By Riad Kahwaji*
Developments in Syria over the past few months are gradually revealing that the intentions of Moscow are not just to save the regime, but also to achieve a full decisive victory that will go beyond only securing an Alawite canton as widely speculated by Western officials and observers. So are the supporters of Syrian opposition groups ready to give up, or are they now willing to provide fighters with adequate air defense capabilities?
While warring Syrian factions were meeting in Geneva under a United Nations brokered peace conference, Russian warplanes were providing intensive air cover to Syrian regime forces backed by Iranian Revolutionary Guards and other Shiite militias advancing on opposition positions in the north, south and other parts in the country – but especially, too, around the capital.
Ever since the Russian intervention in Syria started in late September 2015 under the pretext of fighting “terrorism,” Western officials have taken turns in criticizing it and accusing Moscow of having a concealed agenda that goes beyond fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
British Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond wondered after a meeting in Rome this month whether Moscow was “really committed to a peace process or is it using the peace process as a fig leaf to try to deliver some kind of military victory for Assad that creates an Alawite mini state in the north-west of Syria.”
Turkish Prime Minster Ahmet Davutoglu reiterated in December 2015 what Turkish and some other Western officials believe that the Russian-led offensive was helping the Syrian regime conduct ethnic and sectarian cleansing in parts of northern and western Syria with the objective of establishing an Alawite canton in and around the provinces of Latakia and Tartus.
However, the progress of military operations on the ground indicates that the Russian-Iranian axis is aiming at taking a bigger bite than anticipated.
While sparing the vast territory currently occupied by ISIS in Syria, the Russian offensive has concentrated on opposition strongholds in Aleppo and Idlib in the north, Hama and Homs in the center, Dara’a in the south, and suburbs of the capital, Damascus.
Most Western defense officials believe that hardly 10 percent of Russian air raids target ISIS positions in Syria, which means the actual Russian objective are the Syrian opposition groups.
Hence the Russian intervention helped tilt the balance of power in Syria in the regime’s favor after its forces had earlier lost control of more than 75 percent of the country.
The Arab Gulf states that are supporting the Syrian opposition have been observing developments in Syria with a great deal of concern, especially given the apparent indifference or helplessness being demonstrated by the United States and other European allies.
Condemnations made by American and Western officials of the Russian and Iranian interference in Syria do not convince many Arab officials who believe today that the current Obama administration wants the Assad regime to survive and that it will avoid doing anything that could undermine its prized nuclear deal with Iran.
Reviewing President Obama’s stance over the past four years on the Syrian civil war clearly shows how Washington’s opposition to the Assad regime was flimsy and kept faltering despite the tough rhetoric.
President Obama retreated from many of his declared red-lines for the Assad regime, such as the use of chemical weapons against its own people which has been well-documented. Instead of military retaliation to punish those who used chemical weapons, Washington reached a deal with Moscow in the eleventh hour to strip the Syrian regime of its chemical weapons arsenal.
The rise of so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), inspired terrorist attacks in Europe and even the United States, the failure to see a unified Syrian opposition, and improving ties with Iran seem to have driven Washington to review its policy towards the Assad regime – and a concession to Moscow, whose demand to keep the Assad regime in power is based on the hope it will prevent the spread of extremist groups.
But Washington cannot reverse its policy in Syria just like that. The Obama administration that has been calling for Assad’s ouster from day one of the Syrian revolution and has helped arm the opposition cannot simply switch its position, nor can it further anger its Arab Gulf allies.
However, when the Russians intervened militarily and reversed the momentum in the Syrian civil war, an opportunity presented itself whereby Moscow rather Washington could be blamed. This is exactly what appears to be taking place today.
The Russian-Iranian axis has waged an unstoppable military campaign against all positions of the Syrian opposition without any real and tangible reaction from Washington and the West.
Even the so-called peace talks in Geneva appear to have been a move to buy time for Russia’s military operations, and to promote the Assad regime internationally.
