What is Russia doing in Syria? By Patrick Cockburn

A must read article analyzing the interests of different players in Syrian civil war and ISIS. It is almost impossible for USA to have a cohesive strategy in the current crisis when its allies have contradictory interests of their own. The decision to send American soldiers/advisers to help Kurdish army is a nightmare scenario for Turkey and it may decide to undermine it. Iraq, Iran, Russia and Huzebullah are helping Assad to stay in power. For Shia it is a matter of personal survival and for some oil rich states, especially Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, it is a matter of economic survival because most of the oil fields are located in Shia territory in their countries. For these states, Shia issue takes precedent over ISIS curse. Spread of Shia-Sunni conflict in the world is part of the same strategy by these oil rich states. (F. Sheikh).

The military balance of power in Syria and Iraq is changing. The Russian air strikes that have been taking place since the end of September are strengthening and raising the morale of the Syrian army, which earlier in the year looked fought out and was on the retreat. With the support of Russian airpower, the army is now on the offensive in and around Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city, and is seeking to regain lost territory in Idlib province. Syrian commanders on the ground are reportedly relaying the co-ordinates of between 400 and 800 targets to the Russian air force every day, though only a small proportion of them come under immediate attack. The chances of Bashar al-Assad’s government falling – though always more remote than many suggested – are disappearing. Not that this means he is going to win.

The drama of Russian military action, while provoking a wave of Cold War rhetoric from Western leaders and the media, has taken attention away from an equally significant development in the war in Syria and Iraq. This has been the failure over the last year of the US air campaign – which began in Iraq in August 2014 before being extended to Syria – to weaken Islamic State and other al-Qaida-type groups. By October the US-led coalition had carried out 7323 air strikes, the great majority of them by the US air force, which made 3231 strikes in Iraq and 2487 in Syria. But the campaign has demonstrably failed to contain IS, which in May captured Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria. There have been far fewer attacks against the Syrian branch of al-Qaida, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the extreme Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham, which between them dominate the insurgency in northern Syria. The US failure is political as much as military: it needs partners on the ground who are fighting IS, but its choice is limited because those actually engaged in combat with the Sunni jihadis are largely Shia – Iran itself, the Syrian army, Hizbullah, the Shia militias in Iraq – and the US can’t offer them full military co-operation because that would alienate the Sunni states, the bedrock of America’s power in the region. As a result the US can only use its air force in support of the Kurds.

The US faces the same dilemma in Iraq and Syria today as it did after 9/11 when George Bush declared the war on terror. It was known then that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, Osama bin Laden was a Saudi and the money for the operation came from Saudi donors. But the US didn’t want to pursue al-Qaida at the expense of its relations with the Sunni states, so it muted criticism of Saudi Arabia and invaded Iraq; similarly, it never confronted Pakistan over its support for the Taliban, ensuring that the movement was able to regroup after losing power in 2001.

Washington tried to mitigate the failure of its air campaign, officially called Operation Inherent Resolve, by making exaggerated claims of success. Maps were issued to the press showing that IS had a weakening grip on between 25 and 30 per cent of its territory, but they conveniently left out the parts of Syria where IS was advancing. Such was the suppression and manipulation of intelligence by the administration that in July fifty analysts working for US Central Command signed a protest against the official distortion of what was happening on the battlefield. Russia has now taken advantage of the US failure to suppress the jihadis.

But great power rivalry is only one of the confrontations taking place in Syria, and the fixation on Russian intervention has obscured other important developments. The outside world hasn’t paid much attention, but the regional struggle between Shia and Sunni has intensified in the last few weeks. Shia states across the Middle East, notably Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, have never had much doubt that they are in a fight to the finish with the Sunni states, led by Saudi Arabia, and their local allies in Syria and Iraq. Shia leaders dismiss the idea, much favoured in Washington, that a sizeable moderate, non-sectarian Sunni opposition exists that would be willing to share power in Damascus and Baghdad: this, they believe, is propaganda pumped out by Saudi and Qatari-backed media. When it comes to keeping Assad in charge in Damascus, the increased involvement of the Shia powers is as important as the Russian air campaign. For the first time units of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard have been deployed in Syria, mostly around Aleppo, and there are reports that a thousand fighters from Iran and Hizbullah are waiting to attack from the north. Several senior Iranian commanders have recently been killed in the fighting. The mobilisation of the Shia axis is significant because, although Sunni outnumber Shia in the Muslim world at large, in the swathe of countries most directly involved in the conflict – Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon – there are more than a hundred million Shia, who believe their own existence is threatened if Assad goes down, compared to thirty million Sunnis, who are in a majority only in Syria.

In addition to the Russian-American rivalry and the struggle between Shia and Sunni, a third development of growing importance is shaping the war. This is the struggle of the 2.2 million Kurds, 10 per cent of the Syrian population, to create a Kurdish statelet in north-east Syria, which the Kurds call Rojava. Since the withdrawal of the Syrian army from the three Kurdish enclaves in the summer of 2012, the Kurds have been extraordinarily successful militarily and now control an area that stretches for 250 miles between the Euphrates and the Tigris along the southern frontier of Turkey. The Syrian Kurdish leader Salih Muslim told me in September that the Kurdish forces intended to advance west of the Euphrates, seizing the last IS-held border crossing with Turkey at Jarabulus and linking up with the Syrian Kurdish enclave at Afrin. Such an event would be viewed with horror by Turkey, which suddenly finds itself hemmed in by Kurdish forces backed by US airpower along much of its southern frontier.Click link below for full article.

http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/10/30/what-is-russia-doing-in-syria/