ISIS means that a majority of Syrian territory will soon be under government control. The Aleppo front has had the incredibly significant development of the rebel half of the city falling and continued gains to the east of the province against ISIS. Finally, the Damascus front has seen the closing of many rebel pockets such as the one in Darayya. The tide has shifted for now and it is Putin that the government owes its gratitude to.