Can Syrian opposition flare up battlefronts as Russia drowns in Ukraine’s mud?

Russian military convoy in Syria (edited by Enab Baladi)

Russian military convoy in Syria (edited by Enab Baladi)

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Enab Baladi – Khaled al-Jeratli

The common standpoint of Syrian political figures and activists over the past four weeks is about seizing the opportunity to reopen the fighting fronts in Syria, taking advantage of Russia’s war on Ukraine.

On social media platforms, the debate is about the decisive moment that has come as Russia might not be able to provide significant military and logistical support for the key ally in Damascus. On the contrary, surfaced reports say that Russia is the one who needs the backup of the Syrian regular forces and allied militias in its fight in Ukraine.

However, on the ground, in contrast to the calls, the Russian warplanes and reconnaissance aircraft have maintained the pace of its flights on the opposition-held areas since Ukraine’s invasion began on 24 February and until today, despite the decrease in the bombing tally, according to a local monitoring specialized in monitoring air movements in the Syrian airspace.

Through its Telegram platform, the Syria Aviation Observatory, which periodically monitors air traffic in Syria, shows that dozens of flights of Russian reconnaissance drones take off on a daily basis from different airports in Syria, most of them from Hmeimim airport in the coastal Latakia region.

Also, the Russian warplanes are always flying in the airspace of northwestern Syria, and areas from its east, in addition to cargo and training aircraft taking off from Kwairis Airport in the eastern countryside of Aleppo city, according to the Observatory.

Syria still strategic front for Russia

Coinciding with the start of the ground invasion to Ukraine, Russian warplanes flew over the areas of the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) in the northern countryside of Aleppo and dropped flare bombs over it.

Colonel Abdullah al-Asaad, military expert, considered the Russian move as an alert message to Turkey and allied factions not to think of any possible military action towards the regime-controlled areas in parts of Idlib and Hama governorate.

The intense traffic of the Russian air force sends another message: “We are present and ready,” al-Asaad added.

In its turn, the Syria Civil Defense team (SCD) found shrapnel on the roofs of houses without any traces of aerial bombardment or destruction after Russian warplanes flew and dropped flare bombs in the sky of al-Bab town, east of Aleppo, the rescue group said on its Telegram account on 24 February.

On the same day, the aviation observatory, run by the Civil Defense, monitored continuous flight of Russian warplanes and reconnaissance aircraft from the night before the Russian invasion until the next day.

The Russian tactic falls under the so-called “coordination of the battlefronts,” according to military and strategic sciences, which requires the flareup of all fronts that the military forces must leave to head to another front.

In the event that the Syrian opposition factions start military action towards the Syrian regime’s areas, Russia will inevitably resort to the Iranian militias and the Syrian regime forces to fill the vacuum and stop the opposition factions’ advance on the fighting fronts until it ends its war on the Ukrainian front, according to al-Assaad.

Ukraine is paramount

Abdulkader Na’naa, an expert in International Relations, says Ukraine poses an existential threat to the West and Russia, and it represents the highest priority that threatens the entity of the conflicting countries.

The academic added that the tools of confrontation in Ukraine would be “more intense” and more decisive than Syria, which today is considered by the two sides, Russia and the West, a dimension based on interest and security. Therefore, the common interests of the two parties in Syria do not threaten the existence of either Russia or the West. Rather, it is an extra burden for both parties, whether directly or indirectly.

The sequence of the ongoing war in Ukraine may help the Syrians to re-evaluate their place in the orbit of international interests, which will differ slightly with the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Na’naa said.

Syria may soon be one of the “marginal” Western-Russian conflict fields, along with Libya and Sub-Saharan Africa (Mali in particular).

The Western-Russian clash may extend to these arenas, with the aim of putting pressure on one party on the other, or preoccupying one party with subsidiary interests and security files, according to the expert.

For this reason, Na’naa believes that reopening the Syrian battlefronts will be confronted by Russia or Iran, despite the odds between the two sides, but it is an international affair today and not a local affair that concerns Syrians only.

“If there are limited forces that wish to open those fronts, It will be basically controlled by the International powers,” Na’naa added.

The military fronts, which once were raging, are now controlled by agreements between the intervening countries in Syria. These fronts might be heated again if there was an international will to confront Russia in Syria through proxy war to tighten the noose on the “Russian bear.”

What if the Syrian fronts flare up again?

According to Na’naa, some international parties may coordinate with the Syrian regime itself to work against Russian interests in Syria.

“Persuading Bashar al-Assad to abandon Russia may always stem from the belief that the Syrian regime has the ability to make a change in the Syrian scene by overturning the alliance with Russia for lifting some (US and International) sanctions,” said the academic researcher.

What prompts such scenario that it is less costly than the scenario of arming and opening fronts with the Russians in Syria although this option today is unlikely, but it remains a valid option, especially with the change in the American position on Venezuela and Iran, which were a major enemy to the US earlier, Na’naa added.

In turn, the military analyst Abdullah al-Asaad views no possibility for these battlefronts to flare up again due to the lack of a will or decision to fight by the Syrian opposition so far.

In any case, the troops deployed on the fronts by the Syrian regime forces have not changed. “The Russian absence, if it occurs, will not affect the strength of these forces, as the Russian presence on the ground is limited to the Syrian regime forces and their allied militias, including those loyal to Iran,” according to al-Asaad.

The military expert pointed out that the only change in the map is that the Russian forces withdrew the Wagner mercenary fighters towards Ukraine, while the Iranians are the main arm on the fronts of the Syrian regime.

Even if the Russian air cover decreases in the event of future confrontations, Moscow will not miss such events, as Russia is still present in Syria, al-Asaad said.

597 foreign military positions in Syria

According to the Jusoor for Studies Center, at least 597 foreign military bases have been stationed in Syria throughout the war years, which have full authority and leadership, and absolute influence.

The study of Jusoor that was published on 27 December 2021 does not include details of the personnel operating in the bases due to secrecy applied in it. For that, no further data about the experts, technicians, or military staff as leaders or as elements within the barracks and barriers of the various local forces or within the institutions of governance and civil administration.

The study included the deployment bastions of the US-led International Coalition, marked by the US flag, the Russian forces, as well as the locations of the Iranian forces and the Lebanese Hezbollah militia in addition to the Turkish military bases in northern Syria.

Aleppo tops the list with the highest number of foreign bases among the Syrian governorates with 155 sites, most of which were for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRG) and allied militias.

​​Idlib region ranked second in the number of these bases with 76 locations, most of which were Turkish bases within the areas controlled by the Syrian opposition, followed by the Russian bases in parts of the governorate controlled by the regime forces.

While the capital’s suburbs and surrounding countryside contained 68 sites, most of it Iranian, and the Homs governorate contained 512 Iranian and Russian sites, in addition to two sites of the International Coalition in the al-Tanf region at the Syria-Iraq border in the eastern countryside of Homs.

Jusoor’s study included Deir Ezzor with 64 military sites, Hama with 43 sites, most of which run by Iran, al-Hasakah with 38 sites, and Raqqa with 32 sites, most operated by the US-led International Coalition.

In the southern Syria region, Iran takes the lion’s share as most foreign bases in Daraa, Quneitra, As-Suwayda, and Damascus, while Tartus and Latakia in the coastal region are completely under the military control of Russia with Hmeimim airbase in Jableh town and Russian naval facility in Tartus.

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