While Russia’s military intervention in Syria has not yielded substantial progress on the ground for the Assad government, Moscow has succeeded in propping up the embattled regime, according to a new analysis.
An IHS Conflict Monitor estimate released last week shows that between Sept. 29, when the Kremlin launched its military campaign, and Jan. 11, Damascus regained 1.3 percent of territory it had lost to rebel groups.
That marks a major reversal from the first eight months of 2015, when the regime lost 18 percent of its territory as opposition fighters worked their way towards Aleppo, the country’s largest city, and made advances in other areas.
“Russia’s immediate objective in Syria, namely to shore up the Assad government’s position and save it from military defeat at the hands of the Sunni rebels, has largely been achieved,” said Jane’s 360.
“Momentum has shifted back in favour of government forces, which are stabilizing front lines in areas that are core to the government’s survival, and making slow but steady progress as coordination between the Russian Air Force, Hizbullah and the Syrian Army appears to be improving,” it adds.
The report was released before Syrian government troops and allied militias regained control of the last major rebel-held stronghold in the western province of Latakia on Sunday.
Relations between the U.S. and Russia, already troubled following Moscow’s annexation of the Crimea Peninsula in 2014, have been at a nadir even since the Kremlin launched its campaign inside Syria. The militaries for the two countries have had to make a concerted effort not to step on each other’s toes, even though they have different targets, ISIS forces for the U.S. and other Syrian rebels for Russia.
The new ground conditions mean local ceasefires are possible, but “meaningful concessions” among between Damascus, Western governments and rebels remain unlikely. In fact, a stabilized Syrian government would be better positioned to fight ISIS forces inside the country, meaning Washington and others should consider ditching their goal of getting rid of Assad and come around to Moscow’s point of view that he should be left in place.
It’s highly doubtful that the Obama administration would abandon its long-stated policy of finding a political solution to end the Syrian civil war, but given the involvement of ISIS, Russia and likely Tehran in the war after five years of conflict, there are few choices left.
Speaking in Istanbul this weekend, Vice President Biden signaled that Washington is considering a possible new direction.
"We do know it would better if we can reach a political solution but we are prepared ... if that's not possible, to have a military solution to this operation in taking out Daesh," Biden said at a news conference after a meeting with Turkish leaders, using the Arabic acronym for the terror group.
U.S. officials later clarified that he was referring to ISIS, not Syria as a whole, but at this point it doesn’t seem possible to address one without addressing the other.
Meanwhile, Syrian peace talks that were supposed to have started in Geneva on Monday have been delayed and could be cancelled altogether.
Secretary of State John Kerry said he hoped for "clarity" within 24 to 48 hours on whether the talks would occur at all.
Should the latest round of peace talks fail to materialize, it likely would only give more credibility to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s approach of using military force to resolve the conflict, or at least diminish the chance of a political fix being found before President Obama leaves office next year.