Recently a number of sources on the net started citing an influential London-based newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat that is funded by Saudi Arabia. According to these sources the newspaper claimed that Russia is going to turn its back on Syria. Allegedly, after a number of sensitive defeats of pro-Assad forces, Russia started reconsidering its position on Moscow’s traditional ally in the Middle East. Journalists funded by Saudi Arabia are convinced that the Syrian army is destroyed, cities are falling into the hands of Islamist one after another, and the whole defense perimeter of the Syrian state has simply collapsed. It’s been claimed that ISIL controls 50% of Syria’s territory and President Bashar al Assad has managed to retain control of no more than 8% of oil and gas resources in Syria.
According to the above mentioned sources, a reversal in Russian policy has been marked by Moscow’s negotiations with the Gulf States. Asharq Al-Awsat claims that a total of one hundred high-profile Russian officials along with their families have already been evacuated from Latakia. Allegedly, a joint operational staff, composed of Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah officers is being evacuated now. Moreover, Asharq Al-Awsat claims that in April at a meeting of intelligence representatives of Russia and the West, for the first time ever Russian officials were not insisting on keeping Assad in power. At the same time speculations about “serious discussions” between Russia and the United States on the future of Syria in the Arab media are appearing with each passing day.
However none of these evaluations can be described as accurate. Firstly, Russian military advisers are only working with Syrian army officials, but they are not cooperating with officers of Iran and Hezbollah. No members of Russia’s mission to Syria have been recently evacuated. Which means that Saudi Arabia has launched a propaganda campaign via Asharq Al-Awsat to prepare international public opinion for a new military assault by armed groups reinforced by mercenaries and special task force officers against the government of Bashar al-Assad that is now being prepared by Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar.
Meanwhile, Assad is miles away from even thinking about surrendering. According to the Al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper, Syrian forces have started strengthening the Alawite bastion on the Mediterranean coast – the province of Latakia. A newly created unit of so-called “coastal guards” has recently been reinforced by 1,500 officers of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard elite unit. And Iran is not going anywhere either. Tehran has already announced that Syria is a crucial element of its strategic defense. At the same time Hezbollah units are preparing to strengthen resistance in Syria, since the days of this organization will be over shortly after the fall of the government of Bashar al-Assad.
The last couple of days were marked by several military clashes in the northern province of Aleppo, where ISIL militants continued attacking the terrorist coalition of Jabhat Al-Nusra, Ahrar ash-Sham and al-Jabha al-Shamiya formed by their puppeteer – Saudi Arbia, Turkey and Qatar. This means that Islamists are not going to leave Syria for the taking by the forces sponsored by the anti-Assad “triangle”. As a result of these fierce clashes miles away from the Turkish border, ISIL militants managed to capture a number of small settlements and the large village of Soran. Now ISIL militants are heading to yet another outpost of their “competitors” – the village of Marea. It is reported that at least 150 members of Islamist groups were killed while they were defending occupied territories in the northern parts of Aleppo province. Syrian aviation has been bombing Islamist positions consistently, nevertheless Syrian army units were forced to abandon the city of Ariha – the last piece of land that was controlled by the government in the province of Idlib.
For now it’s the top priority of the Assad government to establish an effective defense of Damascus, Homs, Hama and the cities on the Mediterranean coast – Latakia, Tartus and Baniyas. But should Ankara introduce a “no-fly zone” in the northern parts of Syria, then the situation will turn from bad to worse. Syrian media sources have even been urging Moscow to abandon diplomatic means and start carrying out air strikes against the positions of terrorist groups.
In the last week Syrian and Lebanese armies have been violently bombarding positions of terrorist groups on both sides of the border. In Eastern Guta terrorist group Jaish al-Islam, which shelled the Russian embassy in Damascus twice in May, made a number of fruitless attempts to reverse the situation on the ground in its favor in the area of Deir Salman. At the same time their “allies” in Western Guta intensified fighting to the west from the town of Sasan.
The development of the situation in Syria indicates that government armed forces have been struggling to sustain the necessary numbers of combat-ready units in order to conduct effective operations against the advancing units of Islamists. Under these conditions the Syrian army is forced to abandon strategically unimportant areas to keep its front lines intact. After the fall of Idlib, Syria decided to leave the area all together to reinforce vital positions elsewhere with more troops. In the south, the loss of the key logistics hub of Palmyra has cut Damascus off from Iraq, as well as shipments which played a crucial role for the government. In these circumstances it’s safe to say that the Syrian army has clearly lost the strategic initiative, therefore its primary objective for now is the stabilization of the situation on numerous front, which should give Damascus an opportunity to regroup its forces. It’s clear for the ruling Alawite elite that should they prevent further negative developments of the situation on most fronts, it would be forced to abandon all major cities in Syria to concentrate its efforts on defending densely populated Alawite communities, such as Damascus and Latakia.
Ankara and Riyadh are desperate to preserve the pace of the offensive their proxy forces have started. In this regard, Ankara on May 26 has adopted an unilateral decision to introduce a “no-fly zone” over the border areas and a number of northern regions of Syria, without even obtaining the consent of Washington. Surface-to-air Patriot missile systems have already been deployed along the Turkish-Syrian border. At the same time, despite the start of joint training exercises by the US and Turkey to stand up the armed moderate opposition, those NATO allies cannot agree on their goals in Syria. Syria now risks following the fate of Iraq, which has been torn into several areas where daily armed confrontations perpetuate endlessly. Apparently, the White House believes that Islamists will be content with the areas of Iraq and Syria that they have already captured, but should their crusade continue then their first victims will be Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
According to most analysts, the Assad regime cannot fight the Islamists for more than eight months on its own. Should the Alawites consolidate their forces in the areas of their traditional residence, especially in Latakia, due to a real threat to their survival, they would be able to defend this region. But the question of the day is, is Iran prepared to fight for Syria? For Tehran, it’s about time to start a direct military intervention, instead of using special forces locally, which can dramatically change the situation on the ground. It seems that the number supporters of this position is increasing rapidly in Tehran. Syria is the key figure in its regional game, the fall of which can cause irreparable damage to Iran’s regional standings, since its allies would become aware of the fact that Iran is in no position to defend them effectively.
The preparations for a military operation in Syria are already underway in Iran. Transport aircraft from Iran are making several flights a day to the airport in Dabaa, drone control centers are being built in Syria. All this testifies to the fact that in the very near future we can expect the first Iranian assault against Islamists in Syria. The choice of the Dabaa airport implies that Iranians will attack from the direction of Homs. Neither Turkey, nor Saudi Arabia is willing to take a shot at a direct military engagement with Iran. Saudis will be obliterated, given the fact that they have been unable to fight even the Houthis in Yemen effectively. But Turkey’s current leader Erdogan alone will not dare to start a war against Iran, out of fear that this will increase the influence of military elites in Ankara, who have been dreaming for a long time to see him go. But all of this would only matter if Tehran decides to start a large-scale military intervention amid the Syrian conflict. And it seems that it will…
Peter Lvov, Ph.D in political science, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”