Putin in Syria: Bashar in Moscow

October 21, 2015
Photo: Kremlin.ru

LIVE UPDATES: Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad made a surprise visit to Moscow last night.

The previous post in our Putin in Syria column can be found here.

Is Assad Gaining Ground? Today’s Syria Battle Summary

As we reported earlier, there are reports that the Assad regime is advancing near Aleppo, making slow gains in a series of minor victories in southern and southeastern Aleppo province. None of these victories, however, represent a significant change in the situation on the ground in Aleppo. There continue to be reports of heavy regime casualties in these battles as well. It remains to be seen, then, whether Russia’s airstrikes will help propel Assad’s offensive in Aleppo forward enough to change the stalemated dynamic that has become Aleppo’s status quo.

Here is latest assessment of Russian airstrikes from the Institute for the Study of War:

Russia’s air campaign continues to marginalize moderate elements of the Syrian opposition by targeting moderate, U.S.-backed TOW anti-tank missile recipients. Russian airstrikes killed the Chief of Staff of U.S.-backed TOW missile recipient First Coastal Division in the vicinity of Jebel al-Akrad on October 19. TOW missiles have slowed regime advances throughout northwestern Syria throughout the past two weeks, particularly as Russia increased its supply of armored vehicles to the Syrian regime. U.S.-backed rebels in Aleppo, for instance, reportedly have targeted over 11 of the regime’s armored vehicles with TOW missiles since October 16. Russian warplanes have targeted several other U.S.-backed TOW missile recipients since the start of the Russian aerial campaign in Syria on September 30, including Liwa Suqour al-Jebel, Liwa Fursan al-Haqq, and Tajamu’ al-Izza in the provinces of Idlib and Hama, as well as the Martyr Lieutenant Ahmed Abdou Battalion in Damascus. The moderate opposition and U.S.-backed rebel groups may change their behaviors and alignments as a result of Russia’s attacks. Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra may simultaneously expand its campaign against U.S.-backed rebels with the support of allies within the Islamist opposition.

ISW Blog: Russian Airstrikes in Syria: September 30 – October 20, 2015

By Genevieve Casagrande and Jodi Brignola Key Takeaway:Russian airstrikes continue to bolster the Assad regime's efforts to defeat the Syrian opposition. Russian airstrikes from October 19-20 primarily supported ongoing regime ground offensives in rebel-held areas in the southern countryside of Aleppo, the al-Ghab plain of northwestern Hama Province, and the Jebel al-Akrad mountain range in northeastern Latakia Province.

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Oct 22, 2015 00:02 (GMT)

Furthermore, the Assad regime is trying to compete with ISIS in the area east of Aleppo, since ISIS has launched their own offensive to take advantage of Russian airstrikes which have weakened moderate rebel groups there:

Elsewhere, however, things have changed little since Russia’s bombing
campaign began — in areas where Russia and Assad are not currently
focused, the Assad regime and it’s allies Hezbollah and Iran continue to
lose ground, and commanders.

The latest news is that Nader Hamid, a key commander in Iran’s
Basij force, has been killed in battle in Quneitra, southwest Syria,
near the Israeli border. Now Lebanon reports:

On Sunday, reports emerged that Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps
(IRGC) commander Muslim Kheizab had been killed while serving an
“advisory” mission in Syria.

Last week, Iran confirmed the deaths
of General Farshad Hasounizad, the former head of the IRGC’s elite
Saberin Brigade, and Hamid Mokhtarband, the former chief-of-staff of the
1st Brigade of Iran’s crack 92nd Armored Division, which is considered
the country’s top armored unit.

Their deaths followed the
dramatic killing of IRGC general Hussein Hamdani, who was one of the
IRGC’s leading generals and the country’s top military advisor in Syria.

Iran Basij force commander killed in Syria

BEIRUT – A commander in Iran's paramilitary Basij force has died from injuries suffered in clashes against rebel forces in Syria's Quneitra province near Israel's border in the latest death of an Iranian officer in the war-torn country.

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Oct 22, 2015 00:12 (GMT)

As a response to continued rebel success in the south, Assad forces have launched an offensive to retake Daraa city — but it’s not working. Unfortunately for civilians there, however, Assad is using his air force to continually pound residential neighborhoods in the region:

Ironically, then, it is Russian airstrikes on non-ISIS rebels which has allowed ISIS to launch its own attack on regime-held territory in Aleppo, a reality which may disrupt the regime’s attempt to dislodge the stubborn rebel groups which hold the city.

Another area which reportedly saw Russian airstrikes was the area around Deir Ez Zour airport, one of the other few areas where ISIS and Assad forces are actually competing for the same space. The airport has effectively been surrounded for years and relies on close air support and constant air-delivered supplies to stay operational.

