By Patrick BAHZAD
It happened over the weekend. SST had predicted this outcome a while ago, but until it materialized on the ground, our forecast seemed to the Borgist preachers like the distant proposition of a bunch of ex-military guys who couldn't see the big picture. Reality is a bitch though. You can conjure up an alternative dreamland, but in the end, there is no escaping the harsh facts of a military balance of power.
Things had started to move early last week, when the SAA, NDF and local militias moved into Salma, the rebel stronghold that was key to defensive positions South of the M4 highway linking Latakia to Idlib. After weeks of preparations and softening up defences, R+6 finally moved in and there was not much the various rebel groups could have done at that point to stop or reverse this trend. The "grinding" phase of the offensive (the so called "attrition") had taken a heavy toll on JaN, AaS and other FSA groups present in the area. With increasing losses, diminishing resources and fading resupplies, the balance between the two opponents had already started shifting way earlier than last week, but the only thing the proponents of the "percentage war" could see, was that R+6 territorial gains remained mostly "marginal".
The Fall of Salma
Well, the "marginal" has certainly turned into a landslide push forward now, and even news outlets which had been strictly following the party line were forced to recognize that fact. The LA Times and the Washington Post - even the NY Times - changed their tune. Experts aligned for months on the Borgist narrative suddenly sounded alarmed at the prospect of "Assad is winning". But that is the price you pay for believing your own spin. Sooner or later, you're in for a reality check !
What has happened militarily is closely linked to the non-linearity of military matters, as we discussed last week. There can be various phases in a ground operation stretching over a period of several months, and the operational tempo of one phase is in no way indicative of the others. Once the strategic breaking point is reached though, the side having gained the upper hand usually pushes through, which results in the opponent's posture crumbling under the pressure. This is what happened with Salma, a former mountain resort North-East of Latakia, that was taken over by FSA groups in mid-2012 and has been turned into the headquarters of various groups, including JaN elements.
Before the decisive attack on Salma about ten days ago, different strategic points around the city were taken by the SAA in November and December of last year. When R+6 went for their final assault, Salma had already become untenable. Its loss meant that the whole defensive line South of the M4 highway was compromised and both SAA advances and "tactical" retreat by the rebels made for a very quick correction of the frontline in the area.
Focus on Rabiah
As a consequence, R+6 were able to reach and cross the M4 at Sheekhaneh, taking over Mount Baradun as well as the Baradun dam. Almost simultaneously, operations started towards Rabiah, the main rebel stronghold in the Jabal Turkmen and HQ to the FSA's "First Coastal Division". The inroads made by the SAA, with CAS from the RuAF, again proved decisive against a rebel frontline that had already been destabilized by the loss of Salma and the prospect of being cut off from their LOCs with Jisr al-Shughur. True, a small rebel counter-attack was launched far up North of Latakia province in the middle of last week, but other than taking a couple of hamlets close to the Turkish border, nothing decisive was achieved. At best, a diversion, at worst, a PR-stunt the effects of which are no longer felt.
With Salma and Rabiah having fallen in R+6 hands, there is basically only one key rebel position left in the mountains of Jabal Akrad, i.e. the town of Kinsibba, which will be probably bear the brunt of a soon to come SAA attack. Tactically, there are various options open to taking this position, with everything depending on the strategic priorities of the R+6 commanders. Most likely, the "clear and hold" tactics currently used will be employed again. Therefore, one should not expect any blitz on Kinsibba, but rather a careful approach of taking the high grounds around the city and attacking from several directions, forcing the defenders to either be trapped and fight to the death or retreat further East.
To make things worse for the Salafi and Jihadi groups present in Latakia province, the Turkish border, which used to be as open to them as a saloon door (the PC slang being "porous") has now turned into their enemy, as the Turks have now closed it down, thus making it impossible for these groups to retreat towards their logistical rearbases and sanctuaries North of the border. No doubt, Erdogan is not keen on sheltering groups and individuals who might possibly turn against him, if they think they are not getting proper support. He may be willing to help out his own proxy militias (mostly Turkmen groups and components of "Ahrar al-Sham"), but he knows of the dangers that the lose cannons of various Jihad franchises represent.
