Friday, 25 May 2018
'Russia appears to be ready to pay any price to keep the Assad regime in power and maintain the Kremlin’s semi-colonial domination, Syrian journalist Ammar Hamou writes in his 2016 book “Russia and the Syrian Revolution: Politics, Deception and Military Aggression.”
“Russia’s opposition to the Syrian people’s revolution does not come from a place of love for Bashar al-Assad,” the author states in his rare study of the Kremlin’s intervention. “It is rather a position of unambiguous greed and self-interest.”
“Russia did not want improved Syrian relations with the West, and Israel in particular, fearing it would lead to the introduction of Western competition in the Syrian market,” Hamou wrote. “Moscow worried that a Western presence in the Russian sphere of influence could potentially lead to the arrival of a Sunni regime in Damascus, threatening decades of exclusive investments and privileges that Russia had cultivated with the Assad regime.”
What is even more important is the Kremlin’s desire to retain its control over a naval depot in Tartus on the Mediterranean Sea, the only Russian military outpost beyond the post-Soviet area.
Besides, Assad’s dependence on Russia enabled the Kremlin to win profitable nationwide contracts in Syria long before the war.
“Russia set its crosshairs on Syrian energy and oil, receiving plum deals and economic privileges, including rights to construct Syrian railroad lines and energy deals from the Euphrates dam,” the journalist writes.
Moreover, he adds, in 2005 Putin agreed to write off 73 percent of Syria’s $13.4 billion debt to Russia, and also pumped in $3.5 billion in direct investment. Even after war broke out, Damascus and Moscow agreed to establish in 2013 a joint company for offshore oil and gas drilling and oil refining.
“The amount that Russia stands to lose in the event of regime collapse is fully evident,” Hamou writes.
Now in 2018, with the Assad regime much more confident of its future in post-war Syria, Russian construction firms with close links to the Kremlin are already claiming exclusive contracts with the Damascus government to rebuild the ruined country.
On Feb. 26, the Russian Trade Chamber’s vice president, Vladimir Padalko, asserted that Moscow expects “the biggest gains from building, energy, the restoration of heat power grids, and machinery, including the supply and production of engineering and agriculture hardware.”
Moscow is thus doing all it can to save its puppet regime in Syria — with an overt military intervention, as well as the deployment of its clandestine mercenary armies such as the Wagner Group, which also fought in Ukraine, and vocal diplomatic protection of the Syrian regime in the United Nations Security Council.
In his book, Hamou notes that Russia and China vetoed at least four Western and Arab peace proposals.
“Even in the aftermath of Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people, Russia fought tooth and nail to ensure that a U.S. military strike would not occur,” the journalist writes.
As of today, Russia has blocked 12 Security Council resolutions on Syria, the latest on April 10, following a deadly chemical attack on civilians in Douma, allegedly carried out by the Assad regime.
In a bid to justify its own airstrikes, Russia tells outright lies, claiming that it is fighting against Islamic State forces and other jihadists.
But instead, Hamou writes, evidence shows Russia is attacking the secular Free Syrian Army, delivering airstrikes on locations 150–200 kilometers away from the nearest Islamic State strongholds.
Moreover, Russia’s reckless war against Assad’s adversaries has resulted in unprecedented massacres of the civilian population all across Syria, he writes.
In his 2016 study, statistics from the Syrian Human Rights Committee show that at least 1,690 civilians have been killed by indiscriminate Russian airstrikes between Sept. 30 and Dec. 31, 2015 alone.
In the further course of the devastating war, the Russian airstrike campaign has continued to take a heavy toll on Syrians, especially during the horrific battle of Aleppo in 2016.
On May 22, the Syrian Network for Human Rights, a British-based watchdog, issued a report in which it accused Russia of killing at least 6,113 civilians in Syria.
Moscow, despite twice claiming it would withdraw its forces, keeps fueling the war to preserve its neocolonial privileges at any price.
“As Syria crumbles, Russia’s strategy looks ever more like an occupation, one predicated upon Russian national interests,” Hamou concludes. “Russia’s relationship with the Assad family spans 45 years. It is a relationship built upon shared interests, ones that are fundamentally at odds with the Syrian people.” '
Sunday, 20 May 2018
'Bashar al-Assad has said about Syria's bloody civil war that "things now are moving in the right direction" and that "the worst is behind us." Senior officials from Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, and the UN and former U.S. diplomats have gone even further, proclaiming Assad the victor and urging rebel groups and the U.S. government to reconcile with this unpalatable "reality." An analysis of regional conflict dynamics, however, reveals a more complicated picture, which indicates that Syria's agony may be far from over and that its military gains may be more tenuous than they appear.
Pro-regime forces now control more than 50 percent of Syria's territory and between one-half and two-thirds of its population. Yet the regime's hold on many areas remains uncertain due to a lack of loyal and competent troops and institutional capacity. While pro-regime forces have been able to "clear" many areas they have retaken, they are overstretched, so it remains to be seen whether they can "hold" them. (Indeed, ISIS has recently mounted stinging attacks in areas—like Palmyra and Deir al-Zor—that have been repeatedly "cleared" by pro-regime forces.) The transfer of rebel fighters and their families from recaptured areas to Idlib or Deraa provinces—as part of so-called reconciliation agreements that are in fact anything but—will facilitate this clearing task, but pro-regime forces could still face renewed armed resistance in these areas from a new generation of oppositionists. And as long as U.S. forces remain in and over northeastern Syria, they can veto the regime's reconquest of that part of the country—which includes some of its most productive oil-producing and agricultural regions.
