Brian M Downing
The war in Syria seemed to settle after Damascus’s troops retook Aleppo early this year. Backed by Russian air power, government forces overwhelmed the determined but overmatched rebels and fighting declined. Meaningful negotiations did not follow.
The war is now shifting to the east where the American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are fighting for Raqqa and poised to look south to acquire territory in the eastern part of the country. The SDF drive will threaten land routes between Damascus and Tehran and weaken the Syrian Rump and Hisbollah. Iran and Syria will ask President Putin for help, especially in reinforcing the Syrian garrison at Deir ez-Zor. The town is presently fighting ISIL and preparing for an SDF attack.
Putin may well see the importance of supporting his Iranian and Syrian allies, and countering the American move as well. He is after all engaged in maximizing Russian power at the expense of America’s. Putin may be cautioned by the gelling strategic situation.
After years of fighting, the Syrian army is badly weakened. As with the Afghan and Iraqi armies in their wars, the burden of combat has been assumed by special forces and a handful of regular army units. The rest of the army patrols roads and holds down towns but is of little use in offensive operations against the seasoned troops of ISIL, al Nusrah, and the SDF. And of course the bulk of the army is Sunni and hence unreliable in the sectarian war.
Tehran deployed two thousand IRGC troops in 2015. Thought by many to be excellent fighters, perhaps the best in the region, the IRGC performance has been unimpressive. They took high casualties but gained relatively little ground.
Hisbollah was instrumental in reversing the Assad government’s fortunes but they too have taken high casualties and may be reluctant to deploy to the east, far from Lebanon. Syrian militias also might be disinclined to fight far from home villages in the west.
Though the distance from Damascus to the eastern expanses is not immense, ranging from 150 to 500 miles, it nonetheless presents formidable logistical troubles. Much of the area has a Sunni population which could at least sporadically interdict convoys. Russia has airlifted several hundred relief forces into Deir ez-Zor but does not have the aircraft needed to sustain a sizable campaign there, though of course planes could be flown in from the Crimea and Iran.
Rebel forces and their backers
SDF troops in the east have seen combat but are not as worn down as government counterparts. They could, however, take serious casualties in the Raqqa campaign, much as Iraqi forces have at Mosul. Kurdish troops will be reluctant to fight far to the south as this will make their homelands vulnerable to Turkish incursions. Such attacks of course will be encouraged by Syria and Russia in order to ease pressure on their forces in the east, and they are underway in western Kurdish areas.
Saudi, Israeli, and American backers are determined to deny eastern Syria to Damascus and Tehran and can strengthen the SDF with arms and money. The new Triple Entente may also reinforce the SDF with levies from the Sunni tribal confederation that straddles the Iraq-Syria border and loathes Shia rule. Jordan and Egypt, secondary partners in the Entente, could deploy troops on short notice.
Israel has intervened intermittently in the war for several years, chiefly by bombing Hisbollah assets and encouraging the Druze east of Golan to break from Damascus and become a protectorate. IDF aircraft could interdict convoys to the east and its ground forces could drive into Syria. An armored brigade heading toward Damascus, only 35 miles from Israeli border positions, would require immediate reallocation of pro-government forces. Skirmishes along the contested border have increased in recent days.
The American logistical command in the Gulf has demonstrated on more than one occasion its capacity to deploy and supply hundreds of thousands of troops. Logistics might be the US military’s strongest suit. Supplying the SDF from Kuwait, the Emirates, and other facilities in the region will be comparatively easy. Russia, Iran, and Syria cannot patch together anything comparable.
The correlation of forces does not favor the pro-government side. At best it could engage in a costly, protracted struggle with wealthier opponents. The generals and mullahs in Tehran may be willing to engage in it, Damascus will plead for it, but Putin and his generals might not be obliging.
Putin has already demonstrated commitment to his ally, built an airbase at Latakia, and beefed up a naval base at Tartus – considerable achievements for a country in collapse not long ago. Eastern Syria is of little strategic value and a long campaign there will damage longer-term interests. It would reduce the likelihood of gaining influence with the Sunni powers, selling them arms, and perhaps one day acquiring bases inside the Gulf. Putin does not want to be stuck on the smaller, less affluent Shia side of the region.
The longer the war, the more the Sunnis will see Russia as an entrenched enemy allied with menacing apostates. Eastern Syria isn’t worth it. Moscow may have already signaled this when shortly after Assad proclaimed his determination to retake all Syria, Putin withdrew dozens of his aircraft.
There is of course no guarantee that Russian strategists see the Syrian situation as it’s outlined here or in Langley or anywhere. Assuming an opponent sees a situation just as you do is a classic mistake in strategic thinking. The US did that just before the 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam. Israel didn’t think Egypt would attack in 1973, then it endured its most costly war.
Copyright 2017 Brian M Downing
Brian M Downing is a national security analyst who has written for outlets across the political spectrum. He studied at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and did post-graduate work at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs. Thanks to Susan Ganosellis.