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Mar 15, 2016 | 20:31 GMT

5 mins read

Russia Leaves Syria With Loyalists on the Offensive

(AMER ALMOHIBANY/AFP/Getty Images)

In pursuit of its own critical interests in Syria, Russia has played a key role in stabilizing the military situation there in Damascus' favor. Loyalist forces, also aided by growing support from Iran, have switched from defense to offense since the start of 2016. And though loyalist forces have not been able to defeat the rebels or retake a decisive amount of territory since the Russians intervened, it is clear they have the upper hand.

In August 2015, just before Russia entered the fray, the two biggest threats to the loyalist forces came from Jaish al-Fatah in northwestern Syria and the Islamic State in central Syria. Jaish al-Fatah had soundly defeated loyalist forces in Idlib and taken control of most of the province. At the same time, the Islamic State had seized the ancient city of Palmyra and was encroaching on the vital M5 highway supply line that leads from Damascus to the rest of loyalist-controlled Syria.

What Was Won

Over the past six months, the loyalist position has markedly improved, particularly against the rebels. With the heavy participation of Iraqi and Afghan militias, Iranian and Hezbollah advisers, and Russian air support, loyalist forces have successfully linked their positions north of the city of Aleppo with the Shiite villages of Nubl and Zahra, cutting the rebels of northern Aleppo off from the rest of their territory. Slow but steady government advances in the mountainous areas of northeastern Latakia province have taken considerable ground and reached the borders of rebel-held Idlib. Loyalist forces have also halted the rebel advance southward into Hama province. Even in the south, loyalist forces were able to seize the town of Sheikh Miskin in Daraa, despite heavy casualties in urban fighting. And aside from the town of Morek, loyalists have not lost any major ground to rebel forces since Russia and Iran intervened.

Remarkable gains have also been made against the Islamic State. Loyalist forces successfully advanced northeast from their bases around al-Safira in southern Aleppo toward the air base at Kweiris, where Islamic State fighters had besieged loyalist forces for years. The Russian- and Iranian-backed offensive reached the air base, drove back the militants from the surrounding area and threatened the Islamic State stronghold of al-Bab. The militant group, converging westward toward the M5 highway after capturing Palmyra, was halted by loyalist forces with strong support from Hezbollah and Russia, and government forces began a concerted offensive to retake the city. Finally, with the help of Russian air power, Syria's 104th Republican Brigade has continued to hold out against repeated Islamic State offensives, maintaining control over parts of the crossroads city of Deir el-Zour.

Clearly Russia's involvement in Syria has helped change loyalist fortunes for the better. President Bashar al Assad's government is now on the strategic offensive. In all of the battles mentioned, Russia provided significant air support in terms of strikes, transport and close support with helicopter gunships and attack aircraft to complement advances on the ground. It also provided considerable aid and equipment, including tanks, artillery, night vision systems and communication devices. Russian experts accelerated the training of loyalist forces as well, especially with regard to the newly delivered weaponry, which has immensely assisted loyalists and their militia allies. Furthermore, rebel groups have noted Russia's contribution to the conflict, repeatedly voicing their frustration at the airstrikes, which have reduced their ability to concentrate their forces.

Not the Only Help

Nevertheless, it is important to remember that Russia's contribution has been only part of the greater support loyalist forces have received since September 2015. Iran figures prominently, and likely even more decisively, in that support. The Iranians have transferred their own weapons and equipment to the Syrian government, and plenty of Iranian advisers have died on the front lines. Most importantly, Iran has brought together paramilitary and militia forces — tens of thousands of fighters from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as Hezbollah — that have greatly increased the troops available to the loyalist side during key battles. 

The Russian drawdown in Syria will certainly affect the loyalist forces' overall prowess. Strikes against high-value targets will become more difficult. Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities will be reduced. The rebels will take advantage of their renewed freedom of movement. And loyalists will lose much of their ability to soften up enemy positions before ground assaults. The rebels, especially jihadist factions such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Jund al-Aqsa, will also seek to demonstrate their strength, potentially weakening efforts toward a permanent cease-fire.

However, the Russians have made it clear that they will continue to support the al Assad government with weapons and training, as well as by flying air missions with their remaining aerial component. Moreover, Iran and Hezbollah have given no indication that they will also reduce their forces. As long as the Russian drawdown is the only one on the horizon, the Syrian loyalist forces should be able to maintain their current military advantage.

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