ISW 90 Day Forecast for Syria.


"The expanded interventions of Russia and Iran into the Syrian Civil War have shifted the trajectory of the conflict in favor of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, granting him the strongest position on the battlefield as of February 24, 2016. Regime forces bolstered by Iranian ground troops and Russian air support have achieved major gains against both the Syrian armed opposition and ISIS in Northern Syria since September 2015, marking a fundamental shift in battlefield momentum following a compounding series of regime losses in the first half of 2015. President Assad now sits within reach of several of his military objectives, including the encirclement and isolation of Aleppo City and the establishment of a secure defensive perimeter along the Syrian Coast. The regime and its allies will likely retain their battlefield gains if there is no intervention by the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, or the UAE. Russian campaign designers have clearly planned the ongoing operations in northern Syria, introducing to the Syrian battlefield signature Russian doctrinal concepts such as frontal aviation, cauldron battles, and multiple simultaneous and successive operations. These have made the joint Syrian-Russian-Iranian military operations more effective for a longer duration than previous operations. The offensive operations conducted by the regime and its allies may nevertheless culminate over the 90-day timeframe, as pro-regime forces attempt to advance deeper into core opposition-held terrain and take high casualties. Regular reinforcement of ground capabilities by Iran and Russia will therefore remain necessary over the next three months in order to maintain this level of momentum in the face of continued manpower shortages, attrition, and opposition military actions designed to slow and divert the campaign."  ISW


This is good work!   I have a few quibbles but not many.  I would argue that "signature Russian doctrinal concepts" displayed are really just military common sense applying the principles of war in a modern context without distraction by the COIN delusion.  I would agree that military force presently available to R+6 for the post cease-fire war is marginal in numbers of units and the number of fighters.  I continue to believe that ISW is correct in asserting that reinforcement of these numbers by Iran and Russia will be necessary for the re-consolidation of Syrian government control in some sort of political arrangement that will involve a substantial devolution of powers to regional alignments.  pl

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49 Responses to ISW 90 Day Forecast for Syria.

  1. Any current open source assessments of Russians deployed in Syria? My estimate 20,000!

  2. Matthew says:

    Sprinkling the FSA into Nusra hasn’t fooled the Russians or Assad. See

  3. ISL says:

    It seems that one feature of the American overwhelming power approach to war (recent decades) is that it tends to leave a vacuum that tends towards instability. So far, the Russian approach to military power application seems less prone to instability – more measured. I have not been reading about extensive behind the SAA lines gorilla actions or in Ukraine.
    Power sharing, apparently has happened with FSA and Kurds, and is something the US pursued in Afghanistan. which doesnt fit this model. Perhaps American missionary zeal – they want to be like us, so lets make them… pissed in the porridge?
    The Russians learned much from the Chechen wars, will we?

  4. turcopolier says:

    IMO the Russians have no more than 10,000 in Syria and that would be a high end estimate. The air group and its support; logistics, ECM, air defense missiles, etc. are probably not more than 5,000. Advisers, trainers, Sptetznaz, another 5,000? Maybe. pl

  5. Poul says:

    IS continues to harass the supply route to Aleppo. Now further to the south as their northern attempt is being pushed back.
    Latest progress of the government offensive north of Aleppo.

  6. Barish says:

    For the record, clean-up of the Khanasser-Aleppo route is continuing rather rapidly:
    As per, another roadblock ISIL set up is between Ithriya and Sheik Hilal, at a place called “Bir Azib Garbi”. Matter of another day, at most, until that is cleared up, I reckon?
    Further, SAA and allies appear to have grabbed a couple totally-not-the-same-as-ISIL insurgent posts while going to work at Khanasser, if one takes into account edmaps. First here:
    and here:
    Have there been noises on the insurgents pulling shenanigans like saying a party of theirs that signed up pro forma for the cease-fire is operating either at Khanasser or further down south at the Ithriya-Sheikh Hilal block? Wouldn’t be particularly surprised if they would…

  7. robt willmann says:

