The war in Syria and Iraq has entered a new phase. While the Syrian governmental army reports that is has in fact seized Aleppo, IS militants attacked from the rear. The seizure of Syria’s second largest city, which looks now like Grozny after Russian troops took it in 1999, seems to be a Pyrrhic victory. For Syrian and Russian troops in fact fought against pro-Western rebels, not against IS.
So it is no wonder that Islamist militants, who were left unattended, managed to oust, in a fierce battle, the governmental army from Palmyra which they had abandoned past March.
What confirms the seriousness of this turn is the admission of Franz Klintsevich, chairman of the Security Committee of Russia’s Federation Council, who said in an interview with Interfax: “We should admit honestly that the entry of militants into Palmyra, even for a very short time, is a heavy blow of, above all, a psychological nature, from which we must draw a number of conclusions.”
In Mosul, Iraq, the anti-IS coalition has engaged in exhausting battles. Even in the city’s eastern part, mostly populated by Kurds, every building has to be taken by force and it takes a lot of time and effort to mop up the territory. There will be still more problems in the western part, on the other bank of the river Tigris. It is predominantly populated by Sunni Arabs who support IS because they fear reprisals on the part of Shiites, as was the case in Fallujah.
A part of terrorists left Mosul for Syria. It is they who reinforced the militants who were advancing on Palmyra. Russian air support did not help the Syrian governmental troops. The widely-reported claims of Russian officials about a heavy death toll of militants as a result of intensive bombings are not true to fact.
Palmyra and Mosul not only occupy an important strategic position. The former is the key to an oil-rich area, and the latter is an oil-producing center. No wonder both of them are the object of pitched battles and all-out efforts.
Although the Syrian governmental army has somewhat succeeded in ousting militants from Aleppo, it is not only its own credit. The city was surrounded in the north by Kurdish and Turkish army units. It is this factor that reversed the course of the battle and forced militants to gradually leave Aleppo. Yet, from a purely military and strategic angle, the success of Syrian governmental troops and their Russian advisors is of a rather relative and mostly propagandistic nature. The establishment of control over a part of northern Syria by the invading Turkish troops considerably downgrades the ostensible success in Aleppo. Ankara will not reduce its support for a part of the opposition, particularly the Turkoman detachments. For this reason, from the military viewpoint, Assad’s troops that have entered Aleppo are now in a rather suspended condition. No one is certain that they will not face after some time a situation of the kind that occurred in Palmyra.
Politically, the tactic of Moscow and Damascus was to achieve military successes and thus present the new US administration with a fait accompli. But they failed. In addition, the show of force by dispatching a group of warships with the heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser Admiral Kuznetsov at the head to Syrian shores turned into a laughingstock for the whole world. The loss of airplanes convincingly showed technical inferiority of the Russian navy and inability of naval aviation to carry out real combat missions against the enemy.
Moscow has again fallen into a trap it set in Syria. It is not known whether the Kremlin forecast the likely intervention of Turkish troops in northern Syria or Iraq. By all accounts, it did not consider this seriously. But this still happened, and the military-strategic and political situation has changed radically Assad’s army is unable to cope with militants, let alone the Turkish troops. This means the Turks will not leave the occupied areas soon, which will make it easier to increase help to a part of the opposition.
Another factor the Moscow planners and politicians failed to forecast is that the Syrian governmental army is losing the very remnants of its low fighting efficiency. Hence is inability to conduct hostilities and, what is more, to control the liberated territory for a long time.
In the battles for Aleppo, the main role is being played by the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah, Iranian and Iraqi volunteers, as well as private military companies. In all probability, the situation is so desperate that Russia had to bring in Chechen commandos. Russia denies this, which is no wonder. If what Moscow says is to be taken at face value, there are no Russian troops in the Donbas either. Of course, Moscow claims there are no Kadyrov’s Chechens in Syria. But the truth is they are there because “murder will out.”
There is one more very important psychological factor. The Syrian army has never won any victories. Since the first 1948-49 Arab-Israeli war, it has been always suffering humiliating defeats, even when it sometimes had an advantage in the personnel and weaponry. The personnel, especially soldiers and junior officers, have no social guarantees for themselves and their families in case of death or disability. This is why conscription always fails. Units are manned at not more than half the wartime strength.
All these factors show that the Assad regime in Syria cannot win a victory even with military support from Russia and Iran. Moreover, as long as militants will be ousted from Iraq, they will be running away to Syria and thus reinforce resistance to the governmental army.
This may create two options for Moscow.
First: to engage in further escalation, as it did in Afghanistan, which will force Russia to dispatch new contingents, such as Chechen commandos, to the Middle East. The result will not necessary be successful, but this can help bide the time.
Second: to withdraw from the Middle East and focus on stopping aggression against the neighbors. As long as Putin is in the Kremlin, the first option seems to be more probable.