Hassan Hassan writes: Nearly two weeks after the Russian intervention began in Syria, one could say it has not got off to a good start. Last week, the Syrian regime launched its first ground offensive against the rebels under Russian air support.
The assault, in Hama’s northern countryside, failed spectacularly – rebels affiliated to the Free Syrian Army destroyed at least 18 tanks and held their ground. The anti-government forces had advanced last month towards Al Masasnah, where the battles took place on Monday, and one of the villages that would lead the rebels further into the regime’s heartlands. The offensive was thus an important operation for the government and at the heart of the Russian forces’ role in Syria.
The following day, US officials claimed cruise missiles fired by Russian warships in the Caspian Sea crashed in Iran. And over the weekend, the Syrian army also lost control of “the UN hill” in Quneitra.
But the most significant development happened on Wednesday, when ISIL swept through several rebel-held villages and reached the doorsteps of Aleppo. The advances, made possible by the disruptive targeting of opposition forces committed to fighting ISIL, were the most important gains for the organisation in Aleppo since the rebels expelled it from much of the north in early 2014.
Of course, it is hard to judge the Russian intervention based on last week’s performance. But the developments so far serve as a reality check for early speculation about the scope of the Russian role, such as a ground offensive to expel ISIL from Palmyra. Moscow will be forced to focus its mission on the daunting task of securing the regime’s vital areas. [Continue reading…]