When Russia’s call for de-escalation zones first came out, my first thought, like many, was that Putin was throwing in the towel. Then I thought of several other possibilities.
1. It appeared to be a continuation of Russia’s attempt to separate the irreconcilable jihadists from the Syrian opposition. I doubt much of this opposition remains, but there must be some given that some are still coming over to the government side now and then. They are certainly not militarily significant. In any case, RT said this moderate opposition would then be directed against the jihadists “with the support of the guarantor countries.”
2. Russia’s plan for de-escalation zones was an aggressive forecheck of the longstanding US-Saudi plan for safe areas. Pulling Turkey into this alternate plan by making it one of the guarantor countries would greatly weaken the US-Saudi plan and stall its implementation.
3. The plan’s aim could be part of the larger effort to neutralize Turkish support of the jihadists and pull Turkey further into the Russian sphere.
4. As long as Russia is unwilling to deploy significant ground forces to decisively finish the job militarily, this de-escalation zone plan seemed to be the next best move. If Russia and Syria manage to call the shots by including Turkey as a guarantor country, this could go a long way in isolating the jihadists and focusing the fight against them.
In the last few days it has become clear that the de-escalation zone plan is the first stage of a major strategic shift in the conduct of the war in Syria. This is an economy of force move in the western part of Syria executed to concentrate R+6 forces for a push to the west as explicitly stated by Russian General Rudskoy a few days ago.
“After the signing of the memorandum on the creation of zones of de-escalation in Syria, the main efforts of the Russian Air Force will be directed to the development of an offensive to the east of Palmyra and the subsequent release of Deir ez-Zor, said Colonel-General Sergei Rudskoy, chief of the Main Operations Directorate of the RF Armed Forces General Staff.
"The establishment of zones of de-escalation will allow government troops to liberate a significant number of troops." The Russian Air Force will continue to support the Syrian armed forces to destroy the bandit formations of the international terrorist organization DAISH (the Arab name of the terrorist organization IGIL, banned in Russia), "Rudskoy said.
Another task of the VKS, according to Rudskoy, will be the liberation of the northeastern territories in the province of Aleppo along the Euphrates River.” (РОССИЙСКАЯ ГАЗЕТА)
Al Masdar News reported that Russian support will also include ground forces. “According to the military source, the Russian special forces will be embedded with the Syrian Arab Army’s 5th Legion and Tiger Forces for the entire duration of the offensive.” We don’t know if this will entail embedded advisors or Spetsnaz units performing their traditional reconnaissance-sabotage roles for the larger SAA formations. Perhaps it will be both.
Other Russian support consists of a “new counter-partisan special detachment from the countries of the former USSR” called TURAN. According to “Русская весна,” a detachment of up to 400 men of this 800 to 1200 strong TURAN unit are prepared to immediately support an SAA offensive from rural Aleppo towards Deir Ezzor.
The SAA forces massing for this offensive include the Tiger Forces and the 5th Corps. I’m sure there are others. Hezbollah forces are also returning to the Palmyra front. Al Masdar News says that “Suheil Al-Hassan, commander-in-chief of the Tiger Forces, will reportedly command two simultaneous offensive in eastern Aleppo and eastern Palmyra against the Islamic State.” The idea of two main thrusts caused me a little concern before I saw this more as an envelopment to either cut off the IS jihadists in the vast open area east of Homs or force them to withdraw towards the Euphrates. Efforts within the Deir Ezzor pocket to expand the area under government control are intensifying with some success. The SAA, surely with Russian air support, are preparing a force of several hundred seasoned Republican Guards to reinforce the pocket by airmobile insertion. This is a bold plan, but in my opinion a plan with a good chance of working.
The operation to liberate Deir Ezzor will be named Operation Lavender. Why? An observer named Wael Al Hussaini explained on twitter. "Back in 2012 when Deir Ezzor was about to fall a famous Republican Guards commander "Ali Khuzam" was among the first to arrive to defend the city along with General Issam Zahreddine. Unfortunately, General Ali unfortunately was killed defending the city. The general's last name in Arabic is خزام which means Lavender, so this operation will be a tribute to him and to the other heroes who fell there defending Syria."
The objective of this offensive goes beyond the relief of Deir Ezzor. It is a drive to the Iraqi border. The R+6 obviously sees the coalition effort to take the east of the country from both Rojava and Jordan as a greater threat than the jihadis in Idlib. I don't know what Putin has working with Turkey, but I guess he thinks he can handle the sultan. I also think Putin and Assad are confident they can eventually work something out with the Rojava Kurds. But the US-Saudi (and Israeli) plan for safe areas and cutting the Shia crescent, as Elijah Magnier writes, is something that must be addressed now. Iraq sees this as well. The Iraqi Army and the PMU just launched an offensive to take the countryside west of Haditha. This is part of an Iraqi effort to eventually take the border crossing at Al-Qa’im.
In retrospect, I think the decision not to continue an offensive towards Idlib after the liberation of Aleppo and to advance east to cut off the Turks and their jihadis at al-Bab was a result of this view that foreign incursions into Syrian territory are viewed as a greater immediate threat to Assad and Putin that the Idlib jihadis.