Despite Russian air support, pro-Assad forces only make small advances on the ground

Charles Lister writes: Thus far, after two weeks of operations, pro-regime forces have made small territorial gains north of Homs, south of Aleppo, and in Hama’s Sahl al-Ghab region. But despite Russia’s efforts, ground forces — composed of the Syrian Army, the paramilitary National Defense Force, Hezbollah, Shia militias and increasing numbers of Iranian military personnel — aren’t achieving the victories one might have expected.

One pro-Assad source recently lamented the loss of “24 tanks and 250 men” in Hama, all for “50cm.” While Iran’s infamous Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani has now arrived openly in Syria, Russia has shown no sign of deploying its own ground forces. Its new military facility in Latakia, however, contains the necessary infrastructure for at least 2,000 personnel, leaving the potential for a Russian ground component open to question.

One key reason for the minimal territorial shifts so far is the use of American BGM-71 TOW anti-tank guided missiles by CIA-backed Free Syrian Army rebels. The missiles, which first appeared in rebel hands in April 2014, have been used far more (a nearly 850% rise) since the Russian intervention: there were 82 recorded uses from October 1 to 20, compared to only 13 in all of September. With each missile valued at least $50,000, that equates to over $4.1 million of expenditure in three weeks.

Having initially had an effective, but strategically subdued effect on the conflict, the CIA coordinated provision of TOW missiles has suddenly shown its true potential. Combatants on the ground — including 13th Division leader Lieutenant Colonel Ahmed Saoud and the leaders of three other CIA-backed FSA groups — all told me that they have received more TOWs than normal recently and stressed how useful they have been. “TOWs will destroy the Russians and their objectives, and we’ve received many more recently,” Saoud said. [Continue reading…]

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