04.06.2016 Author: Alexander Orlov

Syrian Situation: the War Continues

342342343As of the end of May this year, the situation in Syria has, in principle, remained largely unchanged, despite the intense fighting amongst all the parties involved in the conflict, including external participation from Russia and the “international” coalition led by the United States. Although the zone of influence of the terrorist groups like the IS and “Jabhat al-Nusra” has gradually narrowed, no decisive turning point has been reached yet. New Islamic militants are joining their ranks to replace those “Jihadis” who have fallen in battle or deserted the group. These new fighters receive financial aid and weapons from rich Arab nations, as well as from Turkey albeit not via official government structures.

Despite the announcement of May 20, that from May 25 Moscow intended to begin unilaterally targeting and taking out the Syrian terrorists who have continued fighting and have not dissociated themselves from Jabhat al-Nusra, and the US refusal to accede to these air strikes, Russia still hopes to reach an amicable agreement with Washington on this crucial matter. However, America is trying to independently organize the Syrian armed opposition into offensive units against the positions held by the IS in Aleppo, in an obvious attempt to prevent the recovery of control by the government troops. Against this background, during the week, both Russian aircraft and Syrian Air Force aircraft attacked the positions of IS and “Jabhat al-Nusra” militants that are not covered in the cease-fire agreement, in the provinces of Aleppo and Homs, Hama, Deir ez-Zor, and Raqqa. On May 25 and 28, there was a joint air strike by aircraft of the Russian Aerospace Forces and Syrian Air Force on a convoy of oil tankers in the eastern province of Homs.

On May 22, 29 terrorist groups, and in particular, the Jaish al-Islam and Failak ar-Rahman warring factions, presented an ultimatum to Washington and Moscow, and demanded that they stop the offensive led by Syrian troops that had commenced on May 14 on the town of Darayya (10 km south-west of Damascus) and in Eastern Guta (Damascus province) within the next 48 hours. From midnight on May 24, at the initiative of the Russian Center for Reconciliation of the warring parties in Syria (RCR), a 72 hour ceasefire was introduced in the region of Eastern Guta and in the town of Darayya (Damascus province). On May 27, the Russian Defense Ministry announced a 48-hour extension of the ceasefire in Eastern Guta and in the town of Darayya (Damascus province). According to the RCR, 40 cases of ceasefire violations were reported in the provinces of Aleppo, Damascus and Latakia during the last week of May, which was slightly lower than in the previous period. On May 27, the demining units of the International Mine Action Center of the Russian Armed Forces, who were doing demining operations in Palmyra, were withdrawn from permanent deployment and returned home. Only a small group of Russian specialists remained in Syria for the purposes of training the Syrian demining units.

Throughout the end of May, there were active combat operations against terrorist groups in several provinces of the country, with the epicenter of the fighting in the Aleppo province. For example, on May 25, in the southern part of the province, government forces launched another attack on the town of Khan Tuman. Between May 27 and May 28, Government forces intensified their actions in the northwestern part of the province, redeploying the Syrian army units who are working with T-90S tanks, to launch an attack on the fortified zone of “Jabhat al-Nusra” in the Anadan Valley, which will block off the militants who are stuck in the western regions of the city of Aleppo.

However, IS forces tried to counterattack. On May 27 – 28, in the north of the province near the border with Turkey, IS units launched an offensive on the Turkey-supported positions of the “rebel” faction of the “Free Syrian Army” (FSA) and the Al-Shamiya Front, in a bid to seize the cities of Marea and Azaz, controlled by the latter since 2012. The government forces repelled the joint-attacks by the FSA and “Jabhat al-Nusra” militants on their position in the northern part of the city in the Al-Khalid region. On May 28, in the southeastern part of the province, government forces saw off the attack by IS militants who tried to cut off the Isriya – Raqqa highway.

On May 25, government forces pushed the IS formation far from the airport in Tadmor (near Palmyra), which thus made it possible to use aircraft there to attack the jihadis. On May 21, Syrian troops in the province of Damascus moved in the direction of the city of Khan el-Sheikh, which is holding “Jabhat al-Nusra” units. On May 27, in Eastern Huta, near the capital, government forces took control of several farms between the cities of Harasta al-Qantara and Bala al-Kadim, thereby cutting off the supply route of groups like the Failak ar-Rahman and Jaish al-Fustat, occupying the city of Harasta al-Qantara.

