Syria Op-Ed: Russia’s “Scorched-Earth Policy”

A member of the Syrian pro-government forces sits on a sofa in the strategic town of Salma, in the coastal Latakia province, on January 15, 2016, following its recapture from rebel fighters. Russia began air strikes last September aiding the Syrian regime in the recapture of territory such as the town of Salma, that became a rebel stronghold after its 2012 capture. Simultaneously, the army is seeking to encircle the city of Aleppo, advance in the south of central Hama province and east in Homs, and is on the offensive in the key rebel town of Sheikh Miskeen in southern Daraa province. / AFP / YOUSSEF KARWASHAN

PHOTO: A regime soldier sits amid the devastated town of Salma in Latakia Province, January 15, 2016 (AFP)


Lara Nelson writes for Middle East Eye:


“It’s like Stalingrad. They raze entire areas. Then they send in the militias,” says Yamen Ahmad, a Free Syrian Army commander in Latakia Province in western Syria.

Ahmed was in Selma, Latakia province, leading his brigade when the Assad regime took back the area from the opposition in January. He says Moscow’s intervention was decision: “There is no way to resist this scorched earth policy the Russians are deploying with their strikes across Syria.”

Since Russia began its strikes in Syria on 30 September, the Assad regime has been able to make some gains across the country. Moscow initially declared that its military goal was to defeat the Islamic State, but the evidence is that the main objective of their strikes is support of regime-Iranian-Hezbollah ground offensives against rebels.

“Russia is simply acting as the regime’s air force against our moderate forces now,” says the spokesman for the Free Syrian Army’s Southern Front, Major Issam al-Reis.

Russian Airstrikes 29 JAN- 02 FEB-01_2

(Graphic: Institute for the Study of War)

While the Syrian military and the Islamic State are fighting in eastern Aleppo Province, in the north their frontline is a de facto safe zone as they both focus weaponry on opposition forces. As one media activist observes, “During the north Aleppo offensive, not a single Russian bomb has hit ISIS — not a single ISIS attack hit Assad’s front.”

Osama Abu Zeid, a legal advisor to the Free Syrian Army, returned from Syria last week. He describes how Russian strikes are hitting FSA forces while they fight ISIS in the northern Aleppo countryside. He describes the frontline between ISIS and the regime as “entirely peaceful”.

In the fronts in Latakia, Aleppo, and Daraa in southern Syria, the regime was not able to make headway until the start of intense Russian airstrikes which paved the way for pro-Assad forces largely composed of foreign militia.

FSA commander Ahmad says 75% of regime forces in the Salma offensive were foreigners. Orders on intercepted radio communications were in Persian while the chatter between forces was in an unrecognizable language that Ahmad described as “from mid-Asia”.

The Scorched Earth

After more than three months and about 800 Russian airstrikes, regime forces finally captured the town of Sheikh Miskeen in Daraa Province on January 26.

A Russian agency posted a video, titled “Dead City Sheikh Miskeen”, which captured the grim aftermath of the operation with its devastation.

The FSA Southern Front said the operation was “not a success story for the regime but a demonstration of how much it relies on Russia as its air force, and on foreign militia as its ground troops to re-control areas of the country.” Al-Reis commented: “The reality is that regime is not able to reclaim one meter of land without Russia fully destroying the area with its strikes.”

The military strategy in Salma parallels that in Sheikh Miskin. Yamen Ahmad describes how the regime had tried to take the area from the opposition for more than three years. There had been more 50 battles but with little regime success.

Then the Russians intervened. “They burned the entire area,” he said. In 40 hours, there were more than 150 airstrikes, in addition to 1,500 Grad rockets: “There was no way to resist this fire power.”

By the end of the operation, around 80 percent of buildings in the area had been damaged or destroyed. “You can barely find a building that is untouched by these strikes,” Ahmad notes.

In the battle for nearby al-Noba mountain, Russian bombing was so heavy that “no tree had been left standing, the mountain was totally burned”. About 25 airstrikes bombarded an area of 1 square km. Cluster bombs and an unidentified weapon scorched entire areas: “Everything it touched turned completely black”.

