Members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps have been in Syria in one way or another since 2012, but in recent months the number of Iranian soldiers taking a direct combat role has expanded significantly. As Hezbollah has sent more troops to fight alongside the Assad regime’s Syrian Arab Army, Iraqi Shia militias have also joined the fight, and Russian airstrikes have provided support for Assad’s offensives, we’d expect to see Assad capture a significant amount of territory, and we’d also expect that none of the members of Assad’s coalition would end combat operations until that happened.
But Assad has not made significant gains. While the Assad regime is arguably much closer to controlling all of Homs province, and Assad has broken ISIS’s siege of a key airport near Aleppo, non-ISIS rebels have expanded the territory they control in Daraa, southern Aleppo province, and northern Latakia. In short, there have only been minor changes on Syria’s battlefields since Russia began its mission in Syria, and it’s simply too early to tell whether any of the changes are significant.
Bloomberg, however, cites American officials as saying that Iranian combat troops are withdrawing from Syria. According to the report, while 2,000 Iranian combat troops were in the fight in October, that number has dwindled to only 700:
U.S. officials tell me they are seeing significant numbers of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps troops retreat from the Syrian combat zone in recent weeks, following the deaths and wounding of some of top officers in a campaign to retake Idlib Province and other areas lost this year to opposition forces supported by the West and Gulf Arab States. As a result, the Russian-initiated offensive that was launched in September seems to be losing an important ally.
On Friday at the Saban Forum at the Brookings Institution, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said that Russia’s initial plan was to take back Idlib and other cities that had fallen under rebel control within three months. “It’s not going to happen because of the military difficulties,” he said, adding that the campaign to date looked to be a “failure.” He cited the “incompetence” of Syria’s army as well as “the lack of determination of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.”
This is a surprising turn of events. A number of Western media outlets reported this fall that Qassem Suleimani, the leader of Iran’s elite Quds Force, and Russia’s defense ministry had negotiated an infusion of Iranian forces into Syria over the summer, shortly after the conclusion of the nuclear negotiations between Iran and six other world powers. That surge was supposed to change the tide of the Syrian war that the dictator Bashar al-Assad was losing, as more of his territory fell to a coalition of rebels supported by the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others.
Western Officials: Iran Retreating From Syria Fight
Iran is beginning to withdraw its elite fighters from the Russian-led military campaign in Syria, according to U.S. and other Western military officials, suggesting a fissure in what President Barack Obama derided last month as a "coalition of two." U.S.
One also has to wonder if the report of a draw down is accurate in light that reports of Iranian casualties don’t seem to be slowing. At this point, we do not have enough information one way or another to ascertain whether the claims of an Iranian drawdown are accurate.
We can say with some confidence that there are no significant signs of Assad victories today. In fact it appears that the rebels may be advancing in several areas.
The Local Coordination Committees of Syria (LCC), an activist organization with a presence in nearly every town across the country, reports that rebels are engaged in fighting in many areas today but are advancing in the Kurds Mountains in northwestern Syria, and in nearby Latakia. Elsewhere — in Homs, Daraa, and Daraya (near Damascus) — the rebels appear to be either advancing or holding their positions against Assad attack:
In Latakia Suburbs, rebels launch a huge attack on Assad’s locations in Zahia Mountain with mortar, artillery, and Katusha missiles. They, also, gained several locations after clashes with Assad’s forces and along with Russian airstrikes on the area.
This report is consistent with other opposition claims.
Of course, the LCC is also reporting on the consequences of this conflict on the civilian population — a heavy death toll among civilians across the country. But the point is that the Assad regime, according to opposition forces, is not gaining ground.
The civilian death toll, however, continues to mount.
There may be one area where Assad forces are making advances today, but it’s against ISIS — not non-ISIS rebels that Russia is primarily targeting:
Syrian pro-regime media outlets are also reporting having won victories over ISIS today in this area. However, the somewhat-unreliable-but-often-cited Syrian Observatory For Human Rights reports that ISIS has actually recently captured Mahin, and reports from the SAA are covering the counter-attack. DNA News reports:
Syrian army units withdrew from all of the Maheen and Hawareen areas after an IS attack,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The two areas had previously been held by IS, but in late November the army and pro-regime militias were able to recapture them.
