Small Wars Journal

Russia, the United States, and the Syrian End-State

Sat, 10/08/2016 - 9:49pm

Russia, the United States, and the Syrian End-State

Gabriel White

Amid the backdrop of renewed fighting and yet another crumbling ceasefire agreement, Russia, has once again embarked on a concerted effort to fracture the Syrian armed opposition. In a direct challenge to the United States, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov recently accused the U.S. of protecting the Syrian al Qaeda affiliate, and internationally recognized terror group Jabhat al-Nusra, which rebranded in July as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. While the factual basis of Lavrov’s remarks is steeped in absurdity, the accusations perfectly illustrate Russia’s divide et impera strategy. Russia remains committed to severing U.S. ties to the armed opposition, propagating trends of extremist homogenization, and fundamentally recharacterizing the war in northwestern Syria.

A year has passed since Russia’s entry into the Syrian Civil War. It is evident that no side is capable of achieving outright military victory, yet Russia’s sustained air campaign has inflicted a heavy blow to Syria’s beleaguered opposition. To date, Russia has succeeded in both: securing the survival of Bashar al Assad’s statelet and in part, fulfilling the myth of the regime's characterization of the opposition as a terrorist entity. These objectives have come at the price of heavy casualties, accomplished through brute force and an indiscriminate bombing campaign. As such, Russia’s involvement has catalyzed the opposition’s integration and cooperation with Islamist extremist factions. In turn perpetuating the myth that the regime's war is a war on terror.

Of course, the trend of moderate integration into extremist elements existed prior to Russia's entry into the war.  The near collapse and subsequent irrelevance of the Free Syrian Army as the leading opposition faction was the unfortunate consequence of a cocktail of foreign backing (or lack thereof), toxic ideology, and circumstance. In its place, a plethora of well-armed and equipped extremist factions emerged, securing some of the opposition’s most notable victories, including the storming of Idlib (2015) and championing the continued defense of Aleppo.  

Exploiting this reality, Russia began to lay the foundation of its incrementalist divide et Impera strategy during the February 2016 Munich Cessation of Hostilities agreement (CoH). The agreement, as drafted, presented the moderate opposition, and even some extremist factions, with the illusion of choice.  These groups were forced to disavow a mostly trusted long-term partner (Jabhat al-Nusra) or face the possibility of becoming ‘legitimate’ targets of airstrikes.  Despite limited success featured in Jabhat al-Nusra’s modest reorganization of forces, the ultimatum failed to yield the sought after American outcome--extremist isolation. The failed partitioning within the Syrian opposition demonstrated that the Jabhat al-Nusra challenge had already metastasized.

The failure of the February CoH agreement not only legitimized Russian and Syrian sorties over opposition held territories, but also raised questions over the boundaries of legitimate targets under the Jabhat al-Nusra affiliated umbrella.  Most importantly, however, the agreement presented Russia an opportunity to broaden the base of ‘blacklisted’ groups within the armed opposition. This outcome expanded the number of legitimate targets and permanently alienated key opposition groups from participation in any potential peace agreement.

In late April, Russia submitted a request to the United Nations Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Committee to issue terrorist designations to Syrian Salafi opposition members: Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham, Salafi groups that occupy linchpin positions within the armed opposition. Russia’s motivations to designate these groups  are clear— undermine key opposition efforts in Eastern Ghouta and Aleppo while simultaneously coaxing rebel forces to continue their combat operations. This outcome strains and limits whatever influence the U.S. holds within the opposition, while negating what  the Cessation of Hostilities agreement in its entirety

To further illustrate Russia’s disingenuity with the peace process, at the time these requests were issued, the Syrian High Negotiating Committee was chaired by Jaysh al-Islam leader Mohammad Alloush. Such a move, even if it was bound to be rejected demonstrates Russia’s ultimate aims in changing the course of the war, not in terms of who can achieve a military victory, but rather who the international community will be left to work with.

Real doubt persists as to whether Russia ever had any real intention of adhering to the second Cessation of Hostilities negotiated in September 2016. Neither Russia nor the Syrian regime has demonstrated any interest in yielding back momentum on the battlefield. Building off the success of the recent re-encirclement of eastern Aleppo, Russian and Syria forces continue their bombing campaign, while using negotiations to buy time for further advancement.

Russia has in large part succeeded in its objectives — extremist factions are entrenched within the opposition, the United States opposition strategy is in tatters, and whatever window remains for meaningful U.S. action is closing. 

