Washington is sustaining image losses, and its allies real losses
Originally appeared at VPK, translated by Carpatho-Russian exclusively for SouthFront
It is absolutely unimportant how the world’s mass media, politicians and political scientists evaluate the Russian operation in Syria. It is, in exactly the same way, unimportant what all of them, beginning with the President of the United States and ending with numerous group of support, are predicting. It makes sense to listen to the opinion of an ally and a partner. Also to an opponent — if this opinion is competent and professional, and not dictated just by envious jealousy. But regarding issues in the Middle East, it is not suitable, in the case of the USA and the coalition headed by it, to speak about competence of the fight against terrorism. However, military professionals have noted the high quality of Russian air-space forces. This has already essentially changed their relation to Russia and its capabilities.
The beginning of the attacks of the Russian air-space forces on positions of the militants in Syria also activated those who are actually resisting them, those who are pretending to participate in this fight, and those who support and direct them, pretending that they are fighting against them. This is Iran, official Baghdad and Damascus, and the Shiite militias of Lebanon and Iraq, as well as Druzes, Christians, and Kurds in the first case. The USA is the second case, and Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey the third case. They each have their reasons. The Arab monarchies are conducting war on several fronts, Turkey has parliamentary elections, and the States need to show results in the fight against terrorists so as at least not to appear before the whole world in an even more awkward situation than now.
Arming IS is more expensive
Let us examine the situation in the region, relying on materials of IBV experts Y. Shcheglovin and P. Ryabov. Note that according to American sources, visits to Sochi by the successor of the Saudi crown prince M. ben Salman and the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates M. ben Nakhayan, and their negotiations with president Putin, ended with a statement regarding serious disagreements on the Syrian conflict. The Arab monarchies confirmed that they will not stand aside from destroying the allies among the opposition groups and will begin to reinforce their logistics, including MANPADS for fighting against Russian aircraft. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are not ready for organization of intra-Syrian negotiations that would keep Bashar Assad in power and supported by Russia. They had in mind an alliance between Iran and Russia, considered in KSA and the United Arab Emirates as a threat to their national security, taking into account the weak military potential of the Saudi and Emirate armies.
“In a critical situation Iran can inspire disorders in key provinces of Saudi Arabia. This will call into question its very existence.”
It is possible to suggest that Egypt in this situation will try to stand aside. The recent visit to Cairo by the coordinator of the Syrian intelligence services, Ali Mamlyuk, and his negotiations with counterparts in the leadership of the Egyptian intelligence services revealed that their positions coincide “regarding the issue of the necessity to fight against Islamic groups in Syria”, which was officially recorded in the statement of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Arab Republic of Egypt. The Egyptian leadership distanced itself from any intervention in any intra- Syrian conflict on the party of whichever external player, seeing that the KSA is the main sponsor of the economic and military projects of Egypt, and Russia is the main supplier of arms, due to the American embargo on military assistance to Cairo.
Riyadh realizes that both the USA and Russia consider it to be a destructive force which must be ignored in the solution of regional problems. This was shown in the situation with the Iranian nuclear program, and with Syria and in Yemen the USA did not render the Arab coalition any significant support. The question remains regarding the actual situation for the KSA and United Arab Emirates in strengthening their influence in Syria. For this purpose they have in Afghanistan time-tested experience in supplying fighters with MANPADS and other arms. Washington has for now imposed a strict ban on MANPADS export to Islamists, including to the “moderates” in Syria. The latter are actively trading in the received weapons and pass them from one group to another. The USA considered the Afghan experience when, after the withdrawal of Soviet troops, they faced a threat to their own aircraft. The amounts spent by Americans to buy back Stinger MANPADS in Afghanistan, and then the Strelas in Libya, are still unknown.
