The Russian air strike that Friday, Dec. 25, killed Zahran Aloush, founder of the most powerful Syrian rebel group Jaysh al-Islam and his deputy, gave President Bashar Assad a big break in the Syrian war, thanks to his powerful backer, Vladimir Putin.
This grave loss will accelerate the breakup of Syrian rebel strongholds in and around Damascus. It will also hasten the evacuation under a UN-sponsored ceasefire of at least 2,000 rebels from the Damascus region. Less noticed, was the UN plan to remove at the same time several thousands ISIS fighters from the Syrian capital and transport them to their Syrian headquarters. The latter project has not been trumpeted for good reason: It implies UN recognition of ISIS as a party in the Syria war.
For nearly five years, the war seesawed back and forth, with neither the Syrian army nor the insurgents gaining the upper hand for long, even after Tehran threw its Lebanese proxy, Hizballah, into the fray to bolster Assad’s army.
Interventions by the US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Jordan and Israel were too trifling and hesitant to tilt the balance in favor of the anti-Assad insurgent militias. Weapons supplies were inferior and tardy and kept the rebels heavily outgunned by the Syrian army’s tanks, helicopters and fighter jets, and helpless against the Iranian-made barrel bombs dropped by the Syrian air force.
The Obama administration was the architect of this uneven support strategy, going so far as to constrain the rebels’ other foreign backers against giving them the resources for carrying the day, aside from local victories.
This strategy had the effect of prolonging the vicious conflict – until it was cut short bytwo events:
1. In the summer of 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant arrived in full force to capture the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, scattering seven Iraqi armed divisions to the four winds, and grabbing their sophisticated American weapons, along with their arsenals, that were crammed with good American tanks, armored personnel carriers, and an assortment of surface, antitank and antiair missiles.
Part of this booty was diverted to ISIS Syrian headquarters in Raqqa.
2. A year later, in late September 2015, President Vladimir Putin embarked on a massive buildup of Russian military strength in Syria – notably, his air and missile forces – for direct intervention in the war.
In contrast to President Barack Obama, who sought to keep his hand on the conflict by a complicated system of dribbling arms to select Syrian rebel groups, Putin went all out with massive military and strategic backing to assure the Syrian ruler and his Iranian ally of victory.
The Russian strategy is now becoming evident: It is to drive the rebels out of the areas they have captured around the main cities of Latakia, Aleppo, Idlib, Homs, Hama and the capital, Damascus, giving them two options: join the opposition front around the table for negotiating an end to the war, or total eradication – even though Moscow and Washington have yet to agree which of the rebel militias belong around that table.
According to Moscow’s scale of priorities, the fight against the Islamic State must wait its turn until after Bashar Assad’s authority as president is fully restored and his country returns to his army’s control.
But on the way to this objective, Putin has run up against a major impediment: the failure of Iranian, Shiite militia, Hizballah and Syrian army ground forces keep up with his pace. The plan was for Russian air strikes and missiles to clear rebels out of one area after another and for pro-Assad ground troops to storm in and take over.
But these troops are proving too slow to press the advantage given them by the Russians.
Last week, the Russians decided to use their intelligence assets to speed things up. They borrowed an Israeli counter-terror tactic to start targeting key rebel chiefs for liquidation.
The death of the Jaysh al-Islamc commander as the result of a Russian airborne rocket strike on Friday was an intelligence feat rather than a military one. Just as Israel last Sunday used its clandestine assets in Damascus to precisely target the Hizballah-Iranian arch terrorist Samir Quntar at his home in the Jaramana district, so the Russians directed their agents on the ground to mark the secret meeting of Jaysh al-Islam commanders at Marj al-Sultan at the precise moment for taking them down.
This blow to the rebel movement, plus the mass-evacuation of its fighters from the Syrian capital, are major steps towards bringing the Syrian capital back under the control of the Syrian dictator.