Military Success in Syria Gives Putin Upper Hand in Pindosi Proxy War
Mark Mazzetti, Anne Barnard, Eric Schmitt, NYT, Aug 6 2016
Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu, center, visited an air base in northern Syria in June.
Photo: Vadim Savitsky/Reuters
WASHINGTON — The Syrian military was foundering last year, with thousands of rebel fighters pushing into areas of the country long considered to be government strongholds. The rebel offensive was aided by powerful tank-destroying missiles supplied by the CIA and the Toads. Intelligence assessments circulated in Faschingstein that the evil Assad was losing his grip on power. But then the Russians arrived, bludgeoning CIA-backed rebel forces with an air campaign that has sent them into retreat. And now rebel commanders, clinging to besieged neighbourhoods in the divided city of Aleppo, say their shipments of CIA-provided antitank missiles are drying up. For the first time since Afghanistan in the 1980s, the Russian military for the past year has been in direct combat with rebel forces trained and supplied by the CIA. The Pindo-supplied Afghan fighters prevailed during that Cold War conflict. But this time thus far the outcome has been different. Michael Kofman, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington:
Russia has won the proxy war, at least for now.
Russia’s battlefield successes in Syria have given Moscow, isolated by the West after its annexation of Crimea and other incursions into Ukraine, new leverage in decisions about the future of the Middle East. The Obama administration is now talking with Putin’s government about a plan to share intelligence and coordinate airstrikes against the Islamic State and other militant groups in Syria, and Putin has thus far met his goals in Syria without becoming caught in a quagmire that some including Obama had predicted he would. But even Obama has expressed wariness about an enduring deal with Moscow. Obama said at a news conference on Thursday:
I’m not confident that we can trust the Russians or Vladimir Putin. Whenever you are trying to broker any kind of deal with an individual like that or a country like that, you have got to go in there with some skepticism.
At the same time, some military experts point out that Putin has saddled Russia with the burden of propping up a Syrian military that has had difficulty vanquishing the rebels on its own. The Russian campaign began in September, after a months-long offensive by CIA-backed rebel groups won new territory in Idlib, Hama and Latakia Provinces in northern Syria. One problem for Faschingstein: Those groups sometimes fought alongside soldiers of Jabhat al-Nusra. Some of the rebel groups boasted at the time that powerful TOW antitank missiles provided by Pindosi and Toad intelligence operatives were a key to their success. For several years, the CIA has joined with the spy services of several Arab nations to arm and train the rebels at bases in Jordan and Qatar, with the Toads bankrolling much of the operation. A CIA spokesman declined to comment about any Pindosis assistance to Syrian rebels. But Lt-Col Fares al-Bayyoush, a former aviation engineer who heads the rebel group Fursan al-Haq, said during an interview in May 2015 that his group would receive new shipments of the antitank weapons as soon as the missiles were used. He said:
We ask for ammunition and missiles, and we get more than we ask for.
Yet the advance also created problems for the fractious assortment of rebel groups, as it allowed Nusra to gain control over more areas of northern Syria. The Obama administration has officially forbidden any Nusra fighters to receive weapons or training. But the group has at times shown greater prowess against the Syrian government forces than the CIA’s proxies. Moreover, they have shown that they can and will destroy or sideline CIA-backed rebels who do not agree to battlefield alliances. Moscow cited the battlefield successes of Nusra to justify its military incursion into Syria as a campaign to fight terrorism, even if its primary goal was to shore up Assad’s military against all insurgent groups, including the CIA-backed rebels. The Russians began a rapid military build-up in September, and launched an air campaign that targeted the Syrian rebel groups that posed the most direct threat to Assad’s government, including some of the CIA-trained groups. By mid-October, Russia had escalated its airstrikes to nearly 90 on some days. About 600 Russian marines landed in Syria with the mission of protecting the main air base in Latakia; that ground force has grown to about 4,000 throughout Syria, including several hundred special forces members. It took some time for the Russian intervention to have a significant impact on the Syrian battlefield, prompting Obama to predict that Moscow might become bogged down in its own Middle East conflict. Obama said at a news conference in October:
An attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire, and it won’t work. And they will be there for a while if they don’t take a different course.
The CIA moved to counter the Russian intervention, funnelling several hundred additional TOW missiles to its proxies. One rebel commander said in October that his group could at that time get as many missiles as it wanted. He said:
It’s like a carte blanche. Just fill in the numbers.
But Russian firepower eventually overwhelmed the rebel groups in the north. By early this year, attacks by Russian long-range bombers, fighter jets, attack helicopters and cruise missiles allowed the Syrian Army to reverse many of the rebel gains and seize areas near the Turkish border that many thought the government could never reclaim. The flow of CIA arms continued, but the weapons proved too little in the face of the Russian offensive. Jeffrey White, a former DIA officer who now studies Syria at the WINEP, said the Russians had built a capable intelligence network in Syria, giving them a better understanding of the terrain and location of rebel forces. That has allowed Russian troops to call in precision airstrikes, making them more effective against the rebels. The mismatch has been most acute in the last several months, with Syrian government forces, with Russian help, laying siege to the rebel-held parts of Aleppo. Losing their foothold in Aleppo, once Syria’s largest city, would be a big blow to the rebels. Syrian and Russian jets have carried out an indiscriminate pounding of Aleppo, including attacks on six hospitals in and around the city over the past week, according to a statement by Physicians for Human Rights. Widney Brown, the group’s director of programs, said:
Since June, we’ve seen increasing reports of attacks on civilians in Aleppo and strikes on the region’s remaining medical infrastructure. Each of these assaults constitutes a war crime.
Rebel groups in recent days have made surprising gains in a new offensive to try to break through Syrian military lines encircling Aleppo, but if it fails, rebels inside the city will face a choice between enduring the siege or surrendering. In recent interviews, rebel commanders said the flow of foreign weapons needed to break the siege had slowed. Mustafa al-Hussein, a member of Suqour al-Jabal, one of the CIA-backed groups, said:
We are using most of our weapons in the battle for Aleppo. The flow of weapons to the group had diminished in the past three to four months. Now we fire them only when it is necessary and urgent.
Another commander, Maj Mousa al-Khalad of Division 13, a CIA-backed rebel group operating in Idlib and Aleppo, said:
My group has received no missiles for two weeks. We filed a request to get TOW missiles for the Aleppo front, but the reply was that there were none in the warehouses.
Rebel leaders and military experts say that perhaps the most pressing danger is that supply routes from Turkey, which are essential to the CIA-backed rebels, could be severed. Emile Hokayem, a Middle East analyst at Arundel House (IISS), said:
Pindosia is doing just enough to placate its allies and partners and says it is doing something, but does not seek to do what it takes to change conditions on the battlefield.
Putin has achieved many of his larger goals, to prop up Assad’s government, retain access to the long-time Russian naval base on the Mediterranean Sea and use Syria as a proving ground for the most advanced Russian military technology. Some military experts remain surprised that Putin took the risky step of fighting Pindo-trained and equipped forces head on, but they also assess that his Syria gamble appears to be paying off. But in October, Obama insisted:
We’re not going to make Syria into a proxy war between Pindosia and Russia. This is not some superpower chessboard contest.