The emergence of a large number of MANPADS among Assad’s opponents is improbable, considering that in Syria not just Russian air-space forces, but also coalition planes led by the USA, are operating. However, modern anti-tank complexes are arriving in Syria in large number. Currently in Riyadh a decision has been made to send Jabhat al-Nusra 500 sets of anti-tank guided missile launchers. It is necessary to expect activity of the KSA also within Russia, in the form of attempts to finance resonant terrorism acts and stimulate an outbreak of jihadism in the North Caucasus, especially in Dagestan. One indicator is the fatwa of 52 religious scholars and imams of KSA urging able-bodied men to “join the fighters resisting the Russian armies in Syria”. A campaign has begun to supply volunteers and arms deliveries to the pro-Saudi groups Jabhat al-Nusra and Akhrar ash-Sham, who are holding the Idlib base, an attack on which, with their displacement to Turkey, is a priority for the Syrian army.
A new stage of actions in Syria has opened up for the States, that being the transfer by American transport aircraft of 50 tons of small arms and ammunition to the “moderate opposition” on September 12. A large-scale attack on the “capital” of IS, the city of Raqqa, is approaching. Its fall will mean the beginning of the end of financing the IS and the organization of a buffer zone under control of the Kurds, interfering with the supply of Islamists through Turkey. Jordan can play only a supporting role in this process. The main fighting of the pro-Saudi militants against armies in Syria will go to Idlib in the north, but sending weapons through the entire length of the country is expensive and difficult. Besides, Amman is not burning with the desire to turn its own territory into a channel for the transport of Salafite militants, thereby fueling tension with Moscow.
A victory, even a small one, is needed
In setting the stage for an attack on Raqqa, a plan has been promoted to create a coalition “Vulcan of the Euphrates”, into which Kurds, Assyrian Christians, Turkomans, and various groups of the Syrian Free Army will enter. This last one is formed of little-known “moderate” Islamic groups: “Hazm”, “Front of the Syrian Revolutionaries”, and “Jaish al-Tuuvar”. This is intended to give the coalition the character of a grass-roots movement uniting wide layers of opponents of Assad, from ethnic groups to secular and moderately Islamic groups. In fact, these are the remnants of the program to prepare a “new Syrian opposition”, restricted to merely having no Jabhat al-Nusra. The actual venture is placed on the Syrian Kurds, due to which Ankara and Washington will operate in the near term in Syria, in many respects separately.
The staging ground for an attack on Raqqa is to the north and east of the Euphrates. The transfer of weapons and coordination of the interaction with coalition aircraft will be through the Incirlik base, with a staff in Qatar. The weapons will go through Iraq Kurdistan, whose president M. Barzani agreed to this during negotiations last month with a Pentagon delegation in Erbil, having in passing refused to participate in an attack on Mosul. The US CIA is coordinating all this. In the format of an ultimate goal, it is planned to take Dayr az Zawr in addition to Raqqa, attacking it from the Hasakah side along the Khabar River, although the coalition hammered together by Americans can hardly conduct two offensive operations at the same time. Capturing Dayr az Zawr will cut off the Islamists from bases in the northeast of Aleppo, and damage their centralized command and supply from Turkey. The Kurds will not advance to the Arab regions of the country.
What is available for financing by Saudi Arabia of explosive operations in Syria and beyond its borders is limited by the prices for oil. The Saudi budget is being pressured. Social programs, the war in Yemen, and the dumping prices for the oil exported by KSA to Asia will seriously undermine the gold resources of the country in adverse conditions. In this, the USA, unlike the Afghanistan of the 1980s, will not help Riyadh. Their strategy in the region depends less on Saudi Arabia, due to having other partners. This is shown also in the American strategy in Iraq, where the USA is preparing an attack by the Iraqi army on Ramadi.
From the point of view of propaganda and strategic effect, Mosul was much more preferable to the Pentagon. However, the Russian military operation in Syria required an urgent reaction from the USA. Two attacks by forces of the Iraqi army did not suffice. Especially after the Kurdish leadership of Iraq, under the pretext of “unpreparedness” of the Peshmerga, refused to attack Mosul from the north, at least until the end of the year. In fact, Erbil did not wish to be involved in a fight for the locale, which is unfamiliar and unnecessary for construction of an independent Kurdistan, instead preserving its forces for the inevitable conflict with Arabs for oil-producing Kirkuk.
