The Aleppo Offensive by the Bashar al-Assad government has finally revealed its latest strategy to win Syria back for the brutal, minority regime. While the US and Russia work reinstitute ceasefires on the local level, which excludes Aleppo, the Assad regime and Russia justify their assault on Aleppo, because militant have been active in the area. As the whole territory of Syria is a divided battleground and insurgents can only be expected to shift their limited resources to secure their territory against changing threats, the objective is a lightly veiled effort to besiege rebel-held territory while maintaining a ceasefire across the rest of Syria.
In order for the Assad-Putin strategy to be successful, the so-called cession of hostilities must hold elsewhere across Syria, so additional forces can be diverted to Aleppo. In addition, insurgent must remain distracted by the war on the Islamic State and Al Nursa. The goal will be to break rebel lines at Aleppo then recapture part of Syria over time. Meanwhile, Russia has already been busy discouraging the US and its allies amid re-escalating tensions between NATO and Russia, thus trying to force the West to choose between supporting the defense of the Syrian People and risking a war with Russia.
That said, the US and its allies across the world cannot afford to capitulate on any of the issues in play. Where the US military delivered a less-than-satisfactory report on a chain of errors that resulted in the 2015 US bombing of a Doctors without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, the Putin and Assad governments appear to be have been using the incident to justice a strategy of “accidental bombings” across Syria since September, 2015. Although the Middle Eastern governments have never embraced the ideals of human rights when addressing security threats, Russia’s willingness to embrace war crimes to achieve its goals demonstrates the world faces a return to the dark ages of total war that dominated the pre-Geneva Convention West.
On the other hand, the Obama Administration cannot allow itself to be pulled into another unwinnable war. The United States does have interests in Iraq and Syria, specially ensuring the Islamic State does not become a far more serious threat to the US. It is, however, important to remember the Islamic State is a far more pressing concern for those in Middle East and Africa, as well as Europe and Asia. The unfortunate reality is that terrorist groups like the Islamic State will continue to arise in the Middle East as long as the underlying issues behind destabilizing civil unrest and terrorism exist.
Quite frankly, countering Russian influence is the worst possible reason to escalate US intervention in Syria and Iraq. If Russia and Iran do manage to avoid alienating major groups within Syria and Iraq any further than they already have, they may end up enjoying increased influence in those territories. The US has, however, learned from the Middle East that such costly influence easily evaporates while the modern world is one where countries are free to form multilateral relations with revivals of their closest allies. In other words, Russia is unlikely to secure Middle Eastern influence over the US in the Middle East by protecting Assad.
In regards to the role of world powers like the US, air support can give ground forces the edge needed to defeat insurgents. Strategic missions to free hostages, gather intelligence, and eliminate leadership can reduce the effectiveness of a terrorist group. Providing nonlethal aid and reluctantly supplying well-controlled arms is a way of ensuring a solid anti-insurgent campaign has what it needs to be successful. Given Russian aggression against Europe, which was made apparent due to the Ukraine Crisis and the South China Sea Crisis with China, this is the level of commitment the International Community can afford to offer Syrian forces.
Furthermore, Syria could easily become Russia’s second Afghanistan. Not only is this a very compelling reason why the US should avoid escalation in the region, it also gives the West and the Middle East leverage to discourage continued Russian intervention. Facing economic collapses and overextending its military in the wake of the Ukraine Crisis, Russia’s intervention in the Syrian Civil War has to be short-lived. Unlike the US entering Iraq, Russia is entering a mature conflict by choice in a weakened state. The scenario is even worse than the one faced when the US decided to enter the Vietnam War.
The reason United States had so much difficulty in Iraq and Vietnam is that America was fighting a ground war against insurgents. The US stayed and allowed itself to be bogged down, because it was trying to nation build, which requires defending a territory. Although it is highly unlikely that Russia plans to nation build, it is likely that Russia will attempt to avoid a ground war by engaging in a campaign of airstrikes. Unfortunately for Russia and the Assad regime, the goal of US-led airstrikes is to provide air support for ground forces actually fighting the Islamic State, i.e. airstrikes alone cannot defeat insurgents.
While Russia’s campaign will be far more intense, Assad has already demonstrated the shortcomings of airstrikes. Russian airstrikes will not be able more successful that US airstrikes. Consequently, Russia will be forced to either engage in a ground campaign or eventually allow the Assad regime to be overrun. What appears likely is that Russia will initially rely on Iran and Hezbollah for added ground forces. It is, however, important to recognize the Islamic State has tens of thousands of fighters in Syria and Iraq, while anti-insurgent campaigns require, at least, ten times the number of troops to suppress, establish, and maintain security.
Russia is unlikely to muster anywhere near the magnitude of ground forces needed to suppress the insurgents, especially since Russia will have to fight pro-Western forces to defend the Assad regime. The truth is that Russia cannot defend the Assad regime. If they try to do so by indiscriminately bombing the general population as Assad has done and attack pro-Western forces, Putin and his military leadership will turn themselves into proven war criminal, thus making it impossible for Russia to resolve its grievances with the West under the current leadership.
With that in mind, the Assad regime needs the rebels to secure territory against IS, but it also needs IS to prevent moderate rebels from solidifying their control over Syrian territory. Because holding territory undermines the reach of insurgents makes them an easier target for airstrikes, all insurgent groups would be best served if they abandoned control over territory to employ guerilla warfare. Recognizing the inherent weakness of the rebel factions and the reluctance of Western-backed coalitions to cause collateral damage, the Islamic State and others would be wise to return to their original war against Assad in the territory his regime controls.
Unfortunately, the Assad regime, as well as Russia, appears to believe the West can be forced to accept the Assad regime over terrorists. The collapse of moderate rebels would leave few alternatives, but this will simply give the US an excuse to refocus its attention elsewhere and deal with IS in other ways while Saudi-led nations will continue to sabotage the Assad regime, even if that means supporting extremists. As the Islamic State is a more imminent threat to Russia and Europe, Europeans may be more likely to accept Assad, but they will not support Assad the war criminal. By eliminating moderate alternatives, Russia will have no choice but to secure the weak, unpopular Assad regime.
Russian national security interests are at stake in Syria while it has an interest in using the situation to spread its influence into the Middle East via Syria and Iran. It also has a far greater interest in using the situation in Syria to reestablish relations with the West in the wake of the Ukraine Crisis. The Putin government may successfully use the Syrian Civil War to help restart NATO-Russian relations, but the elimination of moderate alternatives in Syria will hurt Russia’s primary national security interests. Vladimir Putin may know how to use the Syrian Civil War to disarm European resistance to Russian dominance, but Bashar al-Assad knows how to use terrorists to entangle Russia.
It will also make it impossible for Russia, the Assad regime, and Iran to cooperate with other Middle Eastern powers. In addition, Putin will bankrupt Russia. For Iran, this scenario will undermine the benefits of the Iranian Nuclear Deal. At best, Iran can hope to see the release of billions in Iranian oil money before the Iranian Nuclear Deal collapses, which may well be the reason Russia is willing and able to provide military assistance to Iran and Syria. Even if Putin and Assad are willing to accept the consequences, their efforts will only lead to a protracted era of violence, not victory.
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