    It is now more than 6 hours past high noon on 26 February 2016 in Syria, the deadline in the “joint statement” and “terms for cessation of hostilities” for the “armed opposition” (clever choice of words by the U.S.) to “confirm” to the U.S. or Russia their “commitment to and acceptance of” the terms. Well, according to one source, ” `The High Negotiations Committee (HNC) confirms the agreement of the Free Syrian Army factions and the armed opposition to a temporary [!] truce from midnight Saturday,’ an HNC statement said, as quoted by Reuters.” And, “The HNC said that more than 100 armed groups have supported the truce agreement, and that it will circulate a list of those which have agreed later on Friday, Sputnik reported.” Also, “they will respect a two-week truce which begins at midnight local time on Friday. They warned, however, that the government must not launch attacks in the name of fighting terrorism.”
    A “two-week truce”, the opposition says.

  8. Jack says:

    In your opinion is the outcome of the “cessation of hostilities” in Syria a partition of the country? Assad government held areas, unicorn jihadi held areas and ISIS held areas.
    Or, will all the jihadists including the unicorns get annihilated? And the Syria prior to the jihadi invasion be restored?

  9. b says:

    I did some basic calculations and came up with some 4,500 max. This includes air, air defense, intelligence, logistics and special forces, weapon trainers. Russia is unlikely to up that number significantly.
    The ground troops will have to come (and do come) from Iran, Iraq and Hizbullah. To them the fight is existential. If Syria falls to Jihadis their homelands are in deep trouble.

  10. b says:

    That harassing was pretty strong today. A top Hizbullah commander and an IRGC LtCol were killed along with “many” Hizbullah fighters.
    The attack on the Khanasser route is to stop or divert the forces that are attacking towards Tabqa airbase and AlThawra.
    Pretty clever and so far successful but costly for IS as it is losing lots of personal there to Russian bombing.

  11. alba etie says:

    Big Grandma cannot be trusted; just more neocon BS …

  12. Bill Herschel says:

    When is a “cessation of hostilities” not a “cessation of hostilities”? When it is a no-fly zone.
    This is the last best chance for the liver eaters to destroy the Russian presence in Syria. Regroup and destroy.
    A footnote from the MOD presentation. The two airstrikes described by the spokesman were by SU-34’s. I think Russia knows that the risk is very great right now. However, the Jerusalem Post article implies that the strike against Russian forces will be by surrogates. Their sponsors will view things from the sidelines. The Russians know these surrogates very, very well.
    All my opinion. Completely off topic, but now perhaps a more valuable opinion. I have previously recommended the Russian movie “White Tiger”. The Tiger is a German Tiger tank that destroys a lot of Russian tanks as they race across Germany at the end of WWII. I and my family think it is as good a movie as we have seen in the past five years at least. Recall that all of modern theater was basically invented in Russia. The acting in the film is unbelievably good. Or I should say completely believable. The film ultimately is an allegory and the last scene is an echo of Dante. In addition to everything else, it is suspenseful as hell. It’s on iTunes with subtitles. I recommend it again.

  13. alba etie says:

    IMO the cease fire is more kabuki – notice that the cessation of hostilities does not extend to organizations designated terrorist groups by the UNSC ..

  14. Fred says:

    “…re-consolidation of Syrian government control in some sort of political arrangement that will involve a substantial devolution of powers to regional alignments.”
    Isn’t this devolution of power the hardest part of winning this war? How will the SAR prevent various NGOs from entering into the process and destabilizing things (as happened in Ukraine) once again?

  15. turcopolier says:

    My real number would be around 5,000. I do think some number of Russian “volunteers” is possible. pl

  16. turcopolier says:

    Jack and fred
    IMO Syria will not be partitioned any more than Iraq will be partitioned but there will be a different relationship between capital and regional entities. And I DO think the jihadis will be exterminated in both countries. pl

  17. Babak Makkinejad says:

    The cease fire enable 97 armed formations to stop fighting. They could claim that they have not surrendered and then gradually fade away – perhaps even assisted by SAR.
    It also has taken the wind out of Turkish insinuations of fighting in Syria – how can they go against a cease fire “that help save lives” and has the endorsement of UNSC?
    That goes for the Gulfies too…

  18. Fred says:

    Sounds like ISIS will lose that attrition portion of the conflict faster than the R+6. Interesting language choices on the map. I think they’ve been watching too many star wars movies.