In addition, there is a hard-fought internal political battle in Kurdish autonomy. After facing serious problems in September concerning prolongation of his powers as its head, Barzani played a combination, intended to remove from the government the figures entering into the “Gorran” opposition party, which is associated with Iran. He tried to create a coalition with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Islamic Union of Kurdistan. This may cause a reaction and strengthening of the Iranian influence in a Kurdish autonomy, but Barzani has no space for maneuver before an attack on IS. After this, when the Pentagon mission spent some weeks on arrangements, the decision was made to be reoriented to Ramadi. All the more because an attack on Mosul is fraught with serious numbers of victims among the peaceful population as a result of using aircraft of the international coalition.
The propaganda aspect is especially important to Washington. The USA needs a victorious, even if small, operation to nullify the obvious loss to Russia and Iran in Syria. The army of Iraq stands 14 kilometers from Ramadi, which allows it to fire at it from artillery. Capturing the city is urged, in order to create a change in moods of Sunni tribes of Anbar province, after having started the process of incorporating the tribal militias into the force bodies of Iraq. However, in time the USA, having promised the Anbar Sunnis recognition as a part of the Iraq armed forces, were not able to pass this decision through N. al-Maliki’s government.
The choice of Ramadi as an object of attack results also from the fact that the Iraqi army and the Shiite militia did not move ahead in recent months to the north through the Salakh ed-Dean province to Mosul, as provided initially, and did not create bases near the Iraqi “capital” of IS. Note that in this attack Shiites either will not participate, or else will be limited to small forces. Americans will lose the remnants of the loyalty of Sunni tribes if the population faces atrocities from Shiites. Sheikhs of the Sunni tribes of Anbar are categorically against participation of Shiites in fights in the territory of their province, although they themselves are not hurrying to join the ranks of governmental forces. The Iraqi army may face serious problems in Ramadi, even with support from the American aircraft, as was the case in Tikrit.
New Middle Eastern reality
From the military point of view, the occupation of the administrative center of the province of Anbar has small value. The Iraqi Shiites and Iran are now too engaged with Syria to actively appear in Anbar. Contacts with Washington from Tehran are “frozen”, and relations with the Iraq prime minister H. al-Abadi have grown cold because of his conflict with his predecessor N. al-Maliki, who is supported by Iran. The latter is taking cover in the south of Iraq, and meanwhile in Baghdad an indictment on his attempt to organize a coup d’etat is being prepared. As a result, it is possible to expect soon the activation of Riyadh’s contacts with the Sunni tribal elite, which in the conditions of falling income from the sale of oil is a challenge both for the government of Iraq, which is experiencing a deficiency of financial means, and for Iran.
The picture of Saudi activity in opposition with Iran is supplemented by the situation in Yemen. The groups opposing the president of the country Abd-Rabbu Monsour Hadi, who is sponsored by the KSA, conducted a missile attack on the air base located in the territory of Saudi Arabia. As reported by the Yemen agency SABA, which is controlled by the “Ansar Allah” movement, i.e. by the Houthis, the detachments supporting them “launched a ballistic missile on the air base of the Saudi army, located in the town Khamis Mushyat in the southern province of Asir”. No reaction followed from the authorities of Saudi Arabia on the statement of the Houthis about the attack on the air base.
Note that this is already the second attack on a KSA Air Force base since the beginning of the intervention by the “Arab Coalition”. The first was carried out in the summer. The base at that time suffered great damage. According to information from experts, some of the fleet was destroyed, and what is more important, several high-ranking Saudi military. Western intelligence services believed that the attack was planned and carried out by Iranian advisers, who not only directed the rocket, but also synchronized its launch with the arrival of aforementioned military units at the base, which provides evidence of the existence among the Houthis of a good espionage ring and most likely communications intelligence.
Riyadh in turn tried to conceal information on the attack as much as possible. The Houthis used a missile with an old configuration, and its precise hit on the goal, despite modern American air defense systems, caused a scandal and claims for damages to the American suppliers. Now a radar-tracking component of air defense of KSA is being developed. As the new attack shows, hardware issues are not solved yet. It must be noted that the signal sent to Riyadh and other members of the Arab coalition by this attack shows that despite the assurances of the Saudi command about destruction of Zeydite arsenals and their missile launchers, they are intact, efficient, and rather effective.
