As the Syrian civil war progresses with no end in sight, Rob Richer, former Associate Deputy Director for Operations at the CIA and member of the Cipher Brief network, discussed recent developments in Syria. According to Richer, U.S. operations in Syria “will remain focused primarily on ISIS” at least until the next President takes office, and that the U.S. views cooperation with Russia in Syria as minimal and only taking “place when it benefits Russia’s agenda in support of Assad. Further, the humanitarian situation in Syria “continues to deteriorate” and many Syrians are attempting to reach the country’s borders to avoid relentless hostilities,” says Richer.
The Cipher Brief: How are U.S. supported Syrian rebels faring after the latest bombardment from Russian and pro-Assad forces?
Rob Richer: U.S. supported Syrian rebels are reducing active operations to lessen chances of a confrontation with Russian supported, pro-Assad forces. For the most part, they are pulling back to secure operating areas. Morale in these forces is considered marginal, in part due to the inability of coalition members to protect these forces from increasing Russian supported air or enhanced artillery attacks.
Further, there is an escalating belief within the coalition backed forces, which were primarily established to fight against Assad, that in light of the current election cycle in the U.S., the current anti-Assad operations will remain focused primarily on ISIS. More aggressive operations against Assad will be “punted” until a new administration in the U.S. is in place.
TCB: What is the level of cooperation and coordination between the U.S. and Russia in the fights against ISIS?
RR: The level of cooperation depends on which side of the issue you sit. Russians say they are coordinating fully with the coalition partners in efforts against ISIS and related extremist groups. The Russians see the U.S. supported opposition as a threat to the legitimacy of the legally recognized Assad government. They also see the attacks of that group against Assad elements as taking resources away from the more serious ISIS threat.
The U.S. feels that Russia is working against overall coalition objectives in Syria and that cooperation is minimal and only takes place when it benefits Russia’s agenda in support of Assad.
TCB: Have there been any major developments since Jabhat Fatah al-Shab (formerly al Nusra) split from al Qaeda?
RR: According to those monitoring this “split,” the split was a split in name mostly. Jabhat had two primary goals in announcing the split. First was to remove itself from targeting by increasingly active Russian air operations. Interestingly, Jabhat and ISIS fighters are reportedly more concerned with increasing Russian air operations than those of the U.S. and related coalition. The Russians, reportedly, are not hindered by coalition rules of engagements regarding targets and or collateral damage, and are more aggressive and less discriminate in their operations.
Second, Jabhat wants a role in whatever coalition is formed if/when a transition takes place once ISIS is defeated, and Assad comes to the negotiation table. They are taking a page from the Hezbollah playbook in trying to take on more of a political construct—starting some relief and social assistance programs and changing part of its face to the world. That said, coordination and contact between al Qaeda and Jabhat continues.
TCB: Has Russia’s use of Iranian air bases changed the dynamic on the battlefield?
RR: The use of these airfields has allowed Russia to expand its reach across Syria and has enabled Russia to use heavier aircraft in the war effort. Politically, it has drawn Iran more fully into supporting Assad and gives further weight to the importance of Russia’s role in the region. Thus, the use of the Iranian air bases have had both military and political impact, and in particular, further cements Putin’s role in the region.
TCB: What is the significance of Assad breaking the truce with Kurdish PYD?
RR: Assad is empowered right now with recent successes on the ground in Syria and increasing military and political support from Putin. Assad also assesses that there is a lessening of support for his immediate stepping down from power by some of the coalition members and regional powers, who are increasingly concerned that the vacuum created by his stepping down – without a viable opposition or coalition grouping to assume leadership – would take Syria down the road of Libya or Iraq.
Further, Putin has recently engineered support from Turkey for a more transitional approach to a change in Syrian leadership. Assad, at Putin’s insistence, has given Turkey tacit approval to conduct operations across the Turkish border against ISIS targets, and the actions against the Kurdish PYD are seen as a quid pro quo for the change in Turkish positions regarding Assad. Turkey believes that the PYD is closely aligned with the Kurdish PKK and is helping support PKK activities within Turkey.
TCB: What is the humanitarian situation on the ground?
RR: The humanitarian situation on the ground continues to deteriorate. Aggressive, increasing, and somewhat indiscriminate air attacks by Syrian or Russian aircraft are fueling a new exodus to the borders. As the borders to Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon have become increasingly more restrictive to Syrian refugees and the flow of refugees out of Syria to Europe via the Mediterranean Sea curtailed sharply due to security concerns on the part of European nations in the wake of recent attacks, there are growing refugee camps along Syria’s common borders.
As an example, in two camps along Syria’s border with Jordan, there are approximately 80,000-90,000 refugees living in ad hoc camps hoping to be allowed entry into Jordan. Unfortunately, ISIS and related extremist groups have used these camps to conceal some of their operatives and base operations against Jordan. Security concerns are forcing neighboring countries to be much more circumspect in allowing entry. Further, the support of the international community for the refugees remains lagging, with the refugee host countries feeling significant internal economic distress and some internal populace frustration with the demands associated with the hosting of such large numbers of refugees.