So long as the United States fails to support what remains of moderate partners on the ground, policy makers will be forced to operate within the reality of a predominantly extremist opposition.  Inaction will perpetuate humanitarian disaster and violence that has now raged for five years. Should Aleppo fall, the subsequent options for a military solution will require significantly higher levels of risk and a political solution will rely on terms dictated by Moscow and Tehran. Neither situation is desirable.

Categories: Syria - Russia


Outlaw 09

Wed, 10/12/2016 - 1:27am

Moscow’s political posturing is underpinned by military bluffing… It's essential to call this bluff”
Pavel Baev:

This is an interesting article in that all of the Russian military comments on their doctrinally developed non linear warfare indicate that if there was a major war and it went nuclear Russia could never win against NATO/US...that is the core reasoning behind the Russian non linear win while remaining just under the radar level of full scale war.....

Outlaw 09

Wed, 10/12/2016 - 12:51am

Truth of the day.
"The world has never ceased to be dangerous, but the West has ceased to be vigilant."
(Margaret Thatcher)

Outlaw 09

Tue, 10/11/2016 - 12:27pm

Here is a major problem with the article....THE refers to the US, Russia and Syria BUT nowhere does it mention Iran....a KEY player inside Syria especially with the Khomeini "Green Crescent" and his "Revolutionary Islam ideology".....

Kyle W. Orton ‏@KyleWOrton
Startling: not a single mention of #Iran as even a factor in the Obama administration letting #Syria drown in blood.

What’s Really At Stake in the Syria Debate
Marc Lynch

The collapse of U.S.-Russian diplomacy and the escalating atrocities in Aleppo have once again opened the floodgates for ideas on how to intervene in Syria. These ideas are all familiar: typically some combination of no-fly zones, air strikes, and arming the opposition. The goals range from civilian protection, to evening the balance of power to facilitate diplomacy, to toppling the Assad regime by force. It may seem odd that these proposals have changed so little over the years despite having failed to persuade previously and despite the dramatic evolution of the Syrian conflict.
This is confusing only if evaluated from the starting point that the purpose of these ideas is primarily to end the Syrian war or to reduce human suffering.# For the most part, it is not.

The air of surreality and endless repetition around much of the Syria debate emanates from the mismatch between stated and actual goals. In fact, both advocates and critics of these interventionist ideas generally understand that the limited measures being proposed have virtually no chance of changing the strategic trajectory of the war. #The real argument is not over saving lives or even about removing the Assad regime, as laudable as such goals might be.# It is over the extent to which the United States should be involved in the war, regardless of whether or how the war ends

While some surely believe that intervention would reduce the immediate killing or force the Assad regime to engage in more serious negotiations, this is a far cry from ending the war. Limited intervention will run aground of the war’s basic strategic structure.


HOW AND WHY has the Obama/Rhodes/Kerry WH been so adamant in giving Iran a "pass" in Syria???????

Outlaw 09

Tue, 10/11/2016 - 12:16pm

Charles Lister ‏@Charles_Lister

Amazing that some insist *so strongly* that US assertiveness will *definitely* see #Russia counter-escalate to “nuclear war.”

Why so sure?!

Such people entirely ignore the long-term threat/cost consequences of allowing #Syria events to continue along their current trajectory

To respond by saying “but you don’t understand” is just childish.

Worse still, these people *never* offer any alternatives.

If these people *seriously* think (a) an #Assad victory in #Syria will bring stability or (b) diplomacy alone will work... think again

Outlaw 09

Tue, 10/11/2016 - 5:22am

Something for the Obama/Rhodes/Kerry WH to kill the next two months with....

"Risk" strategy#board game now in "#Syria Edition" available.
Drone footage from @ishmael12345611 showed scale of destruction in E #Aleppo's al-Muyassar neighborhood last week:

Outlaw 09

Tue, 10/11/2016 - 4:29am

Taken from the Syrian thread

SOHR claim hundreds of MANPAD, ATGM & Grad rockets arrived to rebels in #Syria

Previously reported by Charles Lister here but not confirmed.

CrowBat.....had previously also indicated Qatar, Turkey and KSA were hauling weapons like crazy and that was days before Charles commented...
Charles Lister.....

Does not surprise him about the denials....even when they have arrived they have never been openly displayed....

IMHO...personally they are there in the number being quoted the number was to specific when commented on.....QUESTION is what type and effective ranges.....

ANOTHER QUESTION would be has and or is the Obama WH fully aware that MANPADS are going in as this is a solid indicator the GCC (especially though Qatar, Turkey, KSA) have written Obama off...

Response from CrowBat....

