In July 2012, the battle for Aleppo – between the army of Syrian regime leader Bashar Assad and Syrian rebels – heated up. The rebels stormed police stations and attacked army bases, but the Syrian regime fought back with air power, pummeling the city and sending in its ground forces. Some of the rebels were already exhausted after a year of struggle against the regime. They didn't know then that the war would drag on for six more years and that they would eventually see Assad retake the city in December 2016.
Behind the scenes, the US and Russians were maneuvering to support both sides. The CIA was coming to the rescue of the rebellion. According to reports, by the summer of 2012, arms were already being "steered" towards the rebellion with US support. US president Obama had authorized support for the rebels that summer, just as he had authorized air strikes in Libya the year before. The US would also provide support for training to the rebels. For a short period the US had the upper hand in Syria. Russia's Syrian-regime ally was teetering.
In August 2013, Assad's forces launched a poison gas attack on Ghouta in the suburbs of Damascus. Hundreds were killed and the US was poised for air strikes. Then came the Russians to the rescue. Blocking UN condemnation, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov put forward a proposal to establish international control over the chemical weapons stocks and avoid air strikes. It gave Obama a way out as other Western countries, such as the UK – and even the US Congress – were rejecting air strikes.
Little by little, the Russians helped shore up the regime in the fall of 2013 and spring of 2014. The regime was bolstered by the aid of Iran which had sent thousands of fighters, some increasingly recruited among Shi'ite communities in other countries. Hezbollah was coming to Assad's aid as well. As the war internationalized, the opposition also got foreign support and fighters. This came from Gulf countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and there was aid coming from Jordan with Western support. Turkey was also supporting the opposition.
BUT THE REBELS had a problem. They weren't unified and the multiplicity of CIA-supported groups turned out to be more smoke and mirrors. It was revealed in 2015 that the hundreds of millions poured in to help the rebels had been squandered. Vetted US-backed groups produced few fighters. The groups that were producing effective fighters were increasingly jihadists. These included Ahrar al-Sham, and the Nusra Front, the Syrian version of Al-Qaeda.
In addition, Islamic State, a group with origins in Iraq that had grown more powerful in eastern Syria's Euphrates valley, began to gobble up territory and sponge up foreign fighters attracted to its aesthetic genocidal zeal. ISIS kidnapped and purchased kidnapped journalists and foreigners from other groups, primarily around Aleppo. Kidnapped in 2012 and 2013, many would be executed in 2014 in brutal displays by ISIS.
ISIS became the main distraction for the US, fearful that its support for the rebels might be morphing into a monster as the extremists fed off the chaos. Russia benefited from this, carefully planning a round of air strikes in October 2015. US Defense Secretary Ash Carter condemned Russia, claiming that it was pouring fuel on the fire. He also noted that Moscow was bombing ISIS along with "other terrorists," but Carter noted that it was targeting opposition groups who "belong in the political transition going forward." Russia's approach was "doomed to fail," the Americans said.
But Washington had also pivoted in 2014 from fighting the regime to fighting ISIS, building an international coalition of 70 countries. The US was working heavily on the Iran deal from 2013 to 2015. Former US ambassador Robert Ford said in an interview posted at the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis (MECRA) that in 2013, Obama administration officials were warned about the growing Iranian presence and had not acquiesced to measures which might have slowed or reduced it. In short, the US had decided that the Iran Deal was of more importance, and Assad would likely stay in power with Iranian and eventually more Russian support.
RUSSIA'S INTERVENTION had immediate results. Syrian rebels left Homs under a truce in December 2015. In December 2016, Russia and Turkey brokered a wide-ranging ceasefire across the country. In January 2017 Russia, Iran and Turkey gathered in Astana for talks, leading to a ceasefire and de-escalation zones established in May in the South, Center and North.
The result of the Astana process was to bypass the Geneva peace process and UN discussions that the US and then secretary of state John Kerry had been involved in. Russia's role seemed to be working: It had hosted a lavish concert in the ancient city of Palmyra in May 2016 after it was liberated from ISIS.
The US, meanwhile, was more deeply involved in eastern Syria helping Kurdish fighters defeat ISIS. With airdrops to help the Kurds in Kobani in October 2014, the Obama administration increased support by ordering special forces to eastern Syria in October 2015. By 2016, the US was on a roll, backing a new umbrella group called the Syrian Democratic Forces who liberated Shaddadi in February 2016 and Manbij in August.
As the Kurdish-backed SDF expanded, the Turks became wary, accusing the US of supporting "terrorists" connected to the PKK, and Turkey intervened. The US continued pouring material and hundreds of men into Syria, helping to liberated Raqqa, the ISIS capital, in October 2017. It was an effective campaign with few US casualties.
Eventually US forces and the Russians came face to face on the Euphrates River near Deir ez-Zor. Testing the US commitment, a group of Russian contractors with some Syrian fighters launched an attack across the Euphrates in February 2018, directed at the SDF. US forces responded with air power, decimating the Russian contractors. It was a message that the US would stand by its partners in Syria.
RUSSIA DECIDED that it could outplay the Americans elsewhere. Trump had announced an end to the support for the Syrian rebels in July 2017; the Russian-backed Syrian regime conquered rebel areas in southern Syria and around Damascus. Eventually in September 2018, Russia and Turkey signed an agreement regarding Idlib, one of the last rebel-held areas.
Then Russia, Iran and Turkey decided to meet in Geneva to discuss the Syrian constitution. By going to Geneva in December 2018, the Russians showed they had not only defeated the US-backed rebels but also bought out the diplomatic process that the US had paid lip-service to.
Russia had angled to work more closely with Turkey, a US ally outraged by the US support for the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG). Turkey, Russia and Iran grew closer and the US was left out in the cold. Even US allies such as Saudi Arabia didn't come through with the funding Trump wanted for eastern Syria.
Now, Trump is poised to leave eastern Syria and Russia will walk in as the broker of yet another deal, as it has since 2013, showing up and making deals that enable the Syrian regime to consolidate power.
Moscow kept its Syrian policy to a narrow goal of preserving the Syrian government under the Assad regime. Even though Russia had a weaker hand to play than the Americans, with less money and inferior air power, it outplayed the US consistently, correctly judging that the US wouldn't decapitate the regime with air strikes and that the US-backed rebels were corrupt and prone to infighting.
Russia also angled for Turkey's support, working on a new gas line to Turkey and selling S-400s to Ankara. Although Russia may stumble eventually in Syria, so far it has accomplished its goals.
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.