Other rebel groups continue to fight with Assad forces in the mountains of Latakia, and Russian airstrikes have also hit these rebels. Despite Russian air support, unconfirmed reports suggest heavy regime losses in the area, though the remote location makes news from this area very hard to independently confirm, and claims such as these could easily be exaggerated:

The bottom line: the rebels have held back Assad offensives in Daraa and Hama, rebels are still pressing Assad’s forces in Latakia, and the regime has not yet made significant advances in Aleppo. As far as we can tell, little evidence suggests that the situation in Daraa or Hama is changing, though the situation in Aleppo is far more fluid, and complicated by the presence of multiple competing factions — Assad and his allies, the anti-Assad and anti-ISIS rebels, and ISIS.

James Miller

The New Assad Ground Offensive, Backed By Russian Airstrikes, Is Driving Thousands More Refugees To Turkey

Most refugees fleeing Syria cite the constant bombing, the destruction of infrastructure like electricity and running water, the lack of food, and the fear of terrorism as their reasons for fleeing. Russia’s intervention, it seems, has only made things worse. In the last week or so, the Syrian Arab Army of Bashar al Assad, aided by fighters from Hezbollah and Iran, and by Russian airstrikes, have launched a new offensive against Aleppo, the northern city and former the financial capital of Syria. ISIS has also taken advantage and launched their own offensive against embattled rebels, gaining ground in the area. Voice of America reports that this new fighting has sparked a large wave of refugees fleeing the city:

Turkish officials say 50,000 refugees have left the Syrian city of Aleppo and are heading to the border, but it remains unclear whether they will be allowed to enter Turkey after a hazardous journey dodging airstrikes and negotiating checkpoints manned by disparate rebel militias, including al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria.

For months now border gates have been officially closed to new refugees, and those fleeing are forced to pay smugglers to enter illegally – sometimes using tunnels to escape the killing fields.

The rich can bribe border-gate guards — the going rate is $700 per person — the poor may get across after paying smugglers $50 to $100 per person to sneak past Turkish border guards patrolling farm-fields and olive-tree orchards adjacent to the border.

Russian airstrikes and a Syrian army ground offensive mainly in the countryside to the south and east of the city of Aleppo have triggered the surge in Syrians heading for the border. Syria Turkmen Council President Abdurrahman Mustafa said he also estimates about 50,000 people have left the city and are picking their way down pot-holed roads, through checkpoints and past ruined villages to Turkey.

The tales of horror continue to emerge from Aleppo:

Despite Russian air support, the regime’s offensive in Hama province has failed to net significant results and for weeks regime casualties have been very high.

But there are signs that the regime offensive near Aleppo is making some gains. New York Times reports:

The government forces have scored some minor victories, reportedly capturing a few villages in the south. But it was still too early to tell whether the advance toward Aleppo was part of a broader attempt to encircle the city and dislodge the rebels or a more limited offensive to ensure the safety of its supply lines.

Faraj Shahid, a Turkey-based rebel activist who is from the countryside south of Aleppo, said the area was the site of frequent attacks by insurgents on the government’s critical supply line from Hama in central Syria. Over the last four days, he said, government forces had taken control of at least three villages in the vicinity.

Zakaria Malahifji, a leader of a Western-backed rebel coalition, said that the government “chose this front because of its strategic location on the supply route, and its easy geography.” He added, “Airstrikes can be effective because of the flat battlefield, and attack helicopters are present all the time.”

Over the last few days, he said, “losses are heavy on both sides and the regime’s advance is very slow,” while tens of thousands of people are reported to have fled the area.

There are signs that pro-Assad forces may be advancing east of Aleppo, toward a key airbase that has played a role in keeping Assad’s supply route to the south open:

The Kweires airbase (map) is still 20 kilometers away from the closest district of eastern Aleppo, an area which is embattled but still under Assad regime control. Still, between ISIS and Assad advancing on the ground and with Russia and Assad bombing from the air, thousands of people who have stuck out years of war have decided that now is a good time to flee Syria.

James Miller

Is Russia Part Of The Solution For Syria, Or Part Of The Problem?

In our latest podcast, recorded last night, Boston College professor Dr. Matt Sienkiewicz and The Interpreter‘s managing editor James Miller discuss Russia’s role in ending this crisis.

We asked whether the Russian intervention in Syria going to make things better or worse? What are the possible solutions for the Syrian crisis, and can the US work with Russia to end a war that has significant consequences for the Middle East and the world at large?

In the podcast, we discussed a New York Times editorial by Gordon Adams and Stephen Walt, which Matt Sienkiewicz describes as a coming from “an international relations realist perspective” which considers “the cold, hard, economic and military security elements of this question.” The piece suggests that Russia can be part of the solution in Syria, and the US should work with the Assad regime and Moscow to restore order.

In the podcast I argued strongly against this argument.

Last night, Syrian President Bashar al Assad was not in his palace in Damascus
but instead dined with the Russian leadership in Moscow. We do not know what they discussed, or what the outcome of the meeting will be, but it is time to put Adams and Walt to the test. Will Assad discuss with Russian President Vladimir Putin a possible solution wherein he steps down and a transitional government is established? Will a roadmap to peace emerge from Assad’s trip, or did Assad and Putin discuss how to better carry out their attacks against the civilian populace and Western-backed rebels.

Yesterday, we predicted the latter. Here is Moscow’s chance to prove us wrong.

Listen to the podcast below:

Click here to listen to our podcast in a new window and see other additional reading and listening:

Is Russia Part Of The Solution In Syria, Or Part Of The Problem? Podcast

Is the Russian intervention in Syria going to make things better or worse? What are the possible solutions for the Syrian crisis, and can the US work with Russia to end a war that has significant consequences for the Middle East and the world at large?

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Oct 21, 2015 18:17 (GMT)

James Miller
Did Russian Jets Target Rescuers In Sarmin Today?

The Russian Ministry of Defence claims today to have destroyed “83 objects of infrastructure of the Islamic State terrorist group in the past 24 hours,” with aircraft flying 46 sorties over Syria.

General Major Igor Konashenkov, spokesman for the MOD, told reporters that Russian Sukhoi Su-34 bombers had struck a meeting of “terrorist leaders” in the town of Sarmin, Idlib. 

This MOD video purportedly shows the strike, conducted with a KAB-500 guided bomb: 

But a video uploaded this afternoon by the Idlib regional branch of Civil Defence, popularly known as the “White Helmets” purportedly shows a bomb or missile, allegedly launched from a Russian aircraft, striking Sarmin as rescuers are already responding to previous attacks today.

A SMART News Agency report, uploaded earlier today, claimed that 12 people had been killed by Russian air strikes in the town yesterday. 

As we reported yesterday, the Local Coordination Committees (LCC) claim that a school was struck:


— Pierre Vaux

Bashar al-Assad Makes Discreet Visit To Moscow

Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad arrived in Moscow last night for hitherto-unannounced talks with President Vladimir Putin.


This was the first time that Assad has left Syria on an overseas visit since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011.

Kommersant reports that the meeting was conducted “like a fully-fledged military operation.”

The Interpreter translates:

Yesterday afternoon, journalists were informed that Vladimir Putin had two working meetings planned at the Kremlin the following day. No names were given and no one batted an eyelid: this is normal practice. Either it was with a governor (or more likely) with two, or with the head of some state corporation… 

It was more surprising that a couple of hours later, they were given an abrupt lights-off: both meetings, it was said, were going to be held behind closed doors. What was the rush? 

It was only at 9:20 this morning, when journalists were urgently put into a conference call with the President’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, that even Stierlitz could have realised that there was something fishy going on.

According to Kommersant‘s sources, Assad had requested that the meeting be held in secret, and had brought a large entourage.

At a public welcome meeting with Putin, Assad expressed his regime’s “tremendous gratitude to the Russian leadership and people for the help they are providing Syria,” in the form of the air offensive by Russian jets and helicopters that has concentrated on rebel fighters in the west of the country.

From the Kremlin’s English-language transcript of Assad’s remarks:

“Most important of all is that this is being done within the framework of international law.

I must say that the political steps the Russian Federation has been taking since the start of the crisis made it possible to prevent events in Syria from taking an even more tragic turn. If it were not for your actions and decisions, the terrorism that is spreading through the region now would have made even greater gains and spread to even wider territories. You have confirmed your course of action by joining in the military operations as part of a common front in the fight against terrorism.”

 President Putin had told Assad:

“On the question of a settlement in Syria, our position is that positive results in military operations will lay the base for then working out a long-term settlement based on a political process that involves all political forces, ethnic and religious groups. Ultimately, it is the Syrian people alone who must have the deciding voice here.

Syria is Russia’s friend and we are ready to make our contribution not only to the military operations and the fight against terrorism, but also to the political process. We would do this, of course, in close contact with the other global powers and with the countries in the region that want to see a peaceful settlement to this conflict.”

After their public exchange, Putin and Assad dined with Russian ministers, including the foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, the prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, the defence minister Sergei Shoigu

Translation: Assad was entertained with dinner with a wide range of participants at the Kremlin after the talks.

Kommersant reports that the dinner meeting went on for more than three hours.

The BBC’s Jonathan Marcus commented that Assad’s visit may:

“mark a new stage in Russia’s efforts to roll out a diplomatic plan alongside its military intervention in Syria; an illustration that Russia deals with Mr Assad, and that for now at least Mr Assad has to be part of any interim solution.”

Of course with Russian jets concentrating their fire on not ISIS, but the Syrian opposition, it should come as no surprise that the maintenance of the Assad regime, or at least some form of it, is Russia’s goal in Syria.

— Pierre Vaux