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    May 7, 2016

    Challenges and Lessons of the Situation in Syria: An Overview

    May 7, 2016 - 
    By Dragana Trifkovic 
    Translated from Serbian by J. Arnoldski 

    The ceasefire in Syria entered into force on February 27th in accordance with the agreement reached between the Russian Federation and the United States of America following the meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry. The terrorist group “Al-Nusra” (a branch of Al-Qaeda) and the Islamic State were exempt from the agreement. With the truce not applying to these groups, the struggle against these terrorist structures has continued. It is estimated that since the beginning of the war in Syria (March 2011), more than 270,000 people have been killed. Once rebel forces in Syria had successfully taken control of large territories of the state, the last line of Syria's defense fell back to Damascus, Latakia, and Aleppo. When terrorists seized Aleppo, Damascus’ resistance was close to collapsing. 

    The Results of Russian Support

    At the last moment for Syria, the Russian Federation committed to a military intervention. In early September last year, the Russian army began operations against the terrorists in Syria and inflicted serious blows against terrorist units over the course of six months, thus turning the tide of the war. The Russian Air Force carried out more than 9,000 sorties and destroyed over 200 infrastructural objects of the terrorist organization known as the Islamic State. It should be noted that Syrian, Russian, Iranian, and Lebanese forces from Hezbollah have all participated together in the defense of Syria. If Russia had not come to support the Syrian Army, then by all estimates Syria would have lost the war to the jihadists. On this note let us recall how the US and its allies allegedly led the fight against Islamic State in Syria for months without any results. In reality, since the beginning of the conflict in Syria, the US and EU supported, trained, and armed malicious forces in the country and region as a whole, with the special role of financing terrorism played by the United Kingdom, France, as well as the American allies of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. 

    Seventeen days following the announcement of the ceasefire in Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin took the decision to partially withdraw Russian armed forces from Syria with the justification that they had accomplished all of their established goals. However, a necessary number of soldiers and S-400 anti-air defense systems have remained at Russian air and naval bases in Syria. The focus in Syria has since shifted from military operations to the peace process in favor of which Russia had acted from the very beginning. 

    Nevertheless, the military-security situation in Syria remains quite difficult and it is unclear how the situation will be henceforth regulated. 

    The most critical point now is the corridor running through Homs (Asma al-Assad’s hometown), whose situation is key to Syria’s future. The main highway from Latakia and Tartus to Damascus passes through this town. The defense of Homs means thus means the defense of the crucial corridor between the costal areas and Damascus. Al-Nusra’s evacuation from Homs has created the false impression that the city is fully liberated, while in practice the suburbs have remained under the control of ISIL. Many Sunni villages near Homs still support Al-Nusra and ISIL, which has given the enemy the opportunity to organize attacks and ambushes on the roads of the territory formally under the control of the Syrian Army. An additionally aggravating situation prevails in the neighboring city of Hama in whose surroundings, unlike in Homs, there was no large number of Christian and Alawite villages, which thus allowed terrorist organizations to easily conquer the city. In December of last year, the terrorists captured the village of Murek in Hama province which was previously controlled by the Syrian Army. After three days of shelling, Al-Nusra broke the positions of the Syrian Army’s 47th Brigade, whose general Talib Salami was killed in ambush. The Syrian Army was forced to retreat to the village of Sawran located 4 km from Murek. Thanks to Russian airstrikes, however, the front was partially stabilized and some successes were achieved in various districts of Damascus and the Latakia province, during which the leader of the “Army of Islam” organization, Zahran Llloush, was eliminated. 

    Syrian forces

    The main direction of the Syrian offensive has been from the northern part of Latakia province towards the border with Turkey, where significant special forces units, volunteer militias (such as the Desert Hawks, Defenders of the Fatherland, and Hezbollah), Russian air support, and Syrian army artillery have been concentrated. In January of this year, the Syrian Army successfully liberated parts of the cities of Salma and Rabia and destroyed the Salafist “Turkmen” organization closely tied to Al-Nusra. Near the town of Rabia, in the villages of Taurus and Beht Abliak, an IED manufacturing center was destroyed. On this occasion, more than 50 ready explosive devices were discovered whose production was participated in by French specialists with the assistance of experts with experience in one of the former Soviet republic’s army. The task of completely liberating the territory of northern Latakia was not completed in January because the village districts of Kessab and Bidama on the border with Turkey remain under the control of the enemy. From January 31st to February 18th, an attack on Kessab was led by militia forces, including the Desert Hawks, Defenders of the Fatherland, and other units from the Syrian Army which took control over part of the village. The attack slowly dragged on as Syrian Army units fought uphill without the use of armored vehicles. The command itself responded too slowly to changes in the operating environment and missed opportunities for maneuvers. 

