If Russian President Vladimir Putin thought that air strikes in Syria would achieve his goals, he was mistaken. He admitted in an interview on Russia’s state run TV station on Oct. 11 that his goal was to “stabilize the government of President Bashar Assad.” But then, when he was asked about a Russian ground operation, he replied: “We’re not going to do it, and our Syrian friends know this.”
In this respect, Putin is no different from US President Barack Obama. Instead of Russian boots on the ground, he has rounded up surrogates by importing Cuban front line troops for the Syrian front – borrowing the Soviet tactic of the 1970s – and fielding Iranian Revolutionary Guards combatants.
(More details in a separate article in this issue.)
For his second goal of smashing the Islamic State and its infrastructure, the Russian president began courting partnerships with moderate Syrian rebel groups and their sponsors.
Putin faced the same setbacks in Syria as the US-led coalition
DEBKA Weekly’s military sources report that Moscow’s Syrian campaign started out last month on the initial premise that a new Russian military enclave in the coastal Latakia province would be the launching pad for its planes and helicopters to support the ground operations of the Syrian and Iranian armies, pro-Iranian militias and Hizballah forces.
The thinking was that, after driving back and cornering the al-Qaeda affiliated Al-Nusra front and the Islamic State, Moscow and its associates would go forward and capture Raqqa, the ISIS capital in Syria. Putin would then show the world that the Russian army had achieved more in a month than the US-led 65-member coalition had in a year of air strikes.
But that plan did not work out. Putin ran into the same obstacles as the multinational anti-ISIS venture launched by Obama last year, when the Islamic State moved in on Iraq and Syria.
On Oct. 6, Moscow and its allies launched its an offensive to dislodge rebel positions from the Hama area and their threat to the strategic Highway 5 link between northern and central Syria to Damascus.
In the ensuing ten days, the Russian leader made the same discovery as US, Saudi, Israeli and Jordanian strategists: any military progress in the intractable Syrian conflict would be slow and never gain enough traction to bring his goals to fruition.
The first bricks for a political resolution that kept Assad in power
He therefore sat back and reassessed at his options.
Putin is no more inclined than Obama (see separate article on US Syrian policy) to deploy large numbers of his own troops on the Syrian battlefield. So he set about seeking partners and proxies, starting with the
Middle East sponsors of certain anti-Assad militias – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Jordan, Israel, and Kurdish leaders in and outside Syria – to try and pry them away from backing the rebel groups fighting Assad and ISIS. Instead, they were invited to cooperate with Russia.
By this approach, Moscow hoped to achieve two tactical objectives:
1. To relieve Syria, Iran and Hizballah of the burden of fighting rebels who were free of links to Al-Nusra Front or ISIS, leaving them able to devote all their resources to the recovery of lost territory and an offensive against ISIS headquarters in Raqqa.
2. To lay the first bricks for an agreed political resolution of the Syrian conflict that would keep President Assad in power.
Hard talk in Sochi with two Gulf players
Putin’s feelers netted their first catch last weekend. On Oct. 10, against the background of the Formula One Grand Prix race in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi, Vladimir Putin sat down and talked to two racing enthusiasts: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi, and the Saudi king’s son, Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman.
Both are highly influential in their capitals. The crown prince is the deputy commander of the UAE armed forces and in charge of Syrian affairs, while the Saudi prince is a senior player at the table in Riyadh which lays out the kingdom’s regional security policy, including Syria.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow had sought to allay Riyadh's concerns, and that all the parties wanted to prevent a “terrorist caliphate" rising in Syria.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir remarked that his government, as a member of the US-led coalition, stood by its demand for Assad's removal, but hoped that talks with Moscow continue.
According to our sources, the two comments were sugarcoating for the hard substance of the Sochi discussions.
Moscow seeks help in splitting the Islamist rebel camp
Putin demanded a halt to the Gulf kingdoms’ military and economic assistance for Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest), a coalition of Syrian Islamist rebel factions active mainly in the northern province of Idlib adjacent to the Turkish border, but also in such places as Hama and Latakia, which adjoins Russia’s military enclave.
The largest segment of the Jaish al-Fatah coalition is Ahrar ash-Sham; its other members are the Al-Nusra Front and the Sham Legion, an affiliate of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.
This Islamist alliance also works with rival moderate factions of the Free Syrian Army, such as the Knights of Justice Brigade.
Putin proposed a tripartite alliance of Russia, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, whose first task would be to split the Jaish al Fatah’s moderate factions away from the radical Al-Nusra Front.
Once that was done, Moscow would stop its aerial bombardment of the moderate rebels in Hama and Idlib. Moscow would also hold back Syria, Iranian and Hizballah forces from attacking them.
In the third stage, commanders of the rebel forces would negotiate with representatives of Assad’s regime under the Russian aegis.
DEBKA Weekly’s sources disclose that both Gulf rulers refrained from any commitment to the Russian plan, but agreed to continue talking about it.
Israel asked to pull its support from S. Syrian rebels
Those sources also revealed that Putin’s plan for dividing Syrian rebel ranks also came up in the talks Russia’s deputy chief of staff, Gen. Nikolay Bogdanovsky held with his Israeli counterpart, Gen. Yair Golan, in Tel Aviv on October 7-8.
While Israeli and Western media reported that the two generals confined their talks to steps for averting collisions between the Israeli and Russian air forces in the fog of war over Syrian airspace, the main topic, according to our sources, was Israel’s backing for rebel groups in southern Syria, including some militias which are members of the Jaish al-Fatah coalition.
In broad outline, those talks advanced on similar lines to those the Russian president held in Sochi with the two Arab rulers. Israel was asked to persuade the rebel militias in southern Syria to desist from attacking the Syrian army and Hizballah; if they refused, Moscow asked Israel to terminate its supply of financial assistance, weapons, and logistical infrastructure for their operations.
The quid pro quo offered by Moscow was an assurance that Moscow would ascertain that Iran and Hizballah refrain from launching attacks on Israeli military and civilian targets – on the Golan too – from areas they control in Syria, especially Quneitra and the Syrian Golan.
A Russian-guaranteed Iranian-Hizballah-Syrian ceasefire with Israel
If Moscow keeps its side of the bargain, Israel will have gained a Russian-guaranteed ceasefire with the Assad regime, Iran and Hizballah.
Thursday, Oct. 15, Russia's defense ministry confirmed the establishment of a "hotline" for averting clashes in the sky with Israeli planes. The spokesman said mutual information sharing would take place through a hotlilne between the Russian aviation command center at the Hmeimim air base near Latakia and a command post of the Israeli air force.
DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources add that if Putin’s military strategy succeeds in northern and southern Syria, it would allow the Syrian, Iranian and Hizballah forces to turn their attention to ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front.
However, to achieve this goal, he needs the support of another key player in Syria – the Kurds. That facet of Putin’s strategy will be covered in a separate article. Meanwhile he is preparing his next offensive to take the Ghab Plain – the key to pulling the Hama operation out of the sand.