Overall, the almost total defeat of the rebel groups in North-East Latakia does not mean an end to the fighting though, far from it. Battles are currently under way in several places in Syria, from the Jordanian border in the South to Palmyra and Deir ez Zor in the East (SAA vs ISIS here), all the way up to North and Eastern Aleppo, where all parties are more or less fighting each other. In all these areas, except maybe Deir ez Zor to a certain degree, the shift towards R+6 is undeniable, as we shall examine soon. Developments North and East of Aleppo in particular could have a decisive bearing on the conflict between R+6 and "moderate" rebels on the one hand, as well as long term implications for the fight against ISIS on the other.
The Kurdish Factor
Recent developments regarding the establishment of US and possibly Russian air bases in the North-East of Syria can also be seen in this context. And while ISIS is certainly no current priority to the SAA and their Russian allies, they are nonetheless on their radar, as also proven by the fighting around Palmyra and Deir ez Zor. In fact, and contrary to the spin-doctored falsehoods of the Borg, it is the R+6 that is currently doing most of the fighting against ISIS on the ground, and not the "moderates", despite their competing for towns and villages along the border with Turkey. In truth, YPG militias allied with the US and well supported by Special Forces have done a good job at securing large stretches of land bordering neighbouring Turkey, but the Kurds have an agenda of their own and will not want to be used exclusively as a proxy for America's war against ISIS.
They know they need to live with some sort of Syrian State to their South, as well as a hostile Turkey to the North. Confronted with the prospect of fighting ISIS to the South-East, some of the Kurdish groups might be willing to cooperate with Damascus (and Moscow) in exchange for a certain degree of political autonomy and military security. On their own, the Kurds know perfectly well that they are vulnerable to their powerful neighbours, in particular Turkey, which is playing a dubious game playing out the Kurds against both ISIS and the "moderate" Islamist rebel groups. For the YPG, an alliance with the US might prove difficult to uphold in the long run, while coming to terms with a weakened Assad regime could certainly give them more leverage, particularly if Russia guarantees the integrity of "autonomous" Kurdish areas within a reinvigorated Syrian State.
The fact that Moscow has been pushing for Kurdish representation among opposition groups that will take part in the coming peace talks, a move strongly opposed by Saudi-Arabia and Turkey, bears testimony to a possible shift in alliances. But be that is it may, the changing fortunes of war in Latakia province certainly increase the likelihood of the outcome that SST has been forecasting for over three months. Things are shaping up for a showdown between R+6 and the conglomerate of Salafi, Jihadi and "moderate" rebels currently holding the Idlib area.
Of course, there is always the possibility that the increased military pressure these groups are being put under will force their sponsors' hand at the negotiating table. This is certainly a variable Damascus and Moscow are aware of, which is the reason they want to create facts on the ground so as to strengthen their own hand. The Saudis' non-responsiveness plays right into this. Ryiadh is still refusing to recognize that it overplayed its hand and that other regional actors are not so keen any more to fall in line.
Aleppo and the coming battle for Idlib province
Regardless of the coming negotiations, chances are the R+6 are going to launch major operations in the Aleppo area pretty soon. It is unclear yet what will be the target of the coming offensive. Recently, the SAA's "Tiger Force" in particular has been pushing towards al-Bab, a key position on the Islamic State's LOC to and from Turkey. Combined with a Kurdish push further East (towards Manbij), a major offensive on al-Bab would cut off ISIS' major supply line and threaten their entire territory West of the Euphrates. If the SAA and allies are consistent with their operations in Latakia however, it is more likely that they will focus on further tightening the noose around the Idlib groups, isolating them from access to Turkey through the Azaz corridor.
Considering recent SAA advances into North-Western Aleppo, they might also want to cut off not only the M4 that runs to Idlib, but also to reach Bab al-Hawa border crossing into Turkey, which constitutes a further entry point for rebel arms and manpower. Such an option certainly makes sense strategically, but it is difficult to assess whether R+6 has the manpower to launch and sustain such a sickle move. Given their current MO, this option seems less likely than a further push towards Idlib, preparing the ground for a possible "Kesselschlacht" in which the rebels would be taken between the hammer (forces coming from Aleppo) and the anvil (forces taking over the mountain ranges as well as parts of Ghab plain up to Jisr al-Shugour).
In order to get there, efforts will need to be pursued in Eastern Latakia for now. The strategic position of Kinsibba will definitely be the target of further operations in the near future, possibly in conjunction with another push around Aleppo. The momentum definitely favours R+6 troops, so we shall see if they are capable and willing to exploit the holes they punched into the rebels' levee. Because when the levee breaks, the rebels will have no place to stay …