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Paul Iddon

Russia's Syria campaign after Aleppo's capture

Russian airstrikes were crucial to the Syrian regime's battle for Aleppo [Anadp

Date of publication: 20 December, 2016

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Following the defeat of rebel forces in Aleppo, Russia will be weighing up its options in Syria which will involve ascertaining realistic goals and working with difficult partners.

In the space of less than a week, two major events transpired in Syria: a Russian-backed, Syrian regime offensive succeeded in crushing opposition forces in Aleppo, while the Islamic State group once again captured the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra.

Both of these events are highly significant for Russia, which is entering the fifteenth month of its military intervention in the Syrian conflict.

Russia and Syria analysts outlined for The New Arab the ramifications of these two developments for Moscow's involvement in Syria.

"I think that politically this will largely wipe out the moderate Syrian opposition, leaving the West without a real alternative to Assad, except groups largely approved by Moscow," said Michael Kofman of the Wilson Center's Kennan Institute.

"The battle has consequences as a decisive political and military victory if Syrian and Iranian forces are able to hold on to Aleppo," he added.

Humiliation

Kofman pointed out that Syrian forces are stretched and this "paucity of forces" resulted in Palmyra being left "largely undefended", enabling IS to once again seize it and humiliate both Moscow and Damascus.

"This was Russia's frustration all along with the Syrian desire to fight for territory when they lacked the manpower or organisation to retain it." 

"Moving forward Moscow will hope that Syria and Iran will now agree to a political process that locks in their gains, and shift priorities to dealing with the Islamic State group," Kofman added.

"However, they will undoubtedly also attempt to mop up Syrian opposition and further solidify control of interior lines."

Neil Hauer, a senior Middle East analyst with SecDev and specialist in Russian-Syrian relations, described the fall of Palmyra over the weekend as "deeply embarrassing for Russia and something it can't leave unchecked".

"The capture of Palmyra in March was widely portrayed by Russia as its crowning moment in the Syrian conflict, capped by a grandiose 'victory over terrorism' concert in the Roman ruins for a wide array of journalists," he explained.

"It featured the most intensive involvement of Russian ground advisers, reconnaissance and PMCs [private military companies] of the war, and was timed to coincide with the March withdrawal announcement."

Read also: Palmyra handed to IS, 'lock, stock and barrel'

Hauer believes that Russia "will have to escalate in response" by sending in "more light infantry and helicopter support in the area, and perhaps even utilising the recently-deployed battalion of Chechen military police to Syria."

Next step

Even though Hauer sees a Russian response to Palmyra's fall necessary for Russia and Damascus to save face, he believes the recapture of Aleppo will have a "less certain" effect.

"While Russia is happy to have finished the campaign for the city, they're much less enthusiastic on participating in a campaign for Idlib than Iran and Assad are," he said, referring to the north-west Syrian province occupied by the rebel Jaish al-Fatah coalition.

"It remains to be seen how much the latter two can induce Russia to aid in an offensive there," Hauer concluded.

My bet is that Russia will try to bring the opposition into talks through Turkey and force its own conditions on them.
- Timur Akhmetov, researcher


Timur Akhmetov, a researcher who specialises in Turkish-Russian relations, believes the "main emphasis" for Russia after the recapture of Aleppo "will still be on diplomacy".

"But frankly, I don't see any reasons both for Russia and Syria to sit behind the table after Aleppo," he added. "My bet is that Russia will try to bring the opposition into talks through Turkey and force its own conditions on them."

Akhmetov doesn't believe the fall of Palmyra to IS once more being particularly significant.

"Palmyra seems to be a PR move both for Russia - when it captured it back in March - and for IS today, since both offensives play no major role in the military terms. Especially with IS now suffering blows from [Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units] YPG."

IS lost the north-western Syrian city of Manbij to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The Kurdish-led group has since led an offensive to encircle IS' self-declared "capital" Raqqa since November.

Turkey is also backing an army of at least 1,500 Free Syrian Army fighters to capture the city of al-Bab from IS, which sits 50km west of Manbij and around 50km north-east of Aleppo.

Turkey doesn't want the SDF to advance from Manbij onto al-Bab and Damascus doesn't want the Turkish-backed FSA to control al-Bab.

"Turkey's intervention in the north, to cut off the YPG, has thus far been tolerated by Russia," Kofman explained. "But there have already been interactions between them and the Syrian air force", referring to the suspected Syrian bombing of Turkish troops near al-Bab.

"This is a problem that Russia must delicately manage now that Syrian forces may come into closer proximity with those of Turkey with incidents likely to follow."

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