Throughout last week Russian airpower in Syria has been busy obliterating the positions of the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra and a number of other terrorist groups, while carrying out up to 65 sorties a day. The number of targets destroyed exceeds the 800 mark, including command centers, training camps, underground facilities, ammunition and explosives factories, pickups mounted with heavy machine guns, armored vehicles, and warehouses. According to Western military sources, at least 7,000 Islamist militants have been killed, including high-ranking officers. Officials confirmed the neutralization of at least three Islamist warlords that fell victims to airstrikes carried out by the Syrian Air Force. Among them was the leader of a Jabhan al-Nusra branch Saraya al-Tawhid wal-Jihad Abu Muaz al-Sham. Seven more deaths of prominent commanders of various terrorist groups closely affiliated with al-Qaeda were reported earlier this month. Those are Abu Ali al-Naimi and Ashraf Jamia al-Muhar (Harakat Ahrar al-Sham), Abu Muaz al-Shami (Jabhat al-Nusra), Saleh Sindh (Jaysh al-Islam), and Uqba Abu Ahmad (Livaa Umar al-Farooq).
In the last week it has been officially reported for the first time that Russia’s warplanes dropped highly accurate KAB-1500L bombs. These were specifically designed to destroy underground infrastructure. Another novelty that has been employed by the Russian Defense Ministry are BETAB-500s, concrete piercing bombs. Moreover, in a number of provinces in order to support the offensive of the Syrian pro-government forces, Russian is using gunships operating at low altitudes and high speeds to provide close air support to the Syrian army.
In recent days, intense fighting has been reported in the majority of Syrian provinces, with jihadists trying to launch a counter-offensive in order to preserve their holdings. Nevertheless, on November 10, Syrian troops managed to break the three-year blockade of the Kwaires airbase near Aleppo. It’s is now possible that Russia would redeploy a part of its air group there, namely ground attack helicopters.
The most successful offensive for pro-government forces has been that in the province of Aleppo, where Syrian troops, along with Hezbollah units and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Special Forces Brigade successfully captured the city of Khan Tuman, along with the villages of Jamima, Muraimin, Hadadi, Zahra Hadid, Maraan, Hamimiya, Hamida, Hamidi, al-Mushrifah al-Sabkha. Islamist have lost the control of over 500,000 square kilometers this week alone.
In the northern part of the province of Latakia, Syrian pro-government forces, assisted by Russian helicopters, have liberated the villages of Jab al-Ahmar, Mafraq Beit Abu Risha, Handak al-Hamu, and Hamam. Now, a strategically important mountain region of Al-Fark is in the hands of the pro-government forces. In the province of Homs pro-government forces keptprogressing slowly in the direction of Palmyra.
In the province of Damascus fierce skirmishes were reported in the battle for Eastern Ghouta. In the suburbs of Damascus, government troops established control over the industrial area, while capturing the former Mercedes and Peugeot factories. In Harasta, government forces liberated a number of districts while being opposed by the Jaysh al-Islam terrorist group.
A persistent face-off continued in the Hama Governorate, which indicates that the situation remains rather grave. According to Syrian and Iranian sources, on November 5 pro-government forces entered the town of Morek, but then, three days later, the western media reported that radical militants regained control of Morek. Then, however, Syrian troops managed to establish full control of the city along with the highway from Aleppo to Homs.
The advancement of pro-government forces significantly affects the morale of Islamists. In just one week in the governorates of Damascus, Aleppo and Deir ez-Zor a total of 300 militants surrendered to the mercy of the Syrian government.
It is clear that the Syrian army is still incapable of controlling the situation on all fronts while carrying out large-scale offensives at the same time. American analysts are now saying that the military assistance provided by Iran and Russia has ultimately reached its limit, hence it’s unable to make any radical change in the overall dynamics of the military campaign. They are arguing that Russia can have only provide logistical support, while the deployed units of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard are insufficient to give Syria an edge over the Islamists.
Therefore, think-tanks in Washington are convinced that in the near future Russia and Iran will be forced to strengthen their military presence in Syria. To prove this notion Washington has provided the international media with information that Moscow is going to build two more military bases in Syria. This, they say, will lead to the increase in the number of troop stationed in Syria, with the possibility of reaching 4,000 soldiers. In addition, Russia is allegedly considering the use of its artillery units in the offensive launched by the Syrian army to support it. From an American point of view, Moscow and Tehran will be forced to take such steps to create optimal conditions for having an upper hand during peace talks in Vienna. Additionally, the recent talks in Vienna, according to American analysts, have been an utter failure. The purpose of all this rhetoric is clear – to convince the White House that US policy in Syria is sufficient, with Russia being unable to break the stalemate on the ground without risking involvement similar to a “second Afghanistan”. And this scenario is highly desired in the White House today, as American is keen to see such a repeat of history – history that included the collapse of the Soviet Union, partially provoked by the long and costly war in Afghanistan.
However, the dynamics on the ground is of critical importance in the Syrian war – the “rebels” have lost the strategic initiative and now are trying to hold their positions. This situation can not be changed by the arrival of new militants or much vaunted anti-tank systems. It will only delay the inevitable. The opponents of the Assad regime do not have enough fire support to launch any large-scale offensive. They can continue maneuvering with varying degrees of success, but they will ultimately fail.
In this situation it’s of critical importance for Russia not to push too far, to escape the so-called “second Afghanistan” scenario, while limiting its involvement to air and logistical support. But it seems that it’s high time for Iran to prepare an offensive of its own, otherwise, the war on terror in Syria will be dragged out for another year or more.
As for the international community, it’s high time for creating an international tribunal to prosecute ISIL and its sponsors on the basis of existing international law.
Aleksander Orlov, a political scientist, expert-orientalist, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.