The Syrian Army has perhaps 10,000-20,000 troops available for offensive operations throughout the country. These are drawn mainly from the 4th Armored Division, the Republican Guard, the Tiger Force, and elements of the National Defense Forces (NDF). The rest of the Syrian Army—including the remnants of several regular Army divisions, most of the NDF, the recently formed IVth and Vth Corps, the Local Defense Forces (consisting of various pro-regime militias), and the regime's intelligence services—totals perhaps 100,000-150,000 men under arms. Many are poorly trained conscripts and volunteers of all ages, as well as militia auxiliaries responsible for local security in regime-controlled areas. They cannot be relied on for operations outside their home regions.
Much of the regime's offensive combat power is provided by fighters from the Lebanese Hezbollah (6,000-8,000 fighters), Iran (2,000 fighters), Shia fighters from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan (10,000-20,000 fighters), and a relatively small Russian ground and air contingent. Pro-regime forces have been able to tap large reserves of Shia foreign fighters to support their efforts—while the flow of anti-regime Sunni foreign fighters has been reduced to a trickle as the result of tighter border controls and ISIS's battlefield defeats. Moreover, many areas are currently controlled by foreign pro-regime forces, as well as "reconciled" rebel groups and tribes whose loyalty to the regime is conditional. Should these foreign pro-regime forces and fighters need to return to their places of origin, or should reconciled rebel groups and tribes switch sides once again, the regime would be hard pressed to hold on to many of the areas it currently controls. Moreover, Lebanese Hezbollah must balance its desire to draw down its presence in Syria and return its fighters to Lebanon with the ongoing need for them to remain in Syria.
A rule of thumb used by military planners states that 20 troops per 1,000 civilians are required for stability operations. This would equate to a force of 200,000-240,000 for the regime to dominate the 10-12 million people now reportedly living in areas it more or less controls. That is considerably more than pro-regime forces currently have at their disposal. But after seven years of war, rebel forces are depleted and exhausted too—and about as divided among themselves as ever. Indeed in most places, they may no longer be capable of sustained resistance.
It is not clear whether the Assad regime can achieve an outright victory; rebel enclaves remain in Idlib and Deraa provinces and in Kurdish-controlled areas in the country's northeast, and some of these areas are protected by foreign powers. Moreover, it is not clear whether the regime's victories will bring about a period of prolonged quiet, as occurred after the scorched-earth victories scored by Syria in Hama (1982) and Russia in Grozny (1999-2000), or whether it will resemble Iraq's unconsummated victory over al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) from 2007-11, which paved the way for its return as ISIS in 2013-14 in response to heavy-handed regime policies.
The outcome in Syria, as elsewhere, will depend in part on the degree to which the Syrian people are exhausted and accept defeat, and on the effectiveness of the regime's internal security apparatus. Even in areas controlled by the regime, its "victory" may be incomplete; while some areas may be quiescent, others may remain troublesome. Moreover, the Turkish government's use of elements of the anti-regime Free Syrian Army in its fight against the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in northwest Syria ensures the survival of at least part of the anti-Assad opposition.
The potential for conflict is further increased by the newfound confidence of the Assad regime and its Hezbollah and Iranian allies. Syria is likely to once again use chemical weapons, perhaps prompting new U.S. strikes to enforce its red line. And just as the defeat of the Soviets by the Afghan mujaheddin spawned a generation of Sunni jihadis in search of additional victories, the victories of the Shia jihadists of the "Axis of Resistance" in Lebanon (2000), Iraq (2011), and Syria (2015-present) may lead Hezbollah and Iran—intent on transforming Syria into a platform for projecting power in the Levant, and for continuing the struggle against Israel—to overreach in their interactions with Israel or the United States. Finally, in a part of the world that is 75 percent Sunni Arab, it is hard to believe that this expanded Iranian role will be accepted forever; rather, it is a formula for enduring instability.
Believing that the worst of Syria's civil war is behind them, tensions and divisions within the regime could also come to the fore. The civil war has created new regime security counter-elites in the Tiger Force, the National Defense Forces, and the Local Defense Forces, and commanders in these organizations may demand a greater share of the spoils of war and of governing what is left of Syria. The ever-present potential for internecine violence among the regime's thuggish security elite could intensify—especially if Assad and Iran drag Syria into a ruinous war with Israel that results in heavy losses to pro-regime forces.
Syria's security elite has closed ranks and generally avoided self-destructive violence throughout the civil war, though this group has always been riven by personal, family, tribal, and regional tensions and rivalries. Perhaps the most relevant precedent was the crisis that followed Syria's previous civil war, which occurred after former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad suffered a heart attack in late 1983. Fearing a coup by the President's younger brother Rifaat, who commanded the regime's premier praetorian unit—which had played a central role in suppressing the 1976-82 insurrection—key army officers ordered their units to occupy blocking positions in and around Damascus to thwart a power grab. The resulting military standoff was defused only when the elder Assad recovered, leading to Rifaat's exile and the disbanding of the military units and militias under his command.
Overstretched pro-regime forces reliant on exposed lines of communication that run through majority-Sunni regions are vulnerable to a covert, cost-imposing strategy using guerilla proxies to prevent the Assad regime from consolidating its gains. And now that Tehran's entanglement in Syria has become a political issue in Iran, it is a source of Iranian regime vulnerability—especially if the costs of its intervention were to rise, and if a deteriorating economic situation back home were to force Tehran to cut back on the billions of dollars in annual economic aid that helps keep the Assad regime afloat.
Such a strategy might also tie down pro-regime forces in Syria, limiting their ability to threaten areas that remain outside of regime control, to produce new destabilizing mass refugee flows, and to make trouble elsewhere in the region.'