One of particularly absurd and obscene facts about this war is that since late July, up to a dozen of convoys carrying supplies for insurgents and jihadists are underway along different roads of Idlib, and Western Aleppo, every single day.

Not one of these has been intercepted and bombed so far.

Which points in direction of Russian commanders in Syria being a gang of particularly cynical and incompetent thugs. They're tracking single Syrian civil Defense vehicles with UAVs and targeting these, but can't find entire convoys carrying arms...

Outlaw 09

Tue, 10/11/2016 - 1:28am

Notice no such information ever comes out of the Obama/Rhodes/Kerry WH.....

Charles Lister
Intriguing hearing some say #Syria’s mainstream opposition is divided, when they’ve *united* cross-province against an accused #ISIS front.

That anti-jihadi offensive also saw other oppo'stn groups re-deploy from multiple provinces, across an international border to join in.

At the same time, 30+ opposition groups are planning a SW #Aleppo counter-offensive *and* just launched a new offensive in #Latakia.

Moreover, external weapons supplies facilitated mainly by #Turkey have contributed to these ops in #Aleppo, #Idlib, #Hama & #Latakia.

Note Turkey has been receiving this military aid via Qatar and they are fully focused on the border area with YPG/IS in their sights.....

Outlaw 09

Mon, 10/10/2016 - 2:52pm

The area, #ISIS lost over the past 48 hours is HUGE.
#US, #Turkey and #FSA working together for the future of #Syria.

Video also includes #US SPECIAL FORCES chatter, determining targets for the A-10 !!
25 km from #Assad-held land but only vs #ISIS of course.

This is a A-10 Thunderbolt in action near #Sawran !!

Extremely interesting, they are embedded with the #FSA now on a regular basis.
Also explains why #ISIS collapses so quickly in the area.

Outlaw 09

Mon, 10/10/2016 - 11:00am

Article from a Russian fascist neo nationalist ideologue who has the ear of Putin and his circle....

Alexandr Dugin @A_G_Dugin
Orchestrated Ukraine Coup to Re-Start Cold War and Prevent Russia from Leading Global Revolt Against LGBT Agenda


Thu, 10/13/2016 - 5:47pm

In reply to by cammo99

Cammo99 you refer to 'When American fighters bombed a hospital in Afghanistan run by a radical group that was placed in a forward area near a Taliban Command and Control facility...'

That is simply wrong. You are clearly referring to the USAF firing on a MSF hospital @ Kunduz, on the 3rd October 2015. The MSF hospital was established long before the Taliban sized the city a few days before, so if a Taliban command and control facility was nearby they placed themselves near the hospital. MSF maybe radical to some, I happen to disagree.

Outlaw 09

Mon, 10/10/2016 - 10:53am

In reply to by cammo99

Obama has also not realized eastern Ukraine and Syria are explicitly intertwined......OR has he not been reading all the SWJ related Russian non linear warfare articles??????

"The Ballad of Infantry" dedicated to the warfighters of Ukraine who protect their country from Russia

In a related story today (10/10/16) one blogger who identified himself as a "truther activist" Claimed Bush was behind 9-11 and deposing Gaddafi in Libya. He has not explained how two different Presidents with nearly diametrically opposed positions when in office can be hung only on Bush.
Are these activists, conspiracy nuts, that irrational?
But how does one explain Obama's ME tautology? And why doesn't he have to justify it let alone explain it?
Obama made the mistake of drawing lines in the sand he most probably never intended to enforce.
When American fighters bombed a hospital in Afghanistan run by a radical group that was placed in a forward area near a Taliban Command and Control facility a course of punitive action was explored by the administration. Russian and Iranian fighter bombers have struck numerous hospitals without any concerted censure form the international community; Let alone Obama who seems to save his angst for actions taken by the US military.
Is there a design in Obama - Kerry policy?
They might take some credit for compelling Assad to reduce his WMD arsenal, but given the millions of DPs and tens of thousands of killings and the near genocide of non-Muslim communities in the region, it is at best a pyrrhic victory.
Obama - Clinton- Kerry are more likely to be remembered for what they did not do, for their inability to be the leader and have been reduced to waiting to learn what Russia and Iran will do next and how they will respond, having been totally undermined by forces unashamed to use force and exploit a spirit of Islamist colonial imperialism to secure the future by any means necessary.
The only question historians must answer is Obama's policy rationally explicable given his actions to make it bear fruit? Or did Obama have another unstated agenda an agenda that compliments his perceived gigantic fail? Or was he really that impotent and incompetent?