Three weeks have passed since the last week of September when Russia embarked on its Syrian campaign and nothing dramatic has been achieved in terms of war gains.
The situation can be summed up by six points:
1. Syrian and Iranian forces are no longer in retreat and, except for a few pockets, especially in southern Damascus and the southern part of the country, no direct military threat is foreseen for the Assad regime’s defense lines.
2. Last week, Moscow claimed the rebels opposing Assad were retreating following a government attack, but there was no proof that this attack was underway. All that is happening is that the two leading anti-Assad forces, the Islamic State and the Al Qaeda’s affiliate, Al-Nusra, are performing a tactical withdrawal – not sufficient to count as a strategic retreat or change the face of the war.
DEBKA Weekly’s military sources, who are following the war closely, say that this tactic is designed to relocate rebel and jihadist command centers and key positions in places less vulnerable to Russian air strikes, and to draw defense lines robust enough to withstand the projected major ground offensive by the combined Russian, Iranian, Syrian and Hizballah forces.
That offensive is meanwhile still on paper with no preparations in sight.
Anti-Assad forces in tactical retreat, pro-Iranian troops stationary
Anti-Assad forces have used the time for two cautionary steps:
- As they withdraw, they are planting mines in roads, bridges, houses, power stations and water pumping facilities. Most of the mines are timed for activation in two or three weeks, i.e. mid-November.
- The Islamic State is in negotiation with Al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya on cooperation and even the establishment of a series of combined battle fronts.
3. According to our military sources, since Syrian government forces are no longer on the run, the quality of their operations and morale has improved.
But the combat standards of Iranian, Hizballah and Shiite militias remain below par. Since their successful operations in the Qalamoun Mountains of western Syria, their tactics are mainly static, similar to their methods in Iraq. When those forces did go on the offensive, like in southern Syria, Zabadani, Hama and Homs, their gains were disappointing.
4. The Russians have more or less limited themselves so far to air strikes, except for firing 26 cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea toward rebel bases and positions on October 7. Those strikes too were limited in scope.
As of now, Russia has about 30 fixed-wing aircraft and 20 helicopters operating out of Al Hmeineem airbase near Latakia. This force, assisted by drones, has carried out about 900 sorties in the last three weeks, or a little over 42 a day.
Too few Russian air strikes to determine the war situation
In military terms, this is nowhere near enough to turn the situation on the ground around. It is certainly not enough to convince the rebels or ISIS that a mighty army is upon them.
5. The Russian air force is resorting to Western tactics for destroying targets with precision weapons, using guided munitions for the first time in the Middle East: The performance of the Kh-25 guided missile and KAB-500S Glonass satellite-guided bomb is making Russian military experts proud.
DEBKA Weekly’s military sources say they are right to be proud, except for the fact that these fine weapons systems are in far too short supply on the Syrian front, because the Russian munitions industry can only produce this weapon in small quantities.
6. Several military experts have pointed out that the Soviet Russian air force used the same tactics in Afghanistan, and conclude that Russian aerial warfare has not advanced much in the ensuing 20 years.
Slim chances of progress in Vienna, although Putin is pinched financially
Syrian President Bashar Assad meanwhile arrived in Moscow Tuesday, Oct. 20, for talks with President Vladimir Putin, on his first foreign trip in five years since the outbreak of the civil uprising against his rule.
Before he landed, the Syrian news agency dismissed reports of Russian combat troops engaged in ground operations [aside from air strikes] as “baseless and mere propaganda.”
But given the near-stagnancy of the Syrian war, this may change. For now, eyes are focused on the meeting of US Secretary of State John Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir and Turkish Foreign Minister Feridun Sinirlioglu, taking place in Vienna on Friday, Oct. 23, in the hope of progress toward a diplomatic breakthrough in the Syrian crisis.
In most Middle East capitals, Putin is seen to be rushing to harness the horses of diplomacy to his military bandwagon in Syria, even though it has achieved very little. Therefore the chances of a diplomatic breakthrough in Vienna are slim.
On the other hand, his intervention in Syria is costing the Russian exchequer between $3-4 million per day – $60-80 million thus far. Moscow does not command the vast resources necessary for keeping two wars afloat in Syria and Ukraine. He may therefore be more amenable to a solution of the Syrian conflict than hitherto
He no doubt invited Assad to the Kremlin to tell him straight what lay ahead – a Russian-Iranian plan for his gradual, stage-by-stage exit from power. (See separate article in this issue.)