Stratfor: The Loyalist Offensive Begins in Syria, with Russia’s help

Summary: As regional and global powers search for a solution to the Syrian civil war, fighting on the ground appears to be on the verge of worsening. Both loyalist and rebel forces are preparing for two new offensives within the coming months that will greatly influence the trajectory of the conflict ahead. This report by Strafor looks at the combined Russia – Syrian government offensive.

Russia’s military deployment to Syria was carried out with the permission of Damascus, and is “completely legal and legitimate under international law.” “The difference with Russian presence and presence of all these special forces that are now operating in Syria is that the US was not asked by the legitimate Syrian government to interfere and they were in breach of Syrian sovereignty.”

— Dirk Adriaensens (actiist, bio here).

Stratfor

In Syria, the Loyalist Offensive Begin

Stratfor, 8 October 2015

The Syrian government’s long-expected offensive against the country’s rebel forces has begun. On Oct. 7, loyalist troops advanced against rebel-held positions in northern Hama with the support of numerous Russian airstrikes as well as both rocket and tube artillery fire. Initial reports from the battlefield suggest that the rebels, primarily the Free Syrian Army, are putting up an effective defense in spite of heavy shelling. The rebels’ liberal use of improvised explosive devices and anti-tank guided missiles has taken a heavy toll on loyalist armor; several reports say rebels destroyed 17 armored fighting vehicles on the first day of the fight, and combat footage has confirmed the destruction of at least nine vehicles.

Despite the initial setback, the loyalists’ Russian-backed offensive has only just begun. Already there have been heavy airstrikes in the Al-Ghab plain, signaling the spread of the offensive to other areas of Hama. Loyalists are also preparing to assault the northern Homs pocket and to push toward the Kweiris air base, where several allied groups are still engaged in fighting with Islamic State forces.

Russian airstrikes in Syria

US airstrikes in Syria

The rebels are at a disadvantage in the fight because they lack air defense weaponry. They also have few means with which to counter Russian or loyalist rocket and artillery fire. However, the rebels can continue to heavily rely on their anti-tank guided missiles and defensive acumen to slow down the loyalist forces in a battle of attrition. The rebels are also expecting further shipments of weapons and equipment from their foreign patrons, especially Turkey and the Gulf Arab states, and they may receive man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) that would prove useful against low-flying aircraft and helicopters.

One of the most interesting aspects of the conflict is Russia’s weaponry. From Oct. 5-6, four vessels of the Russian Caspian Flotilla fired 26 land attack cruise missiles — 3M-14 Kalibr missiles, codenamed “Sizzler” by NATO, to be exact. It was Russia’s first use of land attack cruise missiles fired from the sea in an active operational setting. Since Russian aircraft could have just as easily struck many of the targeted areas with less expense, the use of the land attack missiles was likely meant, at least in part, to be a symbolic demonstration of force to showcase Russia’s military capabilities.

Because the missiles traversed Iranian and Iraqi airspace, with their permission, before striking their targets in Syria, the attack also emphasizes the positive relationship Russia has established with some of Syria’s neighbors.

Background on the offensive

As regional and global powers search for a solution to the Syrian civil war, fighting on the ground appears to be on the verge of worsening. Both loyalist and rebel forces are preparing for two new offensives within the coming months that will greatly influence the trajectory of the conflict ahead.

The first offensive stems from Russia and Iran’s effort to stabilize Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s forces and to restore their advantage on the battlefield. If successful, the effort could put the Syrian government in a much more favorable position at the bargaining table when it comes to discussing a possible negotiated settlement to the conflict. The offensive will target three areas: the northern Homs pocket, the al-Ghab plain and its surrounding mountains in northwest Hama, and the Kweiris air base. The successful eradication of rebel forces in the northern Homs pocket would eliminate a dangerous rebel position close to the critical cities of Homs and Hama while freeing up a large number of loyalist troops for operations elsewhere.

Meanwhile, an advance across the al-Ghab plain and the seizure of Jisr-al Shugour, though risky, would restore the loyalist lines in the aftermath of recent advances by Jaish al-Fatah and would further insulate Latakia and Hama from potential rebel offensives. Finally, the rescue of besieged loyalist forces at the Kweiris air base would represent a significant symbolic victory that would improve morale among other loyalist troops under siege around the country by demonstrating that the al Assad government has not forgotten them.

A multipronged campaign of this scale will require a significant amount of combat power, exceeding the current capacity of a weakened Damascus. It is not surprising, then, that Russia, Iran and Hezbollah already appear to be contributing a substantial number of fighters to support the loyalist troops. Russia has already triggered the first phase of the operation with airstrikes, which aim to soften rebel positions in areas that are likely to be targeted in the coming loyalist offensive.

The latest reports also indicate that Russia is moving a considerable amount of tube and rocket artillery assets toward the front lines to bolster the supporting firepower behind loyalist attacks. In addition, Russian military advisers are embedded within Syrian units, and Moscow’s special operations forces may very well be deployed to bolster al Assad’s operations in general. At the same time, both Iran and Hezbollah reportedly are sending forces to northern Syria; Iran alone has deployed at least a few hundred troops, and Stratfor sources indicate their ranks will eventually reach some 2,000 personnel.

In Syria, the Loyalist Offensive Begins
is republished with permission of Stratfor.

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