Military success in Syria gives Putin upper hand in proxy war with US

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 Saudi Arabia.

Intelligence assessments circulated in Washington that the Syrian president, Bashar al-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 anti-tank 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 US-supplied Afghan fighters prevailed during that Cold War conflict. But this time the outcome – thus far – has been different.

“Russia has won the proxy war, at least for now,” said Michael Kofman, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.

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 President Vladimir Putin’s government about a plan to share intelligence and coordinate airstrikes against the so-called 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 President Barack Obama – had predicted he would.

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 Washington: Those groups sometimes fought alongside soldiers of the Nusra Front, which until recently was officially affiliated with al-Qaeda.

Some of the rebel groups boasted at the time that powerful TOW anti-tank missiles provided by US and Saudi 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 Saudis bankrolling much of the operation.

A CIA spokesman declined to comment about any US assistance to Syrian rebels.

But Lieutenant-Colonel Fares al-Bayyoush, a former aviation engineer who heads the rebel group Fursan al-Haq (Knights of Truth), said during an interview in May 2015 that his group would receive new shipments of the anti-tank weapons as soon as the missiles were used.

“We ask for ammunition and missiles, and we get more than we ask for,” he said.

The Russians began a rapid military buildup 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 4000 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.

“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,” Obama said at a news conference in October. “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, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of threats from more radical groups within the rebel coalition, said in October that his group could at that time get as many missiles as it wanted.

“It’s like a carte blanche,” he said. “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.

Recent interviews with rebel commanders said the flow of foreign weapons needed to break the siege of the city had slowed.

“We are using most of our weapons in the battle for Aleppo,” said Mustafa al-Hussein, a member of Suqour al-Jabal, one of the CIA-backed groups. He said 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,” he said.

Another commander, Major Mousa al-Khalad of Division 13, a CIA-backed rebel group operating in Idlib and Aleppo, said his group had received no missiles for two weeks.

“We filed a request to get TOW missiles for the Aleppo front,” he said, but the reply was that there were none in the warehouses.

Full article: Military success in Syria gives Putin upper hand in proxy war with US (The Age)

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