Syrian President Bashar al-Assad meets Syrian troops in eastern Ghouta on March 18, 2018. Photo: Sana handout via Reuters
President Bashar al-Assad meets Syrian troops in eastern Ghouta on March 18, 2018. Despite gains in the protracted Syrian conflict, the Assad regime's hold on parts of the country remains tenuous. Photo: SANA handout via Reuters

On a countrywide scale, Syria’s battlefields and areas of control have been largely stable for a year or more. Territory is roughly divided between the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and US-backed Syrian Kurdish forces, with a Turkish-held zone north and west of Aleppo and a broader rebel-controlled territory centered on Idlib governorate rounding out the picture.

But that does not mean that conflicts, or significant military offensives, have ceased. For the past two months, government forces have expended substantial energy in trying to seize opposition-held enclaves in north Hama province, along with the remaining rebel territory in northeast Latakia. These efforts have been supported by Russian air power, which began a sustained bombing campaign in south Idlib and north Hama in late April, systematically targeting hospitals and medical infrastructure and rebel military positions.

Despite 10 weeks of sustained bombardment, however, the results have been dismal. Time and again, pro-government forces have been forced back, particularly around the rebel stronghold of Kabaneh in Latakia, where more than a dozen assaults have resulted in nothing but deaths. The same is largely true of Hama, with government militias managing only small advances and on occasion even surrendering some territory to rebel forces.

None of this offers encouragement to Moscow. At the forefront of the Syrian government’s offensive are the Tiger Forces, whose close relationship with Russia is well known; the unit’s commander, Suheil al-Hassan, was even greeted personally by Vladimir Putin during the latter’s visit to Syria in December 2017. Also heavily involved are the 5th Corps, which has undergone extensive training by Russian contractors and advisers. The two units have suffered hundreds of casualties, to the point where young men conscripted as reinforcements from core government-held areas have refused to be posted to the front. There are now reports that Russia is increasingly displeased with Hassan, who has failed to deliver despite the considerable resources at his disposal.

For Russia, the debacle has delivered two clear lessons. First, it has revealed, with stark clarity, the limits of Moscow’s battlefield influence in Syria. Previous major offensives, in which pro-government troops recaptured much of the country from rebel and ISIS forces, had featured Russian air power supplementing additional ground forces supplied by Iran. None of these militias has participated in the current offensive.

The only clear way for Moscow to provide its own infantry support is via its private military contractor, Wagner, whose close involvement in campaigns in eastern Syria, in particular two years ago, was crucial to recapturing the city of Deir Ezzor and others. This, too, is fraught with potential problems: Wagner lost dozens of men serving as frontline combat troops in that campaign and the group has since redeployed much of its strength to Africa and elsewhere.

Second, the failed Hama/Latakia campaign has shown that the Syrian army – if one can apply such a title to the various militias and semi-autonomous armed formations loosely subordinate to Damascus – is unlikely ever to resemble a competent fighting force.

In many ways, this was predictable. Most Arab armies in the post-independence period have existed only to guard against coups and feature in parades. Preparing for actual military conflict was never a priority. This has been highlighted again and again, most notably in Kenneth Pollack’s seminal book Arabs at War, which chronicles a host of failures by Arab armies over a period of decades. In Syria in particular, commanders have focused on looting and carving out smuggling and protection rackets, something Russian forces have only been able to halt with their presence on the spot.

All of this will be cold comfort to Moscow. The Kremlin had hoped to use the Tiger Forces and 5th Corps as a force multiplier in Syria, investing heavily in their training over the past several years with the idea of creating a reliable and effective force on the ground. Moscow went as far as to engineer the replacement of commanders in other major Syrian divisions, including the 4th Armored Division and Republican Guard, installing officers who were seen as pro-Russian. Despite this, Moscow has found itself in an environment where not only does its influence pale in comparison to that of its erstwhile ally, Iran, but where the Kremlin remains in effect dependent upon Iranian-led forces to conduct successful military operations.

Meanwhile, the Syrian forces’ continued lack of professionalism has brought Russia into conflict with Turkey, its other major partner in the conflict. Forces loyal to the Syrian government have had to walk a tightrope as they try to advance territorially while avoiding the dozen fortified Turkish observation posts scattered across the Greater Idlib frontlines. They have not succeeded: Turkish positions were hit by pro-Damascus artillery fire at least three times in June, resulting in the death of at least one Turkish serviceman.

Increasingly, Ankara bristles at what it considers to be Russia’s undermining of the understanding between the two sides, with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stating on July 4 that Moscow must “control the actions” of pro-Assad forces and halt their shelling of Turkish positions.

Nearly four years after making the decision to intervene in Syria, Moscow finds itself without sufficient influence to unilaterally shape battlefield conditions in the country. Russia’s efforts to develop Syrian divisions that are both effective and pro-Russian have thus far been a dismal failure, even when working alongside the supposed crème de la crème of Syria’s Tiger Forces. The last two months have been a harsh reminder that support from its partners, in particular Iran, is crucial to Russia hopes of significant success in Syria.

This article was provided to Asia Times by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

Neil Hauer is a security analyst currently in Kiev, Ukraine. Usually based in Tbilisi, Georgia, his work focuses on, among other things, politics, minorities and violence in the Caucasus. Follow him on Twitter @NeilPHauer.

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