The Arab Gulf media has quoted Syrian opposition figures accusing U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, of pressuring the opposition leadership to agree to a Russian-Iranian proposed agenda for the peace talks, which ensures the perpetuation of the Assad regime not only through a transitional period but even beyond.
Even though the State Department denied the press reports, facts and events on the ground indicate otherwise.
Despite regular meetings between Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Segei Lavrov, over the past six months, Moscow has been getting its way in Syria while the U.S. and its allies have continued losing ground.
Therefore, the U.S. diplomacy is either now favoring Moscow’s scheme for Syria – or was taken on a big ride by the Russians. Either way it does not look good on, or for, Washington.
The only parts of Syria that the United States seems to be interested in protecting are the Kurdish provinces in the northeast. This prompts more Arab and regional officials to question the real motives and agenda Washington has developed for Syria.
Yet, Washington might not really know the full agenda of Russia and Iran in Syria, and whether they are all on the same page.
If the Obama administration was willing to tolerate a limited Russian intervention to safeguard Moscow’s interests and help the Assad regime survive within a mini-state, how could it be confident that the Russians will stick to the plan and not seek more when there is nobody willing, or able, to stop them?
Russia today has a sizable military footprint with several airbases, a large naval base, and has also deployed the sophisticated S-400 air defense system which covers large chunks of neighboring countries like NATO-member Turkey, Israel, Jordan, and Iraq.
“The jetfighters of the U.S.-led Alliance are struggling to fly around the Russian air defense radars and have subsequently reduced their activities in Syria,” according to a Jordanian military official who asked not to be named.
If Russia was in Syria to safeguard its interests through ensuring regime survival, what about Iranian interests which seek to preserve Syria as an integral part of the Iranian arch of influence – which includes Iraq, Syria, and into Lebanon, where Hizbullah is a dominant force.
While some Western and Israeli observers believe that Russian interests will ultimately clash with those of Iran – and that Moscow will eventually have the last word – the ground reality is that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and its allied militias have a sizable presence and influence across Syria which Russia will struggle to control.
Even if Moscow wants a mini-state for the Alawites, Tehran wants the full state – and this explains the sectarian cleansing in Syria which has displaced millions of mainly Sunni Muslims, which constitute the majority of the national population.
There are questions that nobody in the West seems to be asking loudly enough: How far will the Russian-Iranian offensive go? Why should Moscow concede with an Alawite mini-state in Latakia and Tartus, when its axis forces can capture most (if not all) of Syria? Why should Russia and Iran listen to Western and Arab demands if they lack the will or ability to stop them? What will happen to the nine million Syrian refugees scattered in neighboring countries and Europe? How will the Arab and wider Sunni Muslim world react if the Russian-Iranian axis does get its way in Syria? What about ISIS, whose rise has much to do with the Assad regime, and Al-Qaeda?
If the Russians are adamant on seeking a military solution to the Syrian civil war, then the West and the Arab Gulf states will have no option but to provide the moderate opposition fighters with shoulder-fired surface to air missiles which can substantially reduce the effect of Russian air force and rebalance power on the ground to enhance the prospects of the peace process. Failure to do so will ultimately lead to the full defeat of the opposition forces within the next few months.
According to several regional security sources, Washington has been the main impediment in the supply of surface to air missiles to the Syrian opposition groups. As a last resort, will regional countries now act alone to save the Syrian opposition?
Very few observers in the region are betting on any support from the U.S. to help the Syria opposition – instead the Obama administration seems far more interested in preserving its nuclear agreement with Iran, which it sees as the legacy achievement of its two terms in office. The hope is that the next White House administration will have a clearer and more successful strategy against the growing terrorist and ISIS threat, which is being inflamed today by the Russian-Iranian offensive in Syria – provided of course that the Syrian opposition forces can survive that far.
*Riad Kahwaji, CEO, INEGMA