How the Syrian crisis will change matters in Iraq

Russia's initial foray into the Syrian conflict has not gone well, but Hassan Hassan says it provides a reality check.

Syrian army personnel load howitzers last week. Alexander Kots / AP
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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.

So the idea that the government would commit forces to retake areas from which it had withdrawn overlooks the fact that Russia came to prop up a weak army. If Bashar Al Assad sends his forces to ISIL’s areas, he risks exposing key fronts.

The situation might get worse for the regime: the war already appears to be intensifying and the rebels are poised to receive increased aid from regional allies. According to the BBC’s Frank Gardner, Saudi Arabia has delivered 500 TOW missiles. Vladimir Putin’s meetings with Gulf officials over the weekend indicate his mission will hinge on whether the rebel backers will raise the stakes.

In this context, unconfirmed reports suggested that Moscow and Tehran would send foreign volunteers to help the regime stage ground campaigns. This reality leads to a question that everybody should be asking: how will the intensification of the Syrian conflict, which might prompt Iran to commit more resources and forces to it, affect the war against ISIL in Iraq?

Any increased attention to Syria will no doubt be at the expense of Iranian-backed forces in Iraq. Last year, when ISIL took Mosul, many of the Shia militants fighting in Syria had to return to Iraq to help defend the capital and holy areas. This is particularly the case as the anti-ISIL forces in Iraq, by the admission of US officials in closed settings, are now exhausted and demoralised.

Not much has been happening on the Iraqi anti-ISIL front in recent weeks. Baghdad has announced major battles to liberate Fallujah, Ramadi and even Mosul. But Baghdad has little to show for its rhetoric. A major media campaign that accompanied the battle for Fallujah two months ago quietly faded away. Promises by the US secretary of state John Kerry in May that Ramadi would be retaken “in a few days” did not materialise.

Kurdish forces have secured most of their areas and have little incentive to battle ISIL on behalf of Baghdad outside their areas. Shia volunteers are also less motivated to fight after ISIL seemed militarily contained in its Sunni heartlands. The heavy loss during the Tikrit battle in March, spearheaded by Iran, initially without Washington’s consent, demonstrated the cost of fighting ISIL in Sunni areas, especially after ISIL turned out to have plotted the takeover of Ramadi while battling the approximately 30,000 pro-government forces in Tikrit. The government also failed to pay Shia volunteers for their efforts in the fight against ISIL.

Syria and Iraq have become one military and security theatre. ISIL plots its next moves as weaknesses emerge either side of the border. The resources dedicated to defending the Syrian and Iraqi governments are also largely interconnected.

These dynamics point to a grimmer reality ahead. As the conflict intensifies in Syria, Iran will be sucked further into the Syria front at the expense of the Iraqi one. This would reduce the pressure on ISIL in Iraq while neither the regime nor Russia seems to target it in Syria. The Russian priority in Syria is to prop up the Assad regime’s strongholds, which are nowhere near ISIL-held territory. Worse, Russian jets target forces that proved successful in the fight against ISIL and fuel the conflicts in Syria and Iraq. That is not a good start.

Hassan Hassan is associate fellow at Chatham House’s Middle East and South Africa Programme, a non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror

On Twitter: @hxhassan