BAA-ou-nous-brûlons-le-pays-Taftanaz

(Pro-regime graffiti: “Bashar al-Assad or We Burn the Country”)

Aleppo has the same story. Osama Abu Zeid described the recent case of the village of Rityan in northern Aleppo countryside, with a battle starting with eight hours of Russian air strikes. Hezbollah, Iranian, and Afghan units failed to enter the village so there were another 12 strikes. Again the militia’s ground operation failed, so Russia carried out another 10 airstrikes until FSA forces withdrew.

“Any areas are taken over solely because of the Russian strikes” and only after “total destruction”, says Abu Zeid.

Once regained, civilians cannot return; the extent of the destruction makes the areas inhabitable: “Who wants to live in piles of rubble?” al-Reis asked me. Sheikh Miskeen is now empty. So is Salma.

Who%27s killing civilians in Syria graphic

(Graphic: Syrian Network for Human Rights)

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Scott Lucas is Professor of International Politics at the University of Birmingham and editor-in-chief of EA WorldView. He is a specialist in US and British foreign policy and international relations, especially the Middle East and Iran. Formerly he worked as a journalist in the US, writing for newspapers including the Guardian and The Independent and was an essayist for The New Statesman before he founded EA WorldView in November 2008.

19 COMMENTS

  1. More Propaganda from the usual regime change crowd trying to give legitimacy to Al Nustaan it’s affiliates.

    Russia never declated they were only going after ISIS, but that they going to target all terrorist groups. Al Nusra is a terrorist group.

    These shills are simply to ashamed to come out and say they support Al Qaeda.

  2. (source ISW)
    ==
    Russia obscures its true intentions in Syria through an active disinformation campaign.
    ==
    Its primary objective in Syria is to maintain an air and naval base on the Mediterranean by ensuring the preservation of the Assad regime. The distribution of Russian airstrikes in Aleppo Province demonstrates that its air campaign is primarily directed at weakening the armed Syrian opposition generally, not ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra. The “cessation of hostilities” agreed upon the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) on February 11 will likely only further the regime’s campaign to complete the siege of Aleppo, which Russia has been setting conditions for since October 2015.
    ==
    Russia and Iran are fighting for their neo-imperialist and religous interests with the means of war only.
    (Iran is interested to spread shia Islam that`s why Iranian jihadis are fighting Sunnis.
    ==
    The point: iran and russia are fighting solely by means of an aggressive offensive war trying to annhilate a dissenting population . Whole areas are depopulated right now and betweeen 250.000 and 300.000 more syrians will be on the run in coming weeks.
    ==
    A discussion is prevented by Iran propaganda lies spread the trooper.
    ==
    A discussion is prevented by Iran and Russia spreading propaganda that have nothing to do with the cruel reality on the groumd in Syria. Destruction and annihilation are on Iranians and Russians program but nothing else.
    ==
    Therefore, the Security Conference in Munich has failed. The West – and especially Europe – must learn and regain to use his political – military power means if it wants to stop the extermination policy of Iran and Russia.

    • Russia and Iran both have imperialist aims which will come into conflict sooner or later.
      Russia thinks it is the heir to the Eastern Roman Empire and Iran thinks it is the heir to the Empire of Cyrus. There are overlaps.

      • You have it completely backeards Don. Unlike Iran and Russia, the US is in the other side of the world and nowhere near Syria, yet has hundreds of bases in the region. Yet Islamists ha e security interests there. Imagine if Russia claimed it had security interests in Mexico?

        Ands peaking offers to the Roman Empire, you might want to look up where Capitol Hill derived it’s name. 🙂

  3. Russia and Iran are waging the war against syrians in tandem with Daesh. Russian attacks against Daesh didn`t take place. But on the on the contrary the Russians are working together with the terror organization Hezbollah since 2006.
    ===
    Thats why Saudi military jets have arrived in Turkey’s Incirlik air base in southern Adana province to carry out missions against Daesh, a Saudi military spokesman said late Saturday. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu also said Saturday that no decision about a possible Turkish ground operation in Syria had been made yet.
    http://aa.com.tr/en/turkey/saudi-warplanes-arrive-in-turkeys-incirlik-base/520848

    • Russia and Iran are waging the war against syrians in tandem with Daesh. Russian attacks against Daesh didn`t take place. But on the on the contrary the Russians are working together with the terror organization Hezbollah since 2006

      You’re hilarious Gunny. The FSA and Russia are already turning ISIS hq in Raqaa. I can already hear the cries of outrage from the jihadists fanboys here one the bombing starts, who will insist there is no ISIS in Raqaa or that by bombing ISIS they are secretly helping them.