  19. Haralambos says:

    Greece: No exit (Thessaloniki, Greece—26 Feb 2016)
    If this headline had appeared several years ago, it would have been cause for optimism in the context of the concerns here over a Grexit. Today it refers to the migrant/refugee situation here in Greece, the country in which I have been a denizen for the better part of the past 38 years. There are thousands of migrants that have landed here in 2016 already who are trying to leave and head to their image of “heaven on earth,” Germany or countries further north, where they have friends, relatives, or just think they see something better. For them, there currently is No Exit.
    These are some of the images and numbers from today:

  20. Laguerre says:

    You’re right. There’s already a devolution of budgets, and therefore powers, in Iraq, as I discovered when I met the deputy governor of (Sunni) Muhafazat Salah al-Din last summer. In Syria, Asad already launched this path some time ago, when he left the Druze in peace – no conscription. The deal with the Kurds is much the same, but somewhat confused by the propaganda which insists on making the Syrian Kurds enemies of Asad, which they are not.

  21. aleksandar says:

    After Afghnistan, a lot of researches have been launched in USSR and then in Russia about ” what was wrong ? ”
    Inquiries from army’s top brass down to the level of company commanders and even platoon leaders.
    The Russian doctrine was rewritten.
    “In foreign countries, advisers, air power, logistic support, intelligence, spetnaz and……. no boots on the ground.”
    That’s exactly what W.Poutine said from the beginning.
    And he will stick to that for political and military reasons

  22. Kooshy says:

    Exactly, this “US agreed” cease fire will take/ took? the wind off of the Turkish / Saudi sails. Wouldn’t have been possible, without the wining of the war on the ground and without the Russian air and UN suport.

  23. Tel says:

    “I have a few quibbles but not many. I would argue that “signature Russian doctrinal concepts” displayed are really just military common sense applying the principles of war in a modern context without distraction by the COIN delusion.”
    Just call it by the original name: “blitzkrieg” straight out of Operation Barbarossa. The Russians learned their lessons well.

  24. Liza says:

    Col. Lang:
    Articles in Fort Russ have alluded to Russian volunteers. One article published at the start of the Russian military campaign reported on the death of well-known fighter in Novorossiya who was killed while fighting with a Kurdish unit in Syria. Another article (see link below), published last October, reported on volunteers from Novorossiya heading to Syria.

  25. turcopolier says:

    Liza & aleksandr
    IM judgement R+6 troops are thin on the ground and may be reaching a point of exhaustion that requires a reduction in operational tempo as a pause for rest. That may be the most basic reason that Russia has sought a temporary cease-fire truce. Doctrine post Afghanistan is one thing but reality is another. pl

  26. turcopolier says:

    This not “blitzkrieg.” It is a methodical application of all-arms methods. There is not enough force available for “blitzkrieg.” If there were the Idlib Pocket would have been carved up by now. pl

  27. turcopolier says:

    And furthermore I will once again state my opinion that Saudi Arabia lacks the ground force to participate in an invasion of Syria. As for the Turks Erdogan knows that if he invades Syria without a UN resolution in support he risks de-stabilization of Turkey itself. pl

  28. Tel,
    The R+6 strategy and tactics are as old as warfare itself. And it’s not just the Russians. The latest YPG/SDF offensive to capture Shaddadi is a case in point. This was a double envelopment of the city surrounding the IS fighters in the city and the more defensible river settlements above Shadaddi. Once the road junctions were interdicted, the Kurds and their allies engaged the more or less surrounded IS forces. The result was a messy cauldron where the Kurds won and IS lost. No Russians were involved on the ground or in the air. US air power provided close support and I’d like to think my SF brethren had a hand in designing this operation. This operation should be studied in our service schools. It’s a modern classic.

