Russia does not stop. Reports in Arabic media on Saturday evening told the story of a stream of thousands of refugees that won’t subside, all fleeing the northwestern areas of Syria toward the Turkish border. They are escaping a ground offensive by the Syrian army, assisted by Russian carpet bombings against Aleppo and the villages of Latakia and near Homs.
According to reports from Russia, the Syrian army has succeeded in taking control of some villages in northern Latakia, a region in the western part of Syria. Bashar Assad’s army has also conquered areas north of Aleppo; on Friday, his army claimed to have taken over villages controlling several strategic roads near the Turkish border.
As a Hebrew saying goes, the appetite is whetted when the food is served. An emboldened Assad even gave an interview on Friday to Agence France Presse, vowing not to cease fighting until he retakes control of the entire nation. While this would have sounded like science fiction only a few months ago, now, with the help of Russian bombers, it no longer seems a fantasy.
Such a scenario may take months or even years to unfold, but the progress of the Syrian army, backed by Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, is quite consistent – at least on the northwestern front.
If Assad and his Iranian and Russian allies succeed in taking over “Alawistan,” they are likely to turn eastward to Idlib and then southward to the Golan Heights. Only after this “cleanup” is the Alawite axis likely to try to tackle Islamic State in the eastern part of the country.
Thus, the Russian strategy to defeat Islamic State reveals itself: Firstly, to defeat everything that is not IS and opposes Assad, mainly in the northwestern part of Syria. And then to take on IS.
The Russians, as they are wont to do, take no prisoners. They are not even pretending to avoid harming civilians. On the contrary: Everything that moves and is in territories controlled by non-IS opposition forces is a legitimate target, be it hospitals, schools – the lot.
And what, meanwhile, are the Americans and Europeans doing? Blabbering about a ceasefire, which will not include a cessation of bombardments of “terror groups” or the fight against IS and Nusra Front, thus in fact enabling the continued slaughter of innocent civilians.
One can guess how proceedings at the UN Security Council would look if Israel bombed a village in Gaza or the West Bank, even by mistake. In Syria, even when bombardments are deliberate, most of the world shows a powerlessness and utter lack of will to confront Moscow.
Those standing out as exceptions in this respect are Saudi Arabia and Turkey, mainly the former. On Friday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu revealed that Saudi Arabia was dispatching jets to a base in eastern Turkey and that the two countries were preparing to launch a ground invasion of Syria in order to fight Islamic State.
Çavuşoğlu told a local paper that Saudi military officials had arrived at the base and examined the territory. “Saudi Arabia announced its determination to fight Islamic State and said it is willing to send jets and ground troops,” Çavuşoğlu said.
Still, he acknowledged that no real plans for a ground invasion existed at this stage. “In every meeting of the coalition countries fighting Islamic State, we always emphasized the need for a result-oriented strategy in the struggle against this extremist organization,” the minister explained. “If we have such a strategy, Turkey and Saudi Arabia may launch a ground incursion.”
On the other hand, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir has indicated more than once that a Saudi ground incursion in Syria is inevitable. Jubeir told a German paper over the weekend that Assad will not be part of Syria’s future and that “the Russian military intervention will not help him stay in power.”
Jubeir’s comments paint in stark relief Riyadh’s disagreement with the confused, stuttering policy of the White House in all matters Syrian. Saudi Arabia sees America’s impotence, it sees America’s attempt to ignore the fact that the Russians may well defeat Assad’s moderate opponents. And it looks like Riyadh has decided not to lean on the Americans any longer. For the Saudis, the prospect of the Iranian-Russian axis taking over Syria and Lebanon is one step too far.
Saudi-Russian dogfights until recently seemed like an impossible scenario. But in today’s Middle East, and especially in Syria, this too may come to pass, as America fades from the region.