Sunday, September 25, 2016

Thoughts on Syria - Sept 25, 2016

The Syrian air force attack on the aid convoy to Aleppo this week which Russia then had the audacity to blame on the US has really strained relations with the Sec. of State Kerry to the breaking point.

Added to the challenge is the unwillingness of the US Defense Department to cooperate with the Russians in the war against IS. Unless President Obama comes out strongly on this matter, the issue of cooperation seems dead. Given the US 'accidental' bombing of Syrian militia forces in eastern Syria at the beginning of the week, it isn't even certain that force de-confliction is possible.  On the other hand de-confliction between Turkey and Russia in northern Syria seems to be happening.

Lavrov is quoted as saying he intends to release to the public the secret accord reached mid-month between the US and Russia. At this point, one can only assume the Russians are interested in scoring political points to make it plain to the world that they are a force to be reckoned then any prospect of a ceasefire or sustained relationship with the Obama administration. All this bodes ill in my opinion not only in the ME but in the Ukraine where it feels like another shoe is about to drop.

In Syria the Assad regime feels very confident that their new offensive will  win them the civil war. We shall see. I don't think that despite aerial dominance, there are enough troops on the ground to actually seize and hold  hostile territory.

So it seems fairly likely that after starving out the residents and fighters in eastern Aleppo, the Russian, Iranians and Syrians regime will have their city back in full, what is left of it.  But what about the rest of the country?

Turkey's enclave that has been carved out of northeastern Syria is not going to go away anytime soon. How will Syrian government deal with that? The Turks look like they are invariably handing over administration of that area to a loose group of NGOs linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. 

And as to the Kurds. Obama has a decision to make as to whether to step up arms support, and in particular, heavy arms to the Kurds in order to get them to move on Raqqa. Personally I don't think the Kurds are going to Raqqa as it does not hold a friendly population,, but it does serve a political agenda for the US Defense Department and if it were an excuse by which the Kurdish forces got heavy weaponry in Syria then perhaps that is how it will unfold during the last months of the Obama administration. I think it more likely that they would push south into east central Syria toward oil and gas fields controlled by IS.

Does the Syrian government have enough manpower? In the summer it seemed the answer was unequivocally no.  Now I'm not so sure.  Also there is the economic disaster of Syria, agriculture, oil and gas, basic infrastructure, factories; it all is very weak despite publicity and PR campaigns by the government.  The Russian blog and media campaign has been relentless and sweeping in scope.

And how will Syria deal with the Kurd which have gotten their act together despite a hopeless geographic situation? Is Assad going to cut a deal for a confederation or is he going to continue his hardline approach of absolute government and directly engage the Kurds?  And if Mosul falls this winter as expected and a wave of Sunni Arabs from Iraq migrate over into eastern Syria, how does that change the equation?

Yet cash flow is a hard thing for Assad and also Iran and Russia. Syria's regime is in terrible financial straits since last May when its currency collapsed. This will make oil and gas fields, grain harvested and stored in silos and electrical power plants all the more important. Iran got relief this year from the US but that does not address the negative impact of oil and gas pricing and the inherent inefficiencies and corruption endemic to Iran.  Russia, has done an admirable job managing its domestic budget despite great hardship, but indications of great strain are everywhere in its economy. Perhaps Russia should get what it wishes, a long and costly engagement in Syria and eastern Ukraine.

Given the US election cycle and Russia's hope that Obama will leave and Hillary will lose, my guess is that it plans to push the limits in Syria and Ukraine militarily until the end of the calendar year.

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