This Is It: The Real Battle For Syria Has Begun

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In the space of about a week, the Syria problem has been put beyond the reach of Obama’s abstract, dithering policies. The media are still pontificating about what Obama could or should be doing, but at this point, that’s all moot. A classic maneuver campaign has been inaugurated by the conventionally armed Russia-Iran-Assad alliance, and that campaign is what will shape the developments to come.

No campaign is ever preordained for success. So we don’t yet know the outcome of this one.  What we do know is that it will be the condition around which all other reactions organize themselves in the Syrian theater.

Securing the urban corridor

The campaign feature the West is generally aware of is the assault on Aleppo, which was launched in earnest on Friday, and is being described by Syrians as the “most intensive” aerial bombardment of the entire Syrian civil war.

But Aleppo is just one of three major efforts to retake territory launched by the Russian alliance in the past week.  The second is in Homs, where locals also describe the most intensive bombardment of the war.

Some outlets are reporting that Homs has effectively been entirely retaken now. Certainly, the Assad regime achieved a key win last weekend by getting some 100-200 rebel fighters and their families to accept safe passage out of the Homs metro. That typically happens when the rebels know they’re losing and see no better option. The rebels are relocating to Idlib Province, which we’ll get to in a minute.

Rebel fighters and their families evacuate from Homs on regime-provided buses, 22 Sep 2016. ((Image: Screen grab of Al Masdar News video)
Rebel fighters and their families evacuate from Homs on regime-provided buses, 18 Sep 2016. (Image: Screen grab of Al Masdar News video)

The Syrian army has also been engaged in pushing ISIS-affiliated fighters back from the Homs-Palmyra road-head.  (See campaign map below.) These fighters have been able to threaten traffic for months by holding a mountain redoubt east of Homs, which overlooks the road. Assad’s forces are pushing them out.  Homs is to be secured.

Factions map of Syria, Sep 2016. (Author annotations added; base map credit: By Ermanarich - Own work, derived from the Template:Syrian Civil War detailed map.This is a retouched picture, which means that it has been digitally altered from its original version. Modifications: Marks for the cities and towns as well as colour on the ground were added to show the situation in the Syrian Civil War.. The original can be viewed here: Syria location map3.svg. Modifications made by Ermanarich.En:Module:Syrian_Civil_War, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50441125)
Factions map of Syria, Sep 2016. (Author annotations added; base map credit: By Ermanarich.En:Module:Syrian_Civil_War, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50441125)

The factional map of Syria makes clear why Aleppo and Homs are so important. They flank the main rebel-held region of Idlib Province.  Controlling both cities is the key to executing a kesselschlachtmaneuver – surround and annihilate – on the Idlib hinterland.  (Kesselschlacht, or “cauldron battle,” is a perennial maneuver in Western warfare, taking its name from the frequent use of it by Prussian strategists Frederick the Great in the 18th century and Helmut von Moltke the Elder in the 19th.)

The Russian alliance already holds Latakia Province, cutting the rebels off firmly from the sea. If it holds Aleppo and Homs, it can prevent the rebels from outmaneuvering its forces east of Idlib. Rolling up the province will make it just a matter of time until the city of Idlib itself falls to the alliance.

(Google map; author annotation)
(Google map; author annotation)

Quneitra and the frontier with Israel

The third major effort is south of Damascus, in Quneitra and Daraa Provinces. (See Assad’sannouncement of intent, and additional commentary here.)

Quneitra abuts the erstwhile neutral zone in the Golan Heights. As the factions map indicates, much of Quneitra and Daraa is held by rebels at the moment. ISIS has a small but tactically significant presence.

That creates a two-fold vulnerability for the regime. It leaves a soft back door to Damascus, something that can’t be allowed in a fight to secure the entire western corridor. And it leaves an area where ISIS and its affiliates could draw Israel into the Syrian fight on their terms, rather than leaving control of the interface with Israel in the Russian alliance’s hands.

