Syria Weekly: Idlib offensive stalls, as Russia-Iran divisions bubble over

Syria Weekly: Idlib offensive stalls, as Russia-Iran divisions bubble over
The failure of the Syrian regime to breakthrough rebel lines in Idlib and Hama has been blamed on the non-participation of Iran in the offensive.
8 min read
28 June, 2019
Russia has tried to play a policing role in Syria [Getty]
The failure of a recent Russian-backed offensive into opposition areas of northern Syria has highlighted the regime's reliance on Iran for security and exposed a potentially damaging rift between Moscow and Tehran, analysts have told The New Arab

Opposition website, Nedaa Syria, reported this week that Moscow is angered by the failure of Russian-aligned Tiger Forces, commanded by Suhail al-Hassan, to hold onto territories captured during the first stages of the campaign, despite overwhelming material and air support from Russia.

Opposition forces have recaptured almost all the territories they lost in the early days of the offensive, which began late April, when heavy Russian bombing and artillery bombardments allowed regime forces to move into villages in Hama and Idlib evacuated by rebels.

Moscow has now reportedly acknowledged that Iran's unwillingness to take part in the assault was a key factor in the regime's failure to gain ground, having recaptured just a sliver of territory in northwest Syria during the bloody two-month campaign.

Moscow has also faced huge international criticism due to the destruction of dozens of schools, hospitals and rescue centres during the Russian-led bombardment of Idlib and northern Hama.

Regime forces meanwhile have racked-up heavy losses in men and equipment, with tanks abandoned in flights of panic and 51 combatments killed on Friday alone, despite Russia's efforts in modernising and centralising the Syrian military.

Perhaps even more damaging for Moscow is that the offensive could spark a rift with Turkey just when Ankara appeared poised to complete the purchase of the Russian-manufactured S-400 missile system, leading to a stand-off with the US.

On Friday, a Turkish soldier was killed in Idlib following regime shelling, which has potential to do immense damage to relations between the two countries during this delicate time.

Rebels fight back

The conclusion from observers is that the Idlib campaign has proved an embarrassment for Moscow with rebels carrying out daily attacks on regime positions. Iranian-backed militias, which have been the backbone of regime ground forces, who have again been shown to be the key players on the ground. 

Although Russia's intervention in the war with an aerial campaign from 2015 helped tip the scales in Assad's favour, Moscow appears to be unable to replicate these successes on the ground.

"The Syrian army, despite Russia efforts to professionalise it and massive recruitment campaigns, remains a weak force that is unable to advance on the ground although it has numerical supremacy and its dominance in the air," Elizabeth Tsurkov, Research Fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking, told The New Arab.

"Iran is currently not engaged in the campaigns in Idlib for several reasons, including that it does not see the recapture of the province to be of strategic importance and it wants to maintain good relations with Turkey."

Turkey remains a partial supporter of the Syrian opposition and has accused regime artillery of deliberately targeting its observation forces in Idlib. Tsurkov said that Iran is turning to Turkey as it faces economic restrictions due to US sanctions.

"Iran is not participating in the [northern Syria] battle so we see militias and regime army outfits trained and supported by Russia being obliterated by rebels both in northern Hama and Latakia," said Tsurkov.

"They've attempted to capture the town of Kabana in Latakia over-and-over again, and ended losing hundreds of fighters with no success. In northern Hama the regime has made extremely limited progress but at a heavy price and with heavy Russian air support. This is a highly significant development because it shows just how necessary Iran still is and the militias it backs to recapture any land from the rebels."

The poor performance of Syrian army units and militias linked to Russia underlines that without Iran's full-backing the Assad regime cannot secure a victory over the rebels.

Tsurkov said that previous Russian-led military campaigns into Daraa and besieged opposition territories, such as Homs, were only successful due to rebel fighters being forced to surrender when foreign support was cut and supplies ran low. Any future regime offensives without Iranian military support would likely face a similar outcome to the recent Idlib campaign.

Dividing Lines

Syria remains split not just along pro-Assad and opposition lines, but also inside regime territories. Although Moscow and Tehran have a common goal in ensuring the survival of the Assad regime, there have been frequent reports of clashes between pro-Moscow and Iranian-aligned militants and troops.