  29. elaine says:

    Babak & Kooshy, I watched Samantha Power delivering her remarks to the UNSC
    prior to their unanimous vote in support of the 2 week ceasefire & near the
    end of her reading she continued to call for the removal of Bashar al Assad.

  30. Nuff Sed says:

    Is there a map of Unicornistan Wildlife Preserve aka Ceasefirestan?

  31. Kunuri says:

    Right on the money, not just “de-stabilization”, but hard military push back as well, combined with a popular Gezi type anti-war movement. It will be his end this time, and he knows it. Turkish Army is disciplined, and within that tradition there exist the clause not to obey illegal orders.

  32. Babak Makkinejad says:

    At least they are consistent.
    Assad is Iranians’ red line and they will stand by him – regardless of what US, or Russia, or EU, or Gulfies would want.

  33. Babak Makkinejad says:

    The migrant crisis and the Syrian war are complex but it is indeed revealing that ‘the migrants’, many of whom are political refugees of a conservative Muslim bent (with the head-scarves an all of that), are doing their utmost to reach Europe, and none are too keen to stay in Turkey (a Sunni Muslim country, run by an Muslim-oriented party), let alone go to any of the neighbouring Arab countries.
    Those countries, apart from Lebanon and Jordan, where opportunities are limited anyway, have refused to allow them in anyway.
    If you think about it, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait could easily build tent cities by the Persian Gulf, plant trees, set up desalination plants, and keep the refugees there for decades: they have the money.
    But they don’t want them, even though they have intervened in Syria… It’s a bit like the Palestinians: the Arab-Sunni states pledge support but, when it comes down to it, they don’t want them.
    It’s all rhetoric – as long as it is against Iran and Israel.
    So, the refugees try to reach Europe; with all its pork, alcohol, scantily-clad women who are no better than whores, idols, moral decay, infidel Christians (whom they would have massacred in Syria & in Iraq, given the chance)!
    They are not realising for a second what it truly entails in terms of identity, way of life, etc. All they know is that they get 500-Euro a month hand-out. They ruined Syria (however manipulated they had been by outside powers – itself an indicator of their immaturity).
    I think Europe (including Britain) could do a lot more (Germany has tried, under A Merkel), but it is — also — a colossal failure of the Arab states of the Persian Gulf to act, once more.
    This is seldom mentioned in press reports: as usual, Saudi Arabia and her regional allies are getting away with it. In fact, I was reading reports that they are not active in Syria any more, now that the US, British and French are bombing happily X Y and Z: instead, they are focusing their efforts on… Yemen.

  34. Thomas says:

    “… near the end of her reading she continued to call for the removal of Bashar al Assad.”
    That is merely mandatory bowing to Borg Brother’s will.

  35. cynic says:

    Here’s an assessment from South Front which gives a lot of credit to the Russians for repairing and maintaining Syrian equipment, not just giving them new stuff.
    ‘ Unfortunately, the Syrian military was in a state of serious neglect when the rebellion broke out, and large-scale combat operations quickly revealed this sad state of affairs. Much of its equipment was sidelined for lack of maintenance, units were understrengthed and short of specialist personnel. At the time, the Syrian soldiers were poorly trained, even ones assigned to crew sophisticated weapon systems like tanks and self-propelled artillery weapons. Equipment maintenance systems were sufficient to cope with peacetime demands, but quickly broke down as soon as the Syrian military attempted large-scale operations. Syrian military’s large pool of equipment also created an attitude of neglect toward maintenance and evacuation of damaged machines.
    To help, the Russian Ministry of Defense utilized the Syrian Express supply route to send a large number of T-72B tanks, BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicles, and rocket artillery weapons to Syria. Russian advisers then got to work training Syrian troops both on the use of the new vehicles and operating them as part of tactical combat teams. Even more equipment found its way into the Syrian units thanks to Russian specialists restoring Syria’s armored vehicle repair workshops, which quickly returned hundreds of broken-down or long-term storage armored vehicles to service. Syria’s air force returned to the skies thanks to Russian specialists and timely deliveries of spare parts.’
    They’re also working the training up to higher levels of organization.
    ‘ The January fighting in Salma was a demonstration of the Russian efforts to train complete battalion task forces of the Syrian army to conduct offensive operations. It was the first operation carried out by one of the new Russian-trained battalions. Since the training program was launched in October, it would appear that the training cycle lasts 3 months before the unit is sent into the front lines, and more such units have been joining the fray recently and turning the tide of the war.’