Battle space for the fight southwest of Damascus adjacent to the Golan Heights. This fight will be part of the campaign to secure the western urban corridor. (Author annotations added; enlarged and cropped detail of original map here: By Ermanarich - Own work, derived from the Template:Syrian Civil War detailed map.This is a retouched picture, which means that it has been digitally altered from its original version. Modifications: Marks for the cities and towns as well as colour on the ground were added to show the situation in the Syrian Civil War.. The original can be viewed here: Syria location map3.svg. Modifications made by Ermanarich.En:Module:Syrian_Civil_War, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50441125)
Battle space for the fight southwest of Damascus adjacent to the Golan Heights. This fight will be part of the campaign to secure the western urban corridor. (Author annotations added; enlarged and cropped detail of original map here: By Ermanarich.En:Module:Syrian_Civil_War, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50441125)

On a medium-term horizon, I foresee Iran and Syria wanting to build up a capability in the Golan to keep Israel out of Syria, and menace Israel on a timetable of their choosing. It isn’t yet time for them to be making the last-minute preparations for an invasion. They’ll have in mind dominance moves first, to shape the battle space; then invasion.  And they won’t want to stir the hornet’s nest too soon.  But they do want to shorten the timeline for such preparations – very significantly.

This will put Russia in the catbird seat Putin wants to occupy in all his dealings with the Middle East. Russia will be the broker for both sides, the great power Israel has to appeal to for holding Iran and Syria in check.

Overall, meanwhile, the map tells the tale: the campaign that has just started, with the end of the ceasefire, is a campaign to secure the western urban corridor of Syria, from Aleppo down to Quneitra. The areas requiring the major effort to be rendered rebel-free are Aleppo, Idlib, and Quneitra/Daraa.

Theater context

The Russian alliance will of course get to eastern Syria as well. The alliance isn’t making big announcements about its political intentions, in part because they would be unacceptable to Turkey and the U.S.-led coalition.  (This, in turn, is in part because any moves eastward will inevitably implicate the fight for Mosul. It’s not yet time to lay cards on the table in that regard.)

But the allies’ circumspection is also in part because they don’t want to have to fight the Kurds, if they can avoid it. They’re not going to make declarations that just polarize relations with the Kurds. They’ll want to be in contact with them, with the channel open to cooperation and the potential for political arrangements.

A few additional points. One, the alliance has been preparing for this for weeks now. Iranian involvement should not be doubted: alert readers will remember that a senior Iranian general was in Quneitra in July doing a military survey.  Hezbollah has also been consolidating a presence in Quneitra (see here as well). As in the battle for Qusayr, on the border with northern Lebanon, Iran and Assad will rely extensively on Hezbollah for the operation south of Damascus.

Qods force commander Qassem Soleimani was in Aleppo three weeks ago, according to local reporting picked up on by Long War Journal. He reportedly visited with the Iranian-sponsoredinternational units of the Qods force, which include fighters from Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

But we can be sure he was in Syria mainly to coordinate with Russian and Syrian military planners. (He’s now reported to be concentrating on the fight for Mosul in Iraq.)

Soleimani encourages foreign fighter troops of the Qods Expeditionary force in Aleppo, reportedly on a date between Feb and May 2016. He was later in Aleppo in early Sep 2016, about 2 weeks before the Russia-Iran-Assad campaign for the western urban corridor was launched. (Image via Ahlul Bayt News Agency (ABNA))
Soleimani encourages foreign fighter troops of the Qods Expeditionary force in Aleppo, reportedly on a date between Feb and May 2016. He was later in Aleppo in early Sep 2016, about 2 weeks before the Russia-Iran-Assad campaign for the western urban corridor was launched. (Image via Ahlul Bayt News Agency (ABNA))

Soleimani has shown a history of fighting for maneuver corridors by investing the urban enclaves that dominate them. Securing the western urban corridor in Syria looks, in concept, much like his corridor-focused campaigns in Iraq (see here, here, here, and here).  Soleimani’s hand is easy to see in this newly inaugurated Syrian campaign. Its audacity, and its concurrent rather than serial approach to securing the urban enclaves, takes advantage of the dominating assets Russia brings to the fight.

When Turkey crossed the border with military forces at the end of August, moreover, the Assad regime quickly ramped up operations to push back rebels from the suburbs of Damascus. Turkey’s move signaled an end to the old conditions. Once Turkey was in the fight, it could no longer be “about” Obama’s a-geographic abstractions.  It was time to move.

Southwest of Damascus, a very important local effort went entirely unnoticed in the West: the clearing of Daraya, which was abruptly completed in the final week of August, after a lackadaisical months-long siege. (The Russian alliance knew beforehand that Turkey would cross the border; that was clear at the time it happened. Russia couldn’t control what Turkey did or when she did it, but the advisory coordination was obvious after Erdogan’s visit to Moscow resulted in the 24 August border crossing.)

Clearing Daraya out gives the regime a dominant military position all the way to Quneitra, from the commanding height of Mount Qasioun and the western side of Damascus. (The implications for Israel’s posture in the Golan are obviously significant, with these activities.)

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