By Patrick BAHZAD
The "crazies in the basement" is an expression that was coined originally by some unknown member of George W's administration. It used to designate the small clique of Neo-Cons who had found their way into Bush junior's team of advisors, before they rose to dubious fame after the 9/11 attacks. Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, at the time Colin Powell's chief of staff, described their status enhancement from "lunatic fringe" to top executives in the White House with his Southern sense of humour, adding that they had become almost overnight what was henceforth called the Cheney "Gestapo". And what happened over the weekend in the Middle-East – and in D.C. – certainly looked like a distant but distinct reminder of that period in the early 2000s when "crazies" coming right out of a dark basement took over the policy agenda on questions that would require adult supervision.
What had caused this wave of schyzophrenic hysteria taking over large portions of the mainstream media, think tanks, political analysts and pseudo-military experts ? To be honest, if you want to get to the bottom of it, you would have to dig real deep into the pool of strategic mediocrity combined with PR-spin that has taken over most of the Western world since the start of the Syrian civil war (and actually way before).
The ISSG communique
Let's try and keep things simple though. It all started on Friday when the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) announced that an agreement had been reached regarding the Syrian conflict, providing for key measures to be implemented as far as humanitarian aid, cessation of hostilities and political transition were concerned. Kerry and Lavrov had worked hard to achieve this result and all of a sudden, it looked like years of efforts and resources aimed at removing Assad had been wasted and were actually going down the drain.
The announcement of this "cessation of hostilities" agreement did not go down well with the sponsors of the Syrian rebels (and Salafi or Jihadi groups) which were committed to overthrow Assad at any cost. In particular, the ISSG communique specified that terrorist groups recognized as such by the UN were specifically excluded from any form of cease-fire. In other words, not only would ISIS continue to be targeted by the Western Coalition (CJTF "Inherent Resolve"), but so would the Nusra Front and smaller Jihadi groups present in North-Western Syria, as well as any "Joint Operations Room" in which these groups featured prominently.
Basically, it also meant that most of the groups fighting Assad in that area were still "fair game" to both the RuAF, the SAA and their allies. Factually, it was a recognition that there is almost no "moderate" insurgency left in Syria, for reasons that can be debated of course, but in the end, there is no hiding from this fact, despite the massive PR-effort that the public in the Western world is being subjected to, day in, day out.
Following the ISSG statement, the sponsors of the armed insurrection – whether they were in Ryiadh, Ankara, Washington or Paris – panicked and went into over-drive. If the road map that was the "cessation of hostilities" agreement was implemented, even in parts, chances were that the regime change strategy would face total failure and the proxy rebels in Syria would contemplate assured destruction at the hands of the Russian lead military campaign on the ground.
Ryiadh and Ankara go AWOL
Turkey and Saudi Arabia, the main players having a bone to pick with Assad, had to come up with something. Maybe, there was also some kind of "good cop, back cop" routine agreed with the State Department, Kerry playing it nice, but mentioning "en passant" that a contingency plan was at the ready, if negotiations failed. Be that as it may, the reality is that Ryiadh and Ankara came up with a plan that can best be described as crackpot junk, if it wasn't backed up by US military power.
For years, both these countries had refused to lift even a finger to confront ISIS on the ground and they were now considering a large scale ground offensive supposedly aimed at getting all the way to Raqqa and striking a decisive blow against Baghdadi's "Caliphate". The sabre-rattling operation went ahead at full speed, with Ryiadh stating its willingness to launch the Royal Saudi Army into the battle and announcing the transfer of a large fighter fleet to Incirlik airbase. As for the Turks, they insisted on the 70 000 men of their 2nd Army being positioned and ready to move into Syria and defeat the ISIS throat-cutters in their Raqqa stronghold. That they would incidentally march through Kurdish (YPG) held territory, disrupting any chance at Kurdish junction with their Afrin canton in the West, was probably to be considered an acceptable "collateral damage" to the benefits of taking back Raqqa.
There is a lot to be said about the lunacy at work in the planning of the alleged operation. A plan that must truly be considered the work of a mad professor, or a bunch of crazies in a basement somewhere. Now, recent history has shown that crazies can be dangerous and can hijack the foreign policy of a superpower, so let's not dismiss the risk involved here. However, the level of amateurishness and military incompetence that has been the trademark of Saudi ground forces for years, combined with the serious domestic problems Ankara was certain to face if it ventured into Syria, made the mere prospect of a ground operation much less likely than the seemingly determined statements of these countries' politicians led to believe.
And of course, there would also be aspects linked to the breach of international law, invasion of a sovereign country under no valid UN resolution, or the risk of confrontation and escalation with the SAA or – worse – Russian forces. To be honest, while hysteria and rumours of WWIII were taking over in the media and among Beltway experts, there was no way the Saudis in particular had the means or the resources to launch a large scale operation in Syria. Their forces have been bogged down in a bloody guerilla war in Yemen for almost a year now, and there is no end in sight to the fighting.
Saudi Crackpot junk
To imagine that Ryiadh could organise something vaguely resembling operation "Desert Storm" over longer distances, basically cutting through Jordanian and/or Iraqi desert in the South, stretching their logistics trail for hundreds and hundreds of miles, and/or operate from Northern Turkey, where air bases are closer and enemies are more numerous, was bordering on a sense of delusion far worse than the imperial hubris occasionally displayed in the US.
It became quickly apparent that the Saudi plan was a plan in name only. Chest thumping self-hypnosis maybe. Whoever has seen the Saudi army in action, knows that operating at the level of professionalism and military skill required for a ground invasion of Raqqa is far beyond anything they can master. Ryadh's neighbors must have been all too aware of these limitations, for it didn't take long until Kuwait, Jordan and Egypt declined the invitation to participate.
Without US leadership, without a UN resolution and without cooperation with Russia, none of these countries wanted anything to do with the Saudi and Turkish lunacy. And so the hawkish Saudis gradually had to tone down their big statements, finally coming to their senses: they would not be able to trick either regional actors or the all mighty USA into an ill-thought, ill-conceived and most probably ill-prepared operation in Syria.
The large air force detachment to be transferred to Incirlik air base has now been reduced to 4 jets, due to arrive in late February. The Juggernaut Saudi army that was to push all the way to Raqqa has now been trimmed down to SOF groups, under the control of "Operation Inherent Resolve". Reason seems to have prevailed for now, but for a couple of days, things looked like a (very) bad Tom Clancy novel was being implemented in the real world.
The race for Raqqa
Regardless of what will go down in history as a mere sidenote of the Syrian civil war, and one more piece of evidence of the Saudis' cognitive dissonance with the real world, there is no doubt that a race has started for who will arrive in Raqqa first. The US lead Western coalition and their GCC allies ? Or Assad's SAA, together with its foreign allies ? Medium to long term, last weekend's marginally funny episode has not changed this equation, the implications of which are huge for the future of Syria and the Middle-East in general.
We will get back into this important aspect in another piece. Suffice to say, that whoever reaches Raqqa first and manages to take over formerly ISIS held territory in Eastern Syria will hugely strengthen his position with regard to any future negotiation for a final settlement of the war. All the talk about "safe zones" or "no fly zones" in Northern Syria, under the pretence of creating a humanitarian corridor interdicted to any of the belligerents, is ancillary to this larger issue. Controlling the territory, and even more so its population, is the name of this game.
The final chapter in that game has not been written yet and it remains to be seen which of the two coalitions mentioned above will finally get the upper hand. On paper and on the ground, things look quite good for the R+6 at the moment. The often dispelled notion that the Russian involvement in the war might prove decisive is actually materialising on the ground and gaining momentum with each passing day.
Short SITREP of events on the ground
Aleppo is where all is going to be decided, just as SST has been saying all along. Most of the other fronts feature SAA advances and progress as well, whether in the South (Daraa) or North-West (Lattakia). In Palmyra and Deir ez-Zor, the SAA is holding its ground against ISIS. Once the dust of the "mother of all battles" that is taking shape in the Aleppo-Idlib area will have settled, and the various rebel groups there will have been destroyed or pushed back into Turkey, there is no doubt operations in the Eastern Syrian desert will gather more pace as well. For the time being, holding back ISIS is more than enough.
One area in the East is of particular interest though, as shown in a recent piece by TTG. The SAA advance towards Tabqa, just a few miles West of Raqqa, has large scale strategic implications in the fight against ISIS. Were the R+6 to get all the way to Tabqa air base, thereby cutting off ISIS' main and only LOC to and from its territory West of the Euphrates, a pocket might be created that could potentially close onto all of the Caliphate's troops and resources in that area. The main supply line of the Islamic State would be cut off, thereby confronting al-Baghdadi's strategists with a huge military, political and administrative problem.
We are not there yet, but a window of opportunity has opened and if the R+6 is clever and shrewd enough, that window shall close with the take-over of Tabqa airbase and the adjacent lines of communication with Raqqa. The signal such a victory would send cannot be understated, for it would probably equal the beginning of the end for ISIS in Syria. Symbolically, also, the Caliphate would be cut off from one of its most cherished places: the small city of Dabiq, home to the "End of days" prophecy that features prominently in ISIS' online magazine.
Azaz pocket closing down
But more short-term, there are two pockets already shaping up North and West of Aleppo. This is where the regime is intent on striking a devastating blow against what is left of the various rebel factions, at this point in time Salafi and Jihadi groups, most of which are "moderates" in name only. After last week's junction with the besieged areas of Nubl and Zahra, R+6 operations have gathered momentum and what was initially a move aimed at cutting another rebel line of communication and supply, has now turned into the encirclement and reduction of the "Azaz pocket", named after the most Northern town in the area, located just south of the border post of Bab al-Salameh.
It is a significant but not unexpected development that R+6 forces are cooperating closely with the Kurdish YPG militias in this area, as well as a few SDF units (mostly former FSA groups that have rallied R+6 forces). The action of the Kurdish YPG in particular is the main reason why Ankara has been threatening to take military action: the Turks see any further territorial gains made by the Kurds as a 'casus belli', given this might destablize their whole Southern flank, at a time Ankara is engaged in a ferocious domestic fight against Kurdish political dissent.
For all the chest thumping and threats coming out of Turkey, it is unlikely Erdogan will be so foolish as to engage in a ground operation on Syrian territory. Most probably, he will continue supporting proxy militias, despite the huge setbacks they have suffered in recent months, and will rely on occasional artillery fire or maybe small SOF incursions to try and prevent Syrian Kurds from developing their powerbase. His chances of success however look rather slim at the moment, given that the YPG has already received political guarantees both from Damascus and Moscow regarding political autonomy and military assistance, in exchange for cooperation towards ending the war on Assad's terms.
The Final Battle
In that regard, the final blow will be dealt in the vast plains of Idlib province, where the R+6 hammer coming from Aleppo (in the East) will smash Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and FSA remnants against the anvil of Lattakia's mountains (in the West). Currently, the last rebel stronghold in that part of Syria, the city of Kinsibba, is being surrounded by SAA and NDF units. They have already taken the high ground around the city and should be able to storm it soon.
With Kinsibba falling into R+6 hands, the battle in the mountains will be basically over and the noose will tighten a little further around the rebel groups centred on the city of Idlib. Once R+6 will have finished their "clear and hold" operations, they will take up new offensive positions and try and close up what is left of the rebels' access to the Turkish border North of Idlib. Before the final onslaught, they will probably focus on taking the border area of Bab al-Hawa, West of Aleppo. They have various options to achieve this goal, and if the current operational pace is any indication, they should manage to do so in a not so distant future.
At that point, the "Idlib pocket" will close down on the rebels in the same way the Azaz corridor closed down on them last week. There will be nowhere to go, except back to rearbases in Turkey, assuming Ankara is willing to let in several thousand men in arms, or maybe into the Eastern desert, to link up with ISIS, hoping for a warm welcome which is in no way a foregone conclusion.
What is interesting from a purely military point of view, is that Aleppo itself will not be subject to the scenes of urban combat and carnage that are being conjured up by spin doctors in the Gulf and in the West. Most of the city is already under government control. The large power plant East of the city, was retaken earlier today by the SAA's "Tiger Force", the spearhead of the "4th Assault Corps" that has been formed, trained and equiped by Russia since October of last year. Fighting and combat in Aleppo will die down as most of the rebels will follow the call to arms in Idlib province, and their splintered groups will not be able to offer more than sporadic fighting and terrorist attacks.
What we will be left with to contemplate is a campaign that will have gradually gained momentum, passing through an attritional phase with few tangible results (grinding down of the enemy), up to a point of strategic breakthrough, followed by an increase in operational tempo aimed at exploiting any weakness appearing in the adversary's posture or following through on any tactical opportunity.
From this point of view, the campaign in North-Western Syria is characterized by two features that might also prove decisive in the struggle against ISIS. On the one hand, the rebels' territorial continuity was targeted consistently, thereby breaking down the large territory they controlled into smaller and smaller areas, easier to clear and to hold. On the other hand, the logistics card proved to be the right one to play. Targeting supply lines through airstrikes and gradually cutting them off with ground troops was a winning tactic. Once again, these factors are evidence that the principles of war are timeless and that those who disregard them, preferring to indulge into the safety of their metrics and percentage war, do so at their own peril.