Though there has been no breakthrough Russia is making progress towards achieving its objectives both on the military and the diplomatic fronts.
Ever since the Russians intervened militarily in Syria there has been a constant drumbeat of criticism.
Much of this takes the form of an argument of “equivalence” – saying that what Russia is doing is the same or no better than what the US has been doing in the Middle East and will end as badly.
Russia Insider has published a classic example of criticism by Jacob Dreizin.
Jacob expresses concern that in the event of a major escalation of tensions with Turkey, Russia’s economy will suffer as well as Turkey’s, and that Turkey may close the Dardanelles, thereby cutting off the supply routes to its force in Syria.
None of the scenarios of Russian retaliation Jacob rightly worries about are in fact going to happen.
The Russians are not going to impose an economic blockade on Turkey or cut off gas supplies to Turkey. Nor are they going to arm the Kurds. Nor are the Turks going to take retaliatory measures that are contrary to their own interests. There will be a temporary cooling of relations but that is all.
The Russian response to the shoot-down of the SU24 has in fact been carefully calibrated.
The Russians have cancelled the visa agreement with Turkey – which will hit the Turkish tourist industry – and are reviewing some joint projects with Turkey. They may use their food standards agency to block certain Turkish food imports. It will not go beyond that.
As for the Turks they are already trying to calm tempers by pretending they did not know the nationality of the SU24 they shot down.
As for closing the Dardanelles, it should be said clearly that doing so would be a major breach of international law – to be precise the 1936 Montreux Convention – and short of a declaration of war Erdogan has no grounds to do it.
Erdogan has never shown much concern for international law, but taking so radical a step as closing the Dardanelles to Russian ships – something that never happened at any point in the Cold War – would almost certainly be too much for his Western backers.
Besides there would be no purpose in doing it. It is simply wrong to say the Russians have to supply their force in Syria by ships sailing from their Black Sea bases through the Dardanelles.
The Russians use this route because of its speed and convenience. However there is absolutely no reason why they could not send ships to Syria from the Kola Peninsula, Kaliningrad or St. Petersburg via the Straits of Gibraltar if for any reason the Dardanelles were blocked.
Of course the US and its allies could in theory impose a blockade of the Straits of Gibraltar. However, unlike the Dardanelles, the Straits of Gibraltar are an international waterway and doing so would elevate the state of the Syrian crisis to a level not seen since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
It is scarcely credible the US would be prepared to escalate the crisis to that level, especially on an issue where Western public opinion would oppose it doing so.
The Russians could also send supplies from Vladivostok via the Suez Canal. Since Egypt strongly backs Russia there would be no risk of that route being closed. Again it might add a few days to the journey, but short of fantastic – and hardly credible – scenarios of the US navy seizing Russian ships on the high seas, there is nothing Erdogan or the US could do about it.
What of the situation in Syria itself? Are Jacob’s concerns there well-founded? Is it true that Russia in alliance with Iran, Syria and Hezbollah cannot defeat the jihadi rebels and the Islamic State?
The first thing to say is that Russia has never claimed that a military solution to the Syrian crisis is possible. All its efforts since the crisis began in 2011 have been aimed at securing a political settlement. It is the West, not Russia, that sought a military solution to the crisis when it gave the green light to the rebel offensive (“Operation Damascus Volcano”) in 2012.
Russia’s military intervention in Syria this autumn was not aimed at achieving a military solution of the Syrian conflict. It was intended to prevent the US from trying to achieve such a solution by imposing a no-fly zone.
The main focus of Russia’s effort in fact remains diplomatic. The Russian objective is to revive the Annan Peace Plan purportedly agreed in Geneva in 2012.
This envisaged negotiations between the two sides to the Syrian conflict (minus the jihadist militias) to set up a transitional government pending agreement on a new constitution and fresh elections.
They have gained ground in overcoming the key stumbling block – the previous Western insistence that President Assad goes before negotiations take place.
The West is apparently retreating from this demand. However it still demands that President Assad goes as an inevitable outcome of the negotiations.
This is no a breakthrough. However it is progress of a sort and should at least make some negotiations possible.
What of the military situation on the ground?
There is no doubt the Syrian army has received a hammering over the last four years. However Patrick Cockburn – by far the most reliable and authoritative witness of the situation in Syria – continues to rate it an effective force with four strong divisions capable of offensive action.
Recently, before the Russians intervened, the Syrian army successfully repulsed a major rebel offensive south of Damascus, which hardly points to it being in an advanced state of disintegration.
That some Syrian troops are both well-trained and courageous is shown by the role Syrian commandos played extracting the navigator of the SU24 from behind rebel lines.
Nor can the area of Syria that President Assad controls be justly called “precisely Jack and squat”.
Apart from Raqqa and parts of Aleppo all of Syria’s big cities – with perhaps 70% of Syria’s population – are largely under the Syrian government’s control.
Damascus, Syria’s capital, is both firmly under control and loyal. The government also controls Syria’s coast line.
Importantly, and in sharp contrast to what happened in Libya in 2011 following the uprising there, Syria’s officer corps, its diplomatic service and its state bureaucracy have all remained solidly loyal to President Assad and his government.
By contrast the areas controlled by the rebels are largely desert and their leaders – apart from the Islamic State’s leader, Ibrahim Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the self-styled “Caliph Ibrahim”- are political nonentities.
Certainly the Syrian army and its Hezbollah allies have achieved no great breakthroughs in recent weeks – though Jacob seriously underestimates the extent of their gains, which amount to a great deal more than “a few villages here and there”. However as I also discussed recently, achieving an immediate breakthrough was never the plan.
What the Russian intervention has done – and was intended to do – was secure for the Syrian army a desperately needed breathing space, giving it the time it needed to rebuild.
The Syrian army’s success in regaining 500 square kilometres of territory and in improving its positions around Homs, Damascus and Aleppo, whilst gradually closing in on Palmyra, shows it is using this breathing space well.
Meanwhile what evidence we have suggests it is the jihadi rebels that are coming under pressure.
There is no doubt that by intervening in Syria the Russians have taken a risk. However, they obviously calculated that the risks of inaction – resulting in the overthrow of the Syrian government and the declaration of the Caliphate in Damascus – were much greater.
Here it is important to say that there is simply no comparison between the dangers posed by a fragmented jihadi movement skulking in Turkey and in the Syrian and Iraqi deserts, and having a terrorist entity like the Islamic State proclaiming the jihad from Damascus – the capital of the Caliphate in the days of the Umayyads.
Unlike Bush and Iraq, the Russians are not invading Syria. They were invited there by the legitimate government whose forces are successfully fighting the same jihadi fighters the Russians are fighting.
In contrast to Bush, the Russians went into Syria with a clearly defined objective: to preserve the Syrian state and its institutions.
One does not sense here – as one did with Bush – an operation undertaken without proper planning or thought and largely made up on the hoof.
So far the Russians are succeeding on all counts. The situation in Syria has stabilized, the Syrian army is on the offensive, and negotiations are underway.
There is no cause for euphoria. However for the moment it is legitimate to say – contrary to Jacob – that the Russians are winning in Syria.