by Genevieve Casagrande, Christopher Kozak, and Jennifer Cafarella
The expanded interventions of Russia and Iran into the Syrian Civil War have shifted the trajectory of the con ict in favor of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, granting him the strongest position on the battle eld as of February 24, 2016. Regime forces bolstered by Iranian ground troops and Russian air support have achieved major gains against both the Syrian armed opposition and ISIS in Northern Syria since September 2015, marking a fundamental shift in battle eld momentum following a compounding series of regime losses in the rest half of 2015.
President Assad now sits within reach of several of his military objectives, including the encirclement and isolation of Aleppo City and the establishment of a secure defensive perimeter along the Syrian Coast.
The regime and its allies will likely retain their battlefield gains if there is no intervention by the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, or the UAE. Russian campaign designers have clearly planned the ongoing operations in northern Syria, introducing to the Syrian battlefield signature Russian doctrinal concepts such as frontal aviation, cauldron battles, and multiple simultaneous and successive operations. These have made the joint Syrian-Russian-Iranian military operations more e ective for a longer duration than previous operations. The extensive operations conducted by the regime and its allies may nevertheless culminate over the 90-day timeframe, as pro-regime forces attempt to advance deeper into core opposition-held terrain and take high casualties.
Regular reinforcement of ground capabilities by Iran and Russia will therefore remain necessary over the next three months in order to maintain this level of momentum in the face of continued manpower shortages, attrition, and opposition military actions designed to slow and divert the campaign.
Although an uncontrolled collapse of the Syrian regime seemed feasible in June 2015, Russia’s intervention into the Syrian Civil War has ultimately reset the military balance in Syria. ISW published its last forecast in September 2015 based upon six fundamental assumptions, one of which did not hold for the entirety of the forecasting period. The forecast assumed that Russia would maintain a defensive posture in Syria in order to prevent regime collapse rather than prioritize o ensive operations. This assumption remained true in the rst few weeks after the start of the Russian air campaign on September 30, 2015.
Russia later shifted its air campaign in mid- October 2015 in order to provide direct support to joint Iranian-Syrian countero ensives on the ground. The aggressive operations undertaken by Russia and Iran in Syria have precluded many of the previously-forecasted courses of action by the regime, al-Qaeda’s Syrian a liate Jabhat al Nusra, and ISIS.
The con ict in northern Syria will likely remain dynamic over the next three months despite the so-called “cessation of hostilities” announced on February 22. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has previously falsely claimed that Jabhat al Nusra and other “illegal armed groups” control western Aleppo and in its environs, even though Western-backed opposition groups remain a dominant force on the ground. It is therefore likely that Russia will continue to target Aleppo despite the cessation of hostilities, claiming that it is simply continuing the campaign against Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS.
Meanwhile, the opposition High Committee for Negotiations announced that its participation in the cessation of hostilities would be “conditional” upon the implementation of UN Security Council resolutions calling for the release of all detainees as well as the end of bombardments and sieges in civilian areas. Violence in northern Syria will continue despite the agreement to cease hostilities. Even U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry expressed pessimism regarding the deal, noting that the U.S. is already considering “Plan B” options in the event that internationally-backed negotiations fail to gain traction in three months.
The interventions of Iran and Russia have changed the battlespace in Aleppo and Latakia Provinces in ways that ultimately increase President Assad’s staying power over the medium-term. Pro-regime forces and Russian-enabled Syrian Kurds will maintain some operational momentum over the coming ninety days. The regime has not won, however, and ISW forecasts some tactical and even operational reverses.
The courses of action currently available to the regime and its allies in Northern Syria could result in numerous outcomes that will intensify the con ict, spread regional disorder, and ultimately threaten U.S. interests in the Middle East. For example, Russia possesses unique opportunities to escalate tensions with Turkey through future operations in Aleppo and Latakia Provinces along the Syrian-Turkish border. Meanwhile, Turkey has already begun to message its own desire to deepen its intervention in northern Syria, including the possible establishment of a contiguous safe zone or alternative zone of control in Aleppo Province. Its actions have remained within previously established behaviors thus far.
This article was adopted from the newest report by Genevieve Casagrande, Christopher Kozak, and Jennifer Cafarella from the Institute for Study of War.