During President Vladimir Putin’s visit to the Russian airbase in Syria this week, he delivered a speech thanking Russian military forces for their “efforts against terrorism” in the war-torn country. He declared “mission accomplished” in terms of the campaign to defeat ISIS, whilst announcing that he would begin withdrawing “a significant part” of Russia’s military contingent from Syria. However, the Russian airbase in Latakia and the Naval Base in Tartous would remain “permanently”.
There is certainly an element of truth in Mr. Putin’s words. ISIS has lost over 95% of the territory it controlled in Syria, including all of the major cities: Raqqa, al-Bab, Deir Hafer, Deir Ezzor, Palmyra, al-Qaryatain, al-Bukamal, and others. Gas and oil fields previously controlled by Daesh (ISIS) have all been retaken. In addition to the territory they have lost, ISIS has also suffered grave losses of military equipment, logistical damage, and now lacks access to basic resources. Tens of thousands of fighters have been neutralised.
Yet some ISIS pockets remain, notably the Yarmouk Refugee Camp, as well as a group of villages to the north of Hama, and some districts to the east of the Euphrates River. To rightfully claim a total victory, the remaining pockets must be cleared.
Moreover, the Russian military intervention in support of Syrian government forces began on the 30th of September 2015, with the stated objective of defeating all those considered ‘terrorists’ by Moscow. Al-Nusra front, formerly the official branch of al-Qaeda in Syria, maintains a strong presence in the country. It is the dominant force in the northern province of Idlib (which is entirely in rebel hands), still has an enclave near Daraa City, and is closely intertwined with other rebel groups in the area directly to the north of the government-held city of Aleppo.
Ahrar al-Sham, another group designated a terrorist organization in Russia, and indeed in most of the world, is virtually omnipresent in Syria. They are the second-largest rebel group, they control much of the territory in Idlib, they have fighters in East Ghouta, they are with al-Nusra and the Zinki faction in northern Aleppo, and they were until very recently in Western Ghouta, an area now completely in government hands. Jaysh al-Islam, also a terrorist group from the perspective of the Russian government, continues to fire rockets into residential districts of Damascus from their positions in Duma and Erbin, two of the most important towns in East Ghouta. Although the percentage of East Ghouta district held by rebels has been significantly reduced since the Syrian army’s offensive in the spring of 2016, Jaysh al-Islam remains in control of the western parts of that rural suburb adjacent to the capital.
Therefore, by Russia’s own standards, a true victory against ‘terrorism’ is still a little way off. A near-complete victory against the terrorist group ISIS is perhaps a better way of putting it. But Russian airpower has been crucial in turning the tide of the war in President Assad’s favour, since they first intervened with airstrikes back in the autumn of 2015.
Prior to October 2015, the situation on the ground was drastically different. We saw a weak and disorganized military, retreating on multiple fronts and conceding large swathes of land to ISIS in the east, to Nusra in the north, and to other rebel units in the south. Latakia was in serious danger, Damascus was barely holding on, Aleppo was the rebel stronghold, Hama was about to fall, Daraa was entirely under rebel control, Western Ghouta was a Nusra safehouse, and the collapse of the state seemed imminent. Russia’s entry changed the game. Today, Aleppo has been recaptured by Syrian military forces, Latakia is entirely under government control, much of Hama’s northern countryside has been retaken, Palmyra was liberated from Daesh, Deir Ezzor has been freed, Syrian troops have entered Daraa City, they control a large portion of East Ghouta, 100% of Western Ghouta, and are now preparing to storm Idlib.
The Syrian state has been preserved, the government of Bashar al-Assad stabilised, and the Syrian army discernibly strengthened.
The general international optimism surrounding the Geneva Peace Process has faded away as the negotiations themselves have been stalled. The Syrian government’s delegation, led by Dr Bashar al-Jaafari, walked out of the meeting in frustration. In a televised interview, Mr Jaafari stated that the opposition’s insistence on President Assad’s immediate departure as a precondition was a “non-starting point which could only reach a dead end”. Political analysts have suggested that the government’s decision to withdraw their delegation was an embarrassment to Moscow, who had spent months organizing the event and persuading the government side to attend.
Meanwhile, there are several new reports alleging that US President Donald Trump has abandoned previous US attempts to oust the Syrian leader, deciding instead that he could remain in office until 2021. Whether he expects Bashar Assad to resign then, or whether he would tolerate him running for a new term, remains unconfirmed.