  36. Barish says:

    This article had one, showing zones the Russian defence ministry considers ceasefire-zones:
    The small gap in southern Idlib province that’s not covered by the ceasefire wouldn’t happen to be the M5-highway, now would it?
    Was the US-side as forthcoming about the ceasefire-zones? I doubt it insofar that Mr Toner of the State Dept had this to say about groups that signed up for the ceasefire, supposedly 97 in total:
    “QUESTION: So who – we’re now beyond the deadline by which groups were to have told the United States or Russia whether or not they would comply with the cessation of hostilities. Who has told you that they will comply?
    MR TONER: So you – okay. You’re absolutely right; there was – I believe the deadline was noon Damascus time and we have gone past that. I can say that as many of you are aware, the full task force of the cessation of hostilities task force did meet today. I’m pretty sure that meeting is ongoing. And more broadly speaking, the cessation of hostilities is scheduled to take effect at midnight in Damascus, so about three hours from now or two and a half hours from now at 5 p.m., in Washington.
    So just to very clearly state what’s at stake here, everybody knows this is an important moment. It’s an opportunity, to put it mildly, for all the parties to step up and to do what they must do to stop the violence and bloodshed in Syria and truly press for an end to this conflict, which has cost so many lives and so much suffering, via a political transition in accordance with the Geneva communique of 2012.
    Now, speaking to your question which was about the specific —
    QUESTION: Who said they will abide by the ceasefire?
    MR TONER: Right.
    QUESTION: The cessation of hostilities. Who told you, rather?
    MR TONER: Right. So let me just see what I have on that. So we do continue to work with the HNC, and we’re aware that they have announced that they would participate in the cessation of hostilities. We’ve also seen the SDF say it would also take part in the cessation of hostilities. I would, without obviously giving a list or naming – going through a list of names, I would just say the vast majority of Syrian armed opposition groups have told the U.S. that they have accepted the terms of – for the cessation of hostilities. And as I said, many of these groups have made this confirmation either directly to us or through the HNC.
    QUESTION: Why not release the names?
    MR TONER: Well, it’s frankly – sure.
    QUESTION: If they’re going to depart on the cessation of hostilities, why not make – let them – hold them to account if they don’t?
    MR TONER: So – well, due to security considerations that they have, we’re not going to list their names. We obviously have the names. We’re aware of the groups on the ground, but they, for a number of reasons, don’t want their names public.
    QUESTION: Are you confident – yeah, well —
    QUESTION: And how does that – I mean, then how do you know if – who’s going to judge whether they’re in compliance or not then?
    MR TONER: Well, the task force that’s been set up —
    QUESTION: The task force knows the names?
    MR TONER: Yes, yes, yes, yes.
    QUESTION: Yeah, you’re sure about that?
    QUESTION: So is this —
    MR TONER: I’m fairly certain. I’m looking at this right here and it says that they have expressed – that – sorry.
    QUESTION: But no one outside the task force knows the —
    QUESTION: Let him finish.
    QUESTION: Go ahead.
    MR TONER: Yeah. No, that these groups have made it known to the U.S. or to – or via – either via the HNC or to us directly, and that there is this list, but we’re just not going to publicize it.
    QUESTION: I just – I don’t understand how this is transparent or how you get any kind of an accountability. What – I mean, you – I mean, I – I don’t think either of us – well, maybe Arshad wants you to read the full list, but here —
    QUESTION: Well, I would like that actually. (Laughter.)
    QUESTION: But it would be – but it would be nice if you could provide one. More than nice, it would be – it would make – it would give the world some confidence that this is – that this —
    MR TONER: Well, look, I mean –”
    The reasoning – “security reasons” – seems more than a little…bizarre, to be had. Anyone got an idea as to what the (un-)intended readout of this is supposed to be? Maybe avoiding further embarrassment by having to list Ansar al-this, Jabhat ad-Din al-that etc.?
    One further motive I was mulling over is that if some of those various jihadi nut-jobs just can’t keep trigger-discipline, having signed up to the deal, the Russkies, Syrians and SDF are free to give them a free ticket to shuhada-status.

