MOSCOW, September 30. /TASS/. Two years ago today Russia declared it was beginning an anti-terrorist operation in Syria and its aerospace group dealt the first strikes against facilities and forces of the terrorist group calling itself the Islamic State (outlawed in Russia). Two years on the operation is entering the final phase. That victory over the terrorist forces is near is well-seen in the latest statistics available: Syria’s government army enjoying Russian air support has regained control of 85% of the country’s territory.
Russia’s efforts played a tangible role in achieving a situation where fragmented and conflicting groups of the armed opposition presented a common front in the struggle against terrorists. Over the past year Aleppo has been cleared of terrorists and control regained of Palmyra. Akerbat - the militants’ major command center - has been stormed, which allowed for launching an offensive towards Deir ez-Zor. By now the three-year-long siege of that city has been terminated and the Syrian military are conducting security sweeps in its residential areas and suburbs.
Official forecasts regarding the chances of a successful completion of the anti-terrorist operation sound ever more optimistic.
Aleppo and Palmyra
Aleppo, a large city near Syria’s western border with Turkey, came under militants’ attacks in 2012 and about half of it fell under their control by the end of the same year. Prolonged fighting continued for many months. No fundamental changes in the situation occurred until the autumn of 2015, when Russia’s aerospace group delivered the first strikes against terrorist targets in Aleppo province, thus enabling the government army to launch a counter-offensive and retake the Kweires military air base in November.
In the summer of 2016 the Syrian army started a large-scale operation with the aim of recapturing the city. In October Russia initiated creation of humanitarian corridors to let civilians leave the city, but militants repeatedly opened fire on those trying to escape. In a situation like this the personnel of Russia’s Center for the Reconciliation of the Warring Parties repeatedly helped groups of civilians out of Aleppo during nighttime amid continuing hostilities. In November the Syrian army launched a massive operation to storm the city. On December 16 Russia’s General Staff said Aleppo had been cleared of terrorists.
The regaining of Aleppo bolstered the chances for a peace settlement of the conflict in Syria. Russian President Vladimir Putin described the operation as the largest-ever humanitarian effort in the modern world.
Once that operation was over, Putin said that Russia was downscaling its presence in Syria. On January 6, 2017 Russia’s aircraft carrier The Admiral Kuznetsov, on a mission off Syria since October 2016, and the escort ships left back for Severomorsk. During its mission near Syria its deck fighter jets MiG-29K/KUB and Sukhoi-33 flew more than 400 sorties to have wiped out about 1,300 targets.
However, while the main government forces were focused on Aleppo, the Syrian military failed to beat back the militants’ counter-offensive and retain Palmyra they had earlier taken in the March of 2016. The "gem of the Syrian desert" had to be fought for again. The second battle of Palmyra began on March 1, 2017. The next day the Syrian army and militias of the Shi’ite party Hezbollah entered the city. On the same day Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu reported to President Putin the operation to retake Palmyra had been completed, adding that Deiz ez-Zor, then still besieged by the terrorists, would become the key point on the map of Syria crucial for an eventual victory over the Islamic State.
Before the start of the Deir ez-Zor operation the Syrian army was to establish control of Akerbat - a major transport hub and command center of the terrorists in the east of Hama Province. The militants had turned it into a major stronghold, with a sophisticated network of underground tunnels each ranging 100 meters to 800 meters in length. What made Akerbat particularly difficult to retake was that it had been well-prepared for all-round defense and had a multi-tier system of fortifications, bunkers and shelters. Also, in the fight for this citadel the militants used an unprecedented number of suicide bombers. Fifteen to twenty five militants wearing suicide belts and four or five vehicles loaded with explosives were destroyed each day. All approaches to the city were mined.
During the offensive operation Russia’s aerospace group dealt more than 300 strikes against the militants. With the loss of the city the terrorists were no longer able to regroup forces, receive ammunition and supplies, while the Syrian government army gained access to Deir ez-Zor, which was surrounded by the terrorists three years ago.
The city’s garrison had to repel no end of systematic attacks by outnumbering enemy forces. As soon as Russia responded to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s request to join the anti-terrorist operation military transport planes began an airdrop campaