Russia in Syria
Russia’s New Target in Syria: The South

Government forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, backed by strong Russian air support, appear to be making a strong push in the country’s south—long a stronghold of more moderate rebel forces fighting against Damascus in the grinding Syrian Civil War.

Though rebels are currently holding their own in defending the strategically significant town of al-Shaikh Maskin, observers are nervous. With peace talks in Vienna set to take place in the coming weeks, analysts see the push as a gambit by Assad to gain maximum leverage at the negotiations. Syrian authority Joshua Landis went further in talking to the Financial Times: “The regime is not going to compromise on talks. They now think they’re going to win on the battlefield, and that Russia is taking them to the finish line.”

Over at Syria in Crisis, editor Aron Lund notes the history and strategic importance of the southern Syrian front to the overall war. In a must-read round up, “The Ten Most Important Developments in Syria in 2015,” Lund writes:

9. The Failure of the Southern Storm Offensive.

This summer, the loose coalition of rebel units known as the FSA’s Southern Front got ready to capitalize on a year of slow and steady progress, during which Sheikh Miskin and other towns had been captured from Assad. They encircled the provincial capital, Deraa, for a final offensive dubbed Southern Storm. The city actually looked ready to fall […]

Stories differ on what happened next, but the Southern Storm campaign was a fiasco […]

Of course, it might seem strange to say that rebels not taking a city was Syria’s ninth most significant event in 2015. It is not even a Dog Bit Man story, it’s a Dog Didn’t Bite Man story. But the Deraa affair seems to have done a great deal of damage to Western and Arab hopes for the FSA’s Southern Front, which had until then been portrayed as a model for the rest of Syria’s insurgency.

For anyone interested in the state of play in Syria, we highly recommend that you read the whole thing. Coming in at the top of the list, of course, is “The Russian Intervention”—Vlad’s involvement in Syria, which was perhaps the biggest game-changer in the Middle East as a whole in 2016.

And now, Russia is moving against rebels in southern Syria. The White House, which has been consistently flummoxed and outmaneuvered by Putin going back to his invasion of Ukraine, keeps spinning Syria as a quagmire and a disaster for Russia — even as the US gives more and more ground to Assad and Russia at the bargaining table. The push in the south — which has nothing to do with defeating ISIS and everything to do with smashing some of the last ‘moderate’ rebel groups with any credibility, raises another possibility. Is Putin going for the win? Will President Obama’s next Syria statement amend his earlier insistence that “Assad must go!” to something more in keeping with the new situation on the ground that Russian action and American dithering have combined to create?

Will Obama’s next Syria statement be that “Assad must go on ruling Syria for as long as Russia wants?”

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