After the attack by a Tochka-U missile a month ago at the Air Force base in Marib [Yemen], where military and aviation equipment of the “Arab Coalition” was concentrated, such signals are very painfully perceived in the capitals of the monarchies. The calm on the fronts in Yemen does not mean that there is no fighting there. They simply do not have such large-scale character as in the critical phase of the battle for Aden. Fights of local significance are conducted in all provinces of the country, although no operational plan is visible behind them. An exception is the establishment by coalition forces of control over the port of Mocha on the coast of the Red Sea. But operations did not continue, although it opened the possibility of attacking Al Hudaydah, the seaport through which the Houthis can receive from Iran weapons and material and logistical assistance. However, according to experts, in warehouses of the Houthis and supporters of the ex-president of Yemen A.A. Saleh, there are enough weapons for a long war even without replenishment of stocks.
The situation in one key city of Yemen – Taiz – is also not developing to the advantage of A.B. Hadi’s supporters. Troops of the former Republican Guard and “Kuat Khassa”, loyal to Salekh, are deployed in an old citadel of the imam on the hills dominating the northern section of Taiz, using their weapons to shell the entire city. The coalition air forces are not engaged in bombing to suppress their firing positions, and are not dropping cargoes with weapons for the local militia. Defenders of the city were split: Islamists attacked all the others.
Riyadh is currently trying to prepare an attack on Sanaa. In this, if Saudi Arabia is not successful in buying the loyalty of the Zeydite tribes of the province of Sanaa, the capital of Yemen will not be taken. Riyadh is operating in this goal through the Akhmar brothers and their stepbrother Saleh Ali Mokhsen. However there are reasons to suspect them of duplicity. At one time, the relations of KSA and Akhmarov deteriorated during Saleh’s overthrow, when they went over to financing by Qatar. In reply, Riyadh provoked the Houthis to destroy the infrastructure of the Islakh party which the brothers headed, and this led to the emigration of Hamid al-Akhmar to Turkey. Today he is again in demand by Riyadh and proceeded to contact with them, but is most likely trying to restore the military capability of his own side at Saudi expense, where he is trying as long as possible to remain outside military operations.
Thus, even superficial analysis of the operational situation shows that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have gotten stuck in Yemen and are sustaining considerable losses there, even though the participation of Iran in support of the resistance to the intervention of the Arabian monarchies and their protege, President Hadi, is minimal. Moreover, the situation is fraught with a transfer of hostilities to Saudi territory, which taking into account the existence in the KSA of a considerable Shiite population it is mortally dangerous to the kingdom. Loyalty to the Salafi regime from Shiites of the Eastern province, Nadzhran’s Ismaelites, and Asira’s Zeydites, not to mention the Shiite population of Bahrain occupied by KSA, is equal to zero. This is perfectly known to Iran, which in a critical situation can instigate disorders in key provinces of the kingdom. This will call into question its very existence and will almost certainly exclude attempts of Riyadh to operate against Moscow both in Syria, and on Russian territory.
Besides Yemen, Iraq, and Syria, Doha and Riyadh are active in Libya and Egypt (KSA supports Cairo, and Qatar supports the militants in Sinai who are at war against the Egyptian army), and are competing in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Central Asia, Africa, a number of the countries of Asia outside of the Middle East, and are also conducting a continuous fight for the political establishment of Europe and the United States. It seems that the peak influence on world politics of the Arabian monarchies and Turkey, supporting them in some situations and competing in others, has passed. Symbolic evidence for this was that Moscow in 2015 for the first time overtook Riyadh as oil supplier to the Chinese market. Note that the long-term trends for development of Russian-Chinese relations, while there is obvious weakening of the position of the USA in the Middle East, strengthens the opposition of Washington with Moscow and Beijing. This contrasts with the noticeably benevolent foreign policy of Moscow concerning the Western players, Turkey, and the Arabian monarchies, and with the activation of its air-space forces in Syria, which has created a new reality in the region.