    In the village of Madjel Kihia, 40 Desert Falcon militiamen were killed fighting for Rus hill alone. The Russian Federation’s airstrikes, as well as artillery, were often inaccurate due to the absence of aviation and artillery scouts among the combat formations. The offensive from Basura on Bidama lasted too long and the subsequence change in the direction of the attack towards Kobani did not yield any positive results. Syrian units moved slowly, failed to maneuver, and were involved in infantry firefights for a single hill on which dozens of people were killed and wounded. In this case, the enemy received reinforcements from Jisr Al-Shughur and from Turkey. In the Deir ez-Zor region, where the forces of the 17th Division of the 3rd Army Corps found themselves totally surrounded, the situation has not changed for the better and supplies have had to be delivered by air. 

    Armed militia forces, first and foremost the Desert Hawks led by the brothers Ayman and Mohammed Jaber, despite good motivation, did not have sufficient command logistics and their tactics were often jumbled, which led to suffering heavy losses. Hezbollah forces have proven to be better trained and they boast units across all of Syria composed of mainly Syrian citizens. Hezbollah shares close ties with the Defenders of the Fatherland units founded by Samir Haski, who was later killed in battle. Like the Desert Falcons, these units consists primarily of Alawites. Support for the Assad government has also been lent by the armed forces of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party from Lebanon, founded by Antoun Saadeh. Their ranks include volunteers from all ethnic and religious groups, including Alawites, Druze, and Christians. 

    The Syrian Army itself is largely under the control of old Ba’ath officers (from the Ba’athist ruling part), some of whom have negative attitudes towards the militias. Assad nevertheless maintains key control over the army.

    Potential threats 

    The enemy possesses a brand range of capabilities of acting against the Syrian Army, ranging from their frontline mobile combat groups which include vehicles and tanks, to their support among the Sunni population (who make up most of Syria’s population). The enemy has also paid special attention to the use of improvised explosive devices, as in 2015 when in the coastal war zone alone, 700 explosions were detonated with these devices. It should be borne in mind that ISIL, unlike Al-Nusra, does not rely on local fighters entangled in the interests of local clans and tribes, but on its own volunteer groups fanatically devoted to the ideas of Salafism, which is essentially a sect. ISIL is not an Arab, but an international network in which can be found a large number of experienced, trained officers, often of European origin with modern military training. ISIL rigidly controls local clans and tribal groups and has the ability to perform maneuvering operations. Owing to the high intellectual level of its specialists, as well as thanks to the experience of the war against the US Army in Iraq, ISIL is capable of launching launch broad military operations from behind the Syrian Army, not only in Deir al-Zur, but also Palmyra and Hama, which are cut off from the 3rd Army Corps in Homs. 

    In addition to these possible challenges to the fragile truce in Syria, there are still two more major problems: the border with Turkey, which is still not fully under control, and the central-eastern part of the country where the Syrian Army exercises no control whatsoever. 

    If the military-security situation in Syria moves in an undesirable direction, Russia has all the capacity to once again offer aid to state structures and quickly and efficiently achieve designated objectives. 

    The fight with the Islamic State terrorist organization will continue, but this struggle is not exclusive to Syria taking into account that the international organization operates both actively and passively at different points in the world and has the ability to transform. 

    Future political decisions 

    As concerns the peace process, a political solution to resolving the Syrian conflict, and the future of the Syrian state’s structure, it can be said that the current situation is critical for the preservation of Syria as a unified state. 

    The public is familiar with the demand that Syria be formally preserved as a unified state, but in reality Syria is set to be practically divided into three parts. Federalization means the formation of a Kurdish state in the north of the country, the government’s control over the south with the capital of Damascus - populated by Christians, Alawites, and Druzes -, and Sunni control over the central part of the country. Such a “solution” would be similar to the Dayton Agreement which established Bosnia and Herzegovina as an extremely complex and dysfunctional state in which the executive, legislative, and judicial powers are foreign-controlled. The division of Syria would lead the country into a similar situation which is unsustainable in the long run. Syria must establish control over the entire territory of the country (including the Golan Heights) and be preserved in its present borders as a unitary state. The serious consequences of the devastating war that still rages in Syria cannot be repaired by bad compromises. The international community must return to the principles of international law and respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states. 

    President Bashar Al-Assad has remained a consistent opponent of terror and the destruction of Syria. He did not resign from his position even during the most difficult conditions when the fate of the country was completely uncertain. He has thus gained the status of a great statesman who stayed by his country and people during the most difficult of times. Yet serious task remain before Syrian politicians which have to be resolved, including dialogue with the so-called “moderate opposition” with whom they recently still fought, and dialogue with those who stand behind this opposition and initiated the conflict in Syria.

    Instead of a conclusion, I would like to quote Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad: “We have learned one lesson. The most important lesson. We now know that the West is dishonest and pursues policies which are far removed from the principles of international law and the United Nations.” This is something that we should have learned a long time ago in Serbia. 


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