Many of these low-level battles have taken place in areas where both forces previously fought side-by-side, such as in Deir az-Zour in eastern Syria and the southern province of Daraa. Both regions have economic potential or strategic significance for Tehran and Moscow, with rich resources in Deir az-Zour and important trading links in Daraa. The murky situation of intra-regime rivalries has not been helped by tight-censorship imposed in these areas.

"All over Syria there are low-level clashes between factions that are run by Iran and those supported by Russia. At times these skirmishes stem from pre-war conflicts, bad blood between different figures, competition for power and resources, but at times these squabbles appear to be due to the fact they have different foreign backers vying for greater influence," added Tsurkov.

"In western Syria in particular and in Daraa, there have been several attempts by Russia to restrict the presence of Hizballah and pro-Iran militias, but those militias continue to operate in these areas despite limited Russian efforts."

A number of assassinations of pro-regime figures in Daraa have been interpreted as a sign of a growing insurgency in the south. Other analysts have suggested it could signify a low-level battle for influence between Iran and Russia. As reported in Syria Weekly before, Daraa has witnessed a number of clashes between Iranian-linked and Russian-aligned military units, which have centred on local grievances.

Earlier this month, an Iranian-linked Shia preacher was assassinated in Daraa, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, highlighting Iran's efforts to penetrate the region through soft and hard power - a common strategy by Tehran in Syria before the war.

"It's an old story that predates the war but there was a small Shia community in Horan (Daraa province) and about ten-years-ago there were rumours of conversions (to Shia Islam) taking place and missionary work going on," Thomas Pierret, Senior Researcher CNSR-IREMAM, told The New Arab. "So some people were freaking out about Hizballah's recent victory against Israel [in 2006] and the prestige this brought."

After war broke out in Syria in 2011, Iran began to recruit Shia Muslims from the Bosra region of Daraa - among others - into its militias, while the small Shia population left southern Syria. Syrian rebels held onto the area until a regime offensive last June, which saw some former opposition fighters surrender and join Russian-run military units.

There are people who are sceptical about claims that former rebels were behind the assassinations and that could be instead that pro-regime forces are settling scores.

Iranian militias in Daraa have been perceived as more hardline and closely aligned to the regime's notorious security apparatus. Many of the former rebels opted to join the Russian-linked Fifth Corps to avoid conscription into the Syrian army and remain in Daraa. Iran has sought to recruit locals by offering higher salaries and have reportedly opened offices to "spread" Shia Islam, according to some opposition media.

Role of Israel

The assassination of the preacher in Daraa this month could have been carried out by insurgents, but Israel or even Russian-linked units might also be responsible for the killing and others, Pierret added.

"There are people who are sceptical about claims that former rebels were behind the assassinations and that it could be instead that pro-regime forces are settling scores. It might be both things happening at the same time," Pierret added.

"I think there could be some genuine armed opposition gaining a limited revival. I also see no reason why Israel, which is bombing Iranian bases in southern Syria, might not also want to carry out assassinations of Iranian figures there."

Israel has carried out widespread airstrikes in southern Syria targeting Iranian and Hizballah assets. Russia had reportedly agreed with Israel to extend its influence in Daraa and Quneitra at the expense of Iran to reduce tensions. Meanwhile, Israel, Russia and the US held a tripartite security summit this week, where the issue of Iran's role in Syria was key to the agenda.

Attended by US National Security Adviser John Bolton, Israeli National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, and Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, the meeting was initially beset by Moscow's strong public opposition to condemnations of Iran's role in Syria. Behind closed doors, talk was said to be very different.

"More than anything, the Russians resemble a chameleon," one Israeli official told Al-Monitor. "They will change colours and blend into their surroundings anywhere you put them. They will identify their closest interest or common denominator in every situation and home in on it. This is the case now."

Tsurkov also agreed that despite Iran and Russia fighting on the same side in Syria, there are still huge differences between the two countries on the future of the country.

"Iran and Russia are in deep disagreement over Israel. Iran would like to turn Syria into a launching ground for attacks on Israel or at least have offensive capabilities near the (Israeli-occupied) Golan region. Russia maintains a good relationship with Israel and does not wish to see Syria become an arena of contest between Iran and Israel," the researcher said.

"Moscow wants Syria to be a success story and it wants to show that it can do intervention and be successful, unlike the US in Iraq. War between Iran and Israel, over Syrian territory, is not beneficial to stabilising the regime and reconstructing the country."

Syria Weekly is a new, regular feature from The New Arab. To get Syria Weekly in your inbox each week, sign up here

Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab. 

Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin