IS stretched by Russian-backed offensives and air war

Saudi-Turkish policy shifting in face of battlefield setbacks for extremists

A man inspects a  house  hit by what activists said was an air strike by forces loyal to Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad, in the town of Marshamsha, in the southern countryside of Idlib, Syria. Photograph: Khalil Ashawi/Reuters

A man inspects a house hit by what activists said was an air strike by forces loyal to Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad, in the town of Marshamsha, in the southern countryside of Idlib, Syria. Photograph: Khalil Ashawi/Reuters

 

Saudi Arabia has responded militarily to the Russian and Iranian-supported Syrian army offensive in Homs and Aleppo provinces by providing anti-tank and other weapons to insurgents in accordance with the dictum that you cannot win at the negotiating table what you do not win on the battlefield.

On the political plane, Riyadh has dropped its demand for the ousting of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad before talks can begin, by saying Assad would have to leave “after the formation of the governing council” by government and opposition figures to oversee the adoption of a new constitution and elections. Saudi ally Turkey has switched from no-Assad to Assad-for-six months.

Saudi-Turkish policy approaches the line adopted by the US and Europe and could lead to efforts to resume negotiations – although Riyadh still opposes any role for Iran, accepted by some western powers and demanded by Tehran, Moscow and Damascus.

These shifts appear to have been effected by simultaneous Syrian and Iraqi offensives against Saudi-Turkey-aided Islamic State (IS), al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra and other insurgents, a multifront campaign co-ordinated by a joint operations committee created by Baghdad, Damascus, Tehran and Moscow.

In Syria, the Iranian-backed army and allied militias have taken to the field in Latakia, Homs, Hama and Aleppo provinces following the intervention three weeks ago of Russian aircraft in support of ground troops. Russia has also provided arms and ammunition to the overstretched and undermanned Syrian army.

Damascus seeks to drive insurgents from areas south and east of Aleppo, expel them from the city, and clear territory to the Turkish border to halt the flow through Turkey of arms, funds and men. Previous army operations have lasted weeks, even months.

Shia militias

IraqMosulAnbarRamadi

Russia has thrown its weight behind Baghdad by supplying arms and ammunition and providing a dozen Sukoi Su-25 warplanes and attack and transport helicopters to the Iraqi air force, the belated recipient of four US F16 multipurpose aircraft.

Earlier this month, Iraqi premier Haidar al-Abadi accused Washington of failing to deliver adequate air cover for ground forces and said he would welcome Russian air strikes. Under US pressure he withdrew this comment but Shia militia commanders call for Russian involvement.

Since defeating IS requires simultaneous, co-ordinated offensives on several fronts in both Syria and Iraq, Tehran and Moscow have proposed co-operation with the US but, so far, Washington and its allies have have refused. Instead, Russia and the US have signed a memorandum to share information on missions in Syrian airspace to avoid clashes. The US has also been compelled to co-operate with Iran-sponsored Iraqi Shia militias since they have been the most effective.

IS weakened

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