The events in the Kurdish areas of Syria have also been actively developing.

On May 24, the SDF – Kurdish-Arabic alliance announced the start of an operation to free the northern Raqqa province, which is still a stronghold of the IS in Syria. The operation was conducted with air support of the international coalition led by the United States. According to the SDF, the main objectives of the operation are the cities Shaddad (Hasakah province), Tal Abyad (Raqqa) and Cobán (Aleppo). Thus, the operation can actually be considered as the expansion of the zone that the Kurds regard as their territory. The operation still has nothing to do with the storming of Raqqa. 300 American instructors were supporting the actions by the SDF, whose number is estimated to be around 12 thousand people. On May 21, the commander of the US forces in the Middle East, General Joe Votel, visited Syria, where he met with the staff of the US Special Forces that is “interacting with the Kurdish forces of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)”. According to some reports, they held discussions on the preparation of the initialization of an offensive by the SDF units on Raqqa. This was especially evidenced by the fact that on May 26, they moved through the southern edge of the city of Ayn Issa and reached the 60 km line north of the city of Raqqa. The SDF also benefited from using Russian weapons, which they had received by parachute from Russian Aerospace Forces aircraft. In an effort to stop the offensive, the IS deployed a further 2 thousand of their fighters to the battle zone. However, IS foreign commanders began to leave Raqqa, heading in the direction of the Iraqi city of Mosul. According to the commander of the US Air Force operations in the Middle East, General Charles Brown, the intensifying attacks by the IS in Syria and Iraq meant the Americans began to run short of guided aircraft munitions. For 2017, the draft budget provides for the purchase of more than 45 thousand guided munitions worth $ 1.8 billion, but they will only be distributed to the troops after 2018. In general, it seems that the SDF offensive in the Raqqa province was largely due to the desire of the United States to demonstrate the efficiency of the actions by the international coalition led by Washington and its Syrian “allies”, in comparison to the actions being carried out by the Syrian forces fighting on the ground.

On May 23, the province of Latakia suffered the biggest terrorist attack in recent years when suicide bombers attacked 5 places in the cities of Tartous and Jableh. As a result of the terrorist attacks, more than 140 people, most of them civilians, were killed. IS has claimed responsibility for the attacks. However, Iranian media blamed the attacks on the Ahrar al-Sham group.

While things are more or less clear on the military front in Syria, the international efforts to try and reach a compromise between Damascus and the opposition have not yet been successful. The Head of the Supreme Committee for Negotiations (SCN) delegation, Mohammed Alloush, said on May 29 in a statement issued on Sunday that he was stepping down, in protest against the Geneva talks. As he put it, “I made an announcement to withdraw from the delegation and for the second time I presented the Supreme Committee for Negotiations with the request to resign from the position of chief negotiator on behalf of the SCN delegation, in protest against the refusal by the International Community to appreciate the importance of the life of Syrian people, who continue to suffer from the direct actions of the regime and its allies.” According to Alloush, “the international community is able to stop the suffering of the Syrian people, but does not have a serious desire to do so.” As is well known, the third round of the Inter-Syrian talks in Geneva was completed on April 28. The SCN suspended its participation in the negotiations, accusing the Syrian authorities of reneging on international decisions and breach of the ceasefire.

On the other hand, the countries belonging to the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf, the main sponsors of the Syrian war, continue to pay lip service to the fight against terrorism, but have, in fact, continued to actively intervene in the Syrian conflict. This was clearly evident in the course of the next round of the Russia – CCASG strategic dialogue held between the respective foreign ministers in Moscow on May 26 this year. Both sides reached a stalemate. The Arab monarchies are determined to seek the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad, but Russia is not going to leave Syria, because that would mean the refusal to support the legitimate Syrian government.

So, apparently the armed conflict in Syria will continue for a long time without much chance of a radical change in the situation on all fronts. The absence of a ground operation against the IS external forces and other terrorist organizations is a huge setback, but neither Russia nor the US is ready to get deeply involved. Moscow – due to its domestic difficulties caused by Western sanctions, and Washington – in anticipation of the change in administration in the White House.

Alexander Orlov, Political Scientist and Expert Orientalist, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook