November 1, 2018


Russia's Syria Problem: The Russians are discovering that success on the battlefield doesn't automatically translate to achievement of political goals. (ROBERT E. HAMILTON, 11/01/18, American Interest)

Russia's problems in Syria are now primarily political. They are the kinds of problems that killing "militants" and destroying "terrorist targets" can't solve. One way to examine these problems is geographically.

A look at the map reveals three areas where Russia's drive to reunite the country under Assad's rule is being thwarted. The first is Idlib, where some three million civilians and thousands of fighters are clustered in the opposition's last large stronghold in western Syria. The influence in Idlib of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, one of the strongest and most radical Syrian opposition groups, was always going to make the fight there bloody and difficult.

Russia and the Assad regime have complicated their problem in Idlib by funneling fighters from other opposition groups there after they conquered territory those groups controlled. Many of these were moderate opposition groups that were parties to the 2016 Cessation of Hostilities agreement but are now likely radicalized after their sustained interaction with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and their prior experience of being brutalized by Russian and Iranian tactics elsewhere in the country.

The enemy Russia now confronts in Idlib is not only stronger than it had previously been but also includes groups tied to Turkey, one of Russia's key partners in its drive to sideline the U.S. government and the United Nations in a postwar settlement. If Russia were to opt for a sustained bombing campaign to deal with its enemies in Idlib, it would certainly lose Turkey's support and could even bring on a confrontation with the Turkish military, which has forces deployed there. So Moscow chose to conclude an agreement with Ankara delaying military action in Idlib, kicking the can down the road.

Al-Tanf is another area where Russia's drive to unify Syria under Assad's regime is being thwarted. The problem here is the U.S. military. After several strikes by Russia and the Syrian regime on U.S.-backed groups in the region, the U.S. military established a garrison at Al-Tanf and declared a 55-kilometer security zone around this garrison. On several occasions it has enforced this zone by destroying vehicles or aircraft that have entered it.

Further complicating the situation around Al-Tanf is the existence of the Rukban camp for internally displaced persons, which sits inside the U.S. security zone. Russian claims that the Rukban camp harbors terrorists unnerve U.S. policymakers, who fear a bloodbath there if U.S. forces withdraw.

Finally, the U.S. presence at Al-Tanf, which is in the Syria-Jordan-Iraq tri-border region, is a source of reassurance for Jordan and complicates Iran's vision of a "Shi'a Crescent" stretching from Tehran to Beirut. A near-term U.S. withdrawal from Al-Tanf is therefore unlikely. But without pushing the U.S. military out of its garrison there, Russia can never satisfy its allies in Damascus and Tehran.

Syria's northeast is the last area where Russia's goals are being thwarted. Here again the problem is the U.S. military and its partner, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is a coalition of Kurdish and Sunni Arab militias. The SDF is well-led, well-trained, well-equipped, and has embedded U.S. military advisers, making it a formidable adversary. Russia's attempt to challenge the SDF by using Wagner Group mercenaries to attack it in February brought U.S. counterstrikes that killed more than 200 of the attackers.

In addition to its military success in liberating northeastern Syria from ISIL, including the group's "capital" of Raqqa, the SDF has proven politically adept. In each liberated area it has established civic councils to govern and provide essential services. The recent U.S. announcement that it will remain in Syria to thwart Iran there will boost the confidence of the SDF and further complicate matters for Moscow, Damascus, and Tehran.

Posted by at November 1, 2018 4:00 AM