President Obama did not invent the war from above, using drones and warplanes against a guerrilla force, but he has a clear preference for airborne counterinsurgency. He has loosed drones or airstrikes in some seven countries, regardless of whether the United States was on a war footing with them, and his use of drones dwarfs that of George W. Bush. Obama deployed the US Air Force extensively against the Taliban in Afghanistan, even while trying to build up the Afghanistan National Army. After the fall of Mosul in the summer of 2014, he went back into Iraq with drones, fighter jets, and a plan to rebuild the Iraqi Army. Other great powers have clearly been watching and learning, and Vladimir Putin’s Syria intervention is arguably a Russian adaptation of the Obama Doctrine of counterinsurgency.
Putin’s Syria campaign has exactly the same shape as Obama’s preferred methods. The Russians have expanded a military airbase near Latakia to allow provision of Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian Arab Army with more tanks and heavy artillery, brought in by huge military transport planes. Russian trainers and advisers are attempting to up the game of the SAA, now shrunk by defections and fatigue to only 90,000 troops from its former strength of some 300,000. The Russian air force is hitting arms depots and armed convoys of Syrian insurgents. It is giving close air support to the troops of the SAA and its Hezbollah allies in the region just north of the provincial Sunni city of Hama and in Idlib Province.
Idlib has fallen completely into the hands of the Army of Conquest and its allies. This coalition groups Al Qaeda (the Support Front, or Jabhat al-Nusra) with the Freemen of Syria (Ahrar al-Sham) and other small, fundamentalist Salafi guerrilla bands. The fall of Idlib threatens the port of Latakia just to its west, an Alawite Shiite population center, which is a major power base for Assad’s Baath regime. Latakia in the northwest is essential for supplying the southern capital, Damascus. If the guerrillas in Idlib take Latakia, an Al Qaeda–led group would for the first time fully control a major Mediterranean port, with dire implications for Europe.
The Support Front reports directly to Ayman al-Zawahiri, a mastermind of the September 11 attacks on the United States. If it takes Latakia, it would then be in a position to cut Damascus off before sweeping into the capital and killing the Assad regime. Further, it would certainly ethnically cleanse the some 2 million Alawites of the area, provoking another wave of refugees headed toward Europe. Washington’s complaints about the Russians focusing on this threat rather than on Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) in the country’s east therefore misses the whole point.
Although it is true that there are small remnants of the Free Syrian Army, as well, north of Hama and in Idlib, they are either local and relatively unimportant or have been drawn into tactical alliances with Al Qaeda. The refusal of the Freemen of Syria and other groups to break with Zawahiri’s Al Qaeda as they broke with Daesh has denied them effective Western support and hurt their cause. Putin’s military is relentlessly targeting all the insurgents who threaten regime control over key cities such as Latakia and Hama, which lie along the trunk road that is the capital’s lifeline, and on either side of which most Syrians live. In the end, though, Russia’s hope of restoring the authority of the Assad regime, which is guilty of mass torture and mass murder, seems forlorn.