Prior to the forthcoming Syria talks in Astana, some Middle East mass media appeared with most extraordinary forecasts.
Over the last days, the situation in Syria has been improving. Ceasefire is almost everywhere, with the key anti-ISIL players concentrating their forces for the last decisive strike.
The Syrian army, backed up by pro-Iranian groups, is massing near the Kuweires airbase east of Aleppo and is aiming at Deir Hafer (1). To the south of Aleppo, in the west of Homs governorate, the government army and local self-defenders are preparing for an attack on ISIL-controlled Tadmor (Palmyra). In mid-Jan 2017, they blocked the way towards al-Qaryatain and Homs and are now fighting for the Tiyas airbase. The Khmeimim-based Russian air force has been provided with Su-25 battle planes and is ready to help the Syrians to liberate Palmyra.
Near Syrian Raqqah and Iraqi Mosul the anti-Jihadi forces are also active. The coordinator there is the U.S. command. So, we see that the anti-ISIL players are acting only in the areas where the Jihadists are represented by one group only. For example, near Aleppo, Homs and Raqqah they are facing only ISIL. This is one more step towards coordinated air and land activity against the Caliphate.
The preparations for the Astana talks have given ISIL no pause. On the contrary, the Caliphate is facing growing pressure and the possibility of a U.S.-Russian joint attack on Palmyra.
Though expected to improve U.S.-Russian relations, Donald Trump will hardly be able just to switch from confrontation to cooperation. Even if the sides make it up and decide to cooperate, they will need time for this – weeks or even months – but the problem is that for driving ISIL from Palmyra the Syrians need to act quickly.
The second question here, Do the Americans have reasons for choosing to cooperate with the Russians in Syria? Sources close to the Israeli intelligence say they have.
According to DEBKAfile, a combined U.S.-Russian-Syrian-Jordanian force is preparing for a major operation to liberate Palmyra (2). The activities are being coordinated by an Amman-based headquarters and quite recently the Jordanian capital hosted consultations involving a Syrian delegation.
It is hard to say if DEBKAfile’s article is true. The Americans will hardly take extraordinary steps now that they are changing their administration, especially if those steps may spoil their relations with the Turks and the Saudis. So, this sensation should be regarded as a possible scenario rather than a specific plan.
In the meantime, the Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs of Staff are attentively following the developments in Homs. Right after the loss of Palmyra, the Americans signaled the Syrians and the Russians that they expected them to counterattack the city, otherwise, they would act on their own. "I expect that the Russians and the regime will address it here in short order. We're watching that. If they don't take care of the problem, we will," Lt. Gen. Steve Townsend, commander of Operation Inherent Resolve, said on Dec 14.
What was that if not a veiled invitation of the forces who have achieved a big success in Aleppo but have left a blow pass in Palmyra?
At the end of 2016, we received one more report about the Americans’ interest in Russian support in Syria. Associated Press quoted a high-ranking U.S. official as saying that U.S.-Russian talks on their separate fights against the Islamic State group are becoming more productive and more frequent. “Russia has made clear its counterterrorism priority in Syria is retaking the ancient city of Palmyra, officials said. The U.S. is determined to pressure IS' headquarters in Raqqa,” the official said.
But even in the best-case scenario, there will be no U.S.-Russian-Jordanian coalition in Homs. The most probable case is joint Russian-U.S. air strikes at Palmyra, with the Americans striking from the Jordanian territory.
The Americans’ goal here may be to cut ISIL’s communications and to prevent the Caliphate from dispatching its forces from one front to another. So, Trump may well put an end to the practice of allowing IS forces to move freely in Syria and Iraq.
The Americans may as well wish to push ISIL back from Palmyra to Deir ez-Zor, where the government forces are facing serious problems. Here it would be quite appropriate for them to join the Russians so as to prevent the terrorists from fleeing back to Raqqah, where in the north they have the Wrath of Euphrates, a U.S.-Kurdish coalition.
One more reason for the Americans not to throw ISIL back to Deir ez-Zor is to prevent it from approaching the Syrian-Jordanian border. As far as the Jordanians are concerned, for them, the safety of their border is much more important than the possible displeasure of their Gulf allies.
In the north of Syria, we already can see certain signs of anti-terror cooperation. In Dec 2016, the Russians began striking ISIL near al-Bab north of Aleppo (3).
The Turks have been storming it since the beginning of this winter. Recently, they criticized the Americans for absence of support and the latter undertook four air attacks on al-Bab. "We saw a window of opportunity where it was in our mutual interest to get those targets destroyed," Colonel John Dorrian, Spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, said on Jan 17.
Dorrian’s “mutual interest” phrase is inspiring but we should not be too hopeful. We still have to find out to what an extent Trump’s administration is ready to cooperate with us. For the time being, there are more grounds for skepticism than for hasty optimism.
(1) On Jan 17, 2017, the Syrian army resumed its offensive operation east of Aleppo and attacked several ISIL positions. The core of the land force was Tiger and the Republican Guards. The air support was provided by the Russians.
(2) US & Russia to free Palmyra after Trump sworn in // DEBKAfile, January 15, 2017.
(3) The Russian and Turkish air forces are acting jointly against ISIL near al-Bab. On Jan 18, Head of the Russian General Staff Main Operations Department Sergey Rudskoy said that the operation involved nine Russian battle planes, more specifically, four Su-24s, four Su-25s and one Su-34 as well as eight Turkish planes – four F-16s and four F-4s. “All of our actions were coordinated. The first results have shown that they were highly effective,” Rudskoy said.
EADaily’s Middle East Bureau