  37. bth says:

    I think the Saudis are organizing some three weeks of military maneuvers and operations called Operation Northern Thunder or equivalent to work out kinks of larger operation management. FWIW.

  38. turcopolier says:

    Once again logistics rules. Maintenance is part of logistics. It was quite noticeable in pre-war Syria that Syrian Army maintenance was terrible. You could tell that easily by the number of broken down pieces of mobile equipment that one saw alongside the roads. In contrast you hardly ever saw that in Iraq under Saddam. pl

  39. JJackson says:

    The unicorns have been abandoned, as they failed to achieve the the removal of Assad. They now face the option of joining JaN or returning to civilian life and giving up arms in the hope of electing someone more to their liking at some later date.

  40. bth says:

    One thing missing from the excellent ISW assessment is what might happen in Iraq during the coming months which is closely linked with Syria. Most specifically I would think the next quarter is the time to see a push by Iraq and US allied forces against IS. There has been much talk about a Mosul push in June or late 2016.
    While that might seem fanciful given recent history, I would note a couple of points.
    First, 101st Airborne is going over with mission and destination unknown other than Aston Carter’s statement that retaking Mosul and Raqqa were specific objectives. What capabilities do they bring with them? Helicopter support? A new vision of air support of indigenous forces copying the Russian model of success?
    Second, Kurds were specific that they would act if US funded to at least $1 billion. This is chump change relative to a meaningful advance against IS.
    Third, Turks have more troops and armor proximate to Mosul than any government wants to discuss in public and it might provide a vent for Erdogan’s obsessions and pride. Plus it opens a much needed southern trade route for trucking which Syria no longer affords and likely legitimate and more lucrative O&G arrangements important to Erdogan’s friends & family program.
    Fourth, Sunni Arab tribes have been discussing their need to reach a political and perhaps economic settlement with Iraqi government that does not involve Shia militias occupying Mosul. Iraqi PM has made recent statements that would lead one to believe he is trying to put some distance between Iran Quds and Iraqi government than existed prior to August 2015 as perhaps demonstrated in Ramadi which though painstaking we done without Iranian help.
    Fifth, IS is stretched in personnel and financial resources. Their terror of locals has gone up, desertions are being openly reported, they are conscripting children, payrolls have been cut, mid-management is heading to to Yemen and Libya. IS can’t reinforce all points simultaneously and if nothing else the recent Syrian campaign has stretched IS pretty thin.
    Sixth, such action and timing would be consistent with a larger diplomatic agreement between Kerry and Lavrov involving Iraq, Syria, and diplomatic resolution of Ukraine and Russian economic sanctions relief before Russian elections.
    My two cents FWIW.

  41. turcopolier says:

    “Colonel Christopher Garver, a spokesman for the US-led military coalition against ISIL, said on Friday | Al-Masdar News
    Gerver is not SF. He is a PR talking dog, like Kirby the fruity admiral at State. pl

  42. aleksandar says:

    I agree, I just wanted to emphasise the fact that Russian are extremly reluctant to send troop on the ground.

  43. Joe100 says:

    Col Lang –
    Got it.
    I assumed this was inappropriate PR bragging by higher command and not SF leaking such details..

  44. Joe100,
    That’s always the way it works.

  45. bth says:

    meant to say ‘was done without Iranian help.” not ‘we done without…’.

  46. annamaria says:

    The Saker’s article contains a concise description of how Erdogan was used as a patsy by the US:
    “The moor has done his duty, the moor can go.”

  47. bth says:

    This article provides a little more clarity on US role in Mosul which is to provide expanded logistical support and to build temporary bridges around Mosul.–politics.html

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