Will Russia Opt to Increase the Intensity of Operations in Syria Again?

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By Ollie Richardson for Fort Russ

7th May, 2016

On the 4th May, 2016, John Kerry announced a new ceasefire in Aleppo that was due to begin at midnight. The US State Department thus released the following statement reaffirming the cessation of hostilities:

This statement, like all US statements since the beginning of the war, did not commit the western coalition towards any specific group in Syria. By denying any influence over rebels, they paved the way for the main force in Syria – Jabhat al Nusra – to recover and gain new territory. The details of the ceasefire give the “moderate” rebels and Salafist groups in Syria a respite from Syrian and Russian bombardment, especially in East Ghouta, where the Syrian Airforce had dealt some serious blows to the various groups in the so-called ‘Free Syrian Army’ umbrella. 

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However, the US has itself admitted that Jabhat Al-Nusra is fighting side by side with the “moderates” in Aleppo. It was also reported that Al-Nusra had captured the strategic town of Khan Touman during the 48 hour ceasefire. Thus, it cannot be denied that US’ active lobbying for ceasefires in Damascus and Aleppo and the gains by Al-Nusra et al show a clear correlation. 

It is noteworthy that the State Department is sending mixed signals regarding the US’ ability to control rebel groups in Syria. One employee (Mark Toner) says that the US can influence groups in order to implement a ceasefire, yet another employee (John Kirby) denies any methods of control. 

But why is Russia participating in these ceasefire talks? After bombing Takfiri targets heavily for 5 months, it was important for Russia to show that it can use the diplomatic route too, and that the US had not cornered them into using only military force. After the first initial ceasefire agreement took place in February 2016, the result of Russia and the US compromising, which would later result in the “withdrawal” of Russian jets and ground units, it became apparent that areas like Homs, Palmyra, Raqqa etc would generally observe the ceasefire, but fighting in key cities like Aleppo would still continue to rage. 

Iranian General Qassem Soleimani would then visit Moscow for a second time in April, the first time being just before Russia announced its entrance into the Levant theatre. It is likely that Putin made it clear at the latest meeting that Russia would continue to pursue the diplomatic route for a short while until it really was evident that something had to change. The latest ceasefire announcement is surely the straw that will break the Russian bear’s back. 

As a result of Kerry’s bargaining, the “rebels”, who are also influenced by Turkey, were afforded yet another opportunity to breathe and consolidate themselves under one flag, protecting themselves (on paper at least) from the bombs in the sky in a ‘neutral’ corridor. For Russia, the attack on Khan Touman is a sign that the current diplomatic game being played will only swing the balance of the war in the US’ favour. Perhaps Russia would have liked to have isolated many more groups in Syria, but it is tough to keep up with all the shifts and alignments they make – swapping flags yet still calling for Jihad. 

The document below is a case in point of this tactical chess game that Al-Nusra is playing. It states that a Sharia council and task force are to be created to help resolve the inner fighting in the Mujahedeen, presumably drafted after the rebel in-fighting in East Ghouta.

One thing in the document catches the eye however – the signatories. Al-Nusra did not sign this document, but their allies Jaish Al Mujahideen did. This shows that Abu Mohammed al-Joulani’s group is showing intelligence by keeping a low profile, a strategy that is in sync with the US’ unwillingness to state just who exactly they assert control over.

An interesting side-plot to this is the infamous Saudi cleric Abdallah Muhammad al Muhaysini bolstering Jaish al-Fatah to boost the general war effort spearheaded by Al-Nusra.

So in conclusion, Russia has tried the diplomatic route, but the US did not change its spots, and used every trick possible in the fourth generation warfare playbook to ensure Russia could not simply dissect Aleppo and isolate the various groups – after all, who can Russia negotiate with aside from the US and its petulant proxy Higher Negotiations Committee? The contradictory statements coming from the State Department are tell-tale signs of groundhog day as far as Assad & Co are concerned. 

As Al-Nusra is the focal point of the attack on Aleppo, Russia sees the group as priority #1 in Syria, and is now forced to ramp up attacks on the ‘rebels’, perhaps to levels seen before the “withdrawal”. Ultimately, Russia is confident it can affect the on-goings on the ground positively, and the placement of the S400 provided assurance that they could flexibly enter and exit the zone of conflict without having to seek permission from an A-10 Thunderbolt.

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