Abdel Rahman said fierce fighting was raging between regime forces and IS in the hills around the two areas. In nearby Sadad, a local representative said the army had deployed to secure an exit route for regime forces fighting the jihadists, “who are trying to encircle and isolate them”.
Sadad is 150 kilometers southeast of Homs (map), and is a predominantly Christian town where Russia has been transporting Iraqi militias to fight against ISIS, one of the few areas of the country where Russian and Assad forces are in fact combating the terrorist organization:
Even here, then, where Assad is actually fighting ISIS, it does not seem that Russia’s intervention is helping the Assad regime.
— James Miller
The conflict in Syria is concerning for a multitude of reasons, but two major factors are providing an urgency for many countries to come up with a plan. The first is that ISIS is strong and, one way or another, the terrorist organization and its sympathizers have conducted attacks across the globe. Secondly, the waves of Syrian refugees that were once swamping countries like Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan are now a tsunami that is washing across Europe.
Though these are two separate problems, many experts believe that at least parts of the solution to both of them are the same: stop the killing, and better secure Syria’s borders.
One plan to do this includes setting up a humanitarian corridor or “safe zone” in northern Syria to house those displaced by the war. This will allow Turkey to seal its border, and will allow international aid groups to help Syrian refugees within their own country. This has actually already happened to a limited extent. Almost all of north Syria is self governed, and many international aid groups operate there, but the killing has not stopped and ISIS threatens large parts of the Turkish border, so this idea has not been realized.
Turkey, in particular, has long pushed for the establishment of a no-fly zone which would prevent one of northern Syria’s constant dangers — Syrian air strikes that kill far more civilians than militants. Critics as well as supporters of the idea have pointed out that this will likely mean directly confronting the Syrian air force, since such a zone would also allow certain rebel groups to operate while being immune from Assad’s retaliation. But without fear of airstrikes, refugees could be sheltered in place, international aid groups could help rebuild northern Syria, and this would allow Turkey to close off its borders which would help in the global fight against ISIS.
This plan was initially endorsed by some policy experts in 2012. It was again discussed after the August 2013 chemical weapons attack which left more than 1,000 dead, but was tabled after US President Barack Obama asked Congress to authorize air strikes against the Assad regime and the Republican-controlled House of Representatives failed to do so. Now, however, in light of the Syrian refugee crisis and an uptick in ISIS attacks abroad, the idea is once again being discussed.
But this newest round of discussion appears to be too late. Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff US Air Force General Paul Selva told the Senate Armed Services Committee that a no-fly zone was not advisable in light of the presence of Russia’s air force in Syria, which has only been active since the last hours of September, U.S. News & World Report writes:
In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Air Force Gen. Paul Selva confirmed the military has the ability to implement a designated area in Syria that it could protect with air power and use as a safe zone for refugees fleeing their homes. But, he said, political and policy realities are restricting America’s ability to follow through.
“If we’re asking the question, ‘Can we do it?’ the answer is ‘yes.”” said Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “Are we willing to engage the potential of a direct conflict with the Syrian integrated air defense system or Syrian forces or, by corollary, a confrontation with the Russians, should they choose to contest the no-fly zone?”
Those are the questions that have been asked, Selva said, and answered.
“We have not recommended it because the political situation on the ground and the potential for miscalculation and loss of American life in the air in an attempt to defend the no-fly zone don’t warrant the no-fly zone.”
Selva’s comments drew predictable scorn from committee chairman John McCain, who has long advocated a strong US response to crimes committed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but this does not change the fundamental reality that the US President opposes such action and refused to implement such a plan in the first four and a half years of the Syrian crisis, when Russia was not present in the area. The likelihood of a no-fly zone being implemented now is hovering around zero.
Pentagon Admits Syrian, Russian Opposition Scuttles No-Fly Zone
Defense Secretary Ash Carter, accompanied by Joints Chiefs Vice Chairman Gen. Paul Selva, testifies on Wednesday before the Senate Armed Service Committee on Capitol Hill. A key Republican senator dressed down the Obama administration's war planners on Wednesday, describing as "embarrassing" their admission that the Pentagon hasn't implemented a no-fly zone in Syria out of fear of confronting provocations from the Syrian and Russian militaries.