  4. Lonely fight against Daesh
    ====================
    After expelling ISIS from al-Tal & Wadi Barada, JaI rebels kill 16 ISIS fighters in attack on ISIS rear positions in Daba’a, Eastern Qalamoun

  5. European discussion at it best
    ======================
    Russian ambassador has asked: “Where is our part of Europe?”
    Polish reply: “Inside Russian borders”

  6. Feb. 14 marks the 11th anniversary of the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri. Since his murder by criminals by Hizbollah and organized by Assad and khamenei , not a year has passed without further exposing that the crime was not isolated from the Iranian expansionist project in the region.
    ========
    We are currently witnessing in Lebanon another episode in a series that began with Hezbollah’s refusal to give up its arms after Israel withdrew from the south of the country in May 2000, in compliance with U.N. Security Council resolution 425 of March 1978.
    ========
    Those who think Hezbollah has given up its Iranian goals do not want to deal with reality. It did not participate in cabinets when Lebanon was under Syrian tutelage, only after Hariri was assassinated. It then solidified the concept of an obstructing vote in government, which has reached the current phase of blocking the election of a president.
    ========
    Iran wants to manage Lebanese politics and control the country via legitimate institutions
    ========
    Iran considers terrorist Hizbollah’s military intervention in Syria as an essential part of its project in the long run, while another essential part relates to Lebanon in particular. Since the assassination of Hariri, Hezbollah has been aiming to get rid of the Taif Agreement that ended Lebanon’s civil war.
    ========
    Nasrallah thinks time is on the side of the Iranian project, particularly because al-Assad is still in power despite five years of conflict. Hezbollah thinks the balance of power that led to the Taif Agreement no longer exists. Moreover, many people inside and outside Lebanon think the agreement should have died with Hariri.
    ========
    Iran wants to manage Lebanese politics and control the country via legitimate institutions, particularly the banking sector. It wants to hijack Lebanon, just as it did the Shiite sect. It wants a new electoral law that weakens the Sunni and Christian communities. The stances of Lebanon’s foreign minister resemble Iran’s.
    ========
    However, there are many legitimate questions about whether Iran is able to pursue its project in Lebanon and thus alter the regional balance of power in its favor.
    ========
    http://english.alarabiya.net/en/views/news/middle-east/2016/02/14/Iran-s-project-and-Rafiq-Hariri-s-assassination.html
    ========
    However, it is a foretaste of what will follow in Syria when fascist Russia and shiite islamist Iran be able to strengthen it`s position on Syria.

      • Nonsense the al queda affiliate is Al Nusra. They are not the moderates people refer to. The FSA troops sre the moderates.

        • “FSA troops are the moderates.”
          Not completely true. E.g. Jaish as-Sunna are associated with the FSA yet explicitly reject secularism and democracy.

        • The only moderates are those sipping tea in London. Whenever Russia bomb Al Nusra/Al Qaeda and affiliates, the imperialist complain that Russia is bombing “the rebels” and not ISIS.

          The FSA is practically non existent, which is why the rebels keep inventing new BS titles like The Army of Conquest or some title with the word “democratic” included, which is always laughable seeing as they always include jihadi groups like JAN or AAS who explicitly reject democratic elections.

  7. The criminal complexity of the western govts with Russia Assad and Iran in allowing mass murder is inexcusable. The UN leadership is also complicit.

  8. According to (Israel’s) channel 10 news, the share of Sunni population in Syria fell from +-80%
    to roughly 65%.

  9. Crocodile tears.

    Issam al-Reis’ FSA faction is not moderate but an ally to Nusra & co. They took the so called UN Hill together. Most FSA units are a fiction created to get Western support for takfiri terror troops.

    Its the insurgents fault that civilian areas are raced, they should not have abused these quarters as fortifications to stage a fight like the Russians did in Stalingrad.

    • So you blame the victims. The reality is that most Russian bombings are of civilian areas where no opposition forces even exist. Russia and its Assad regime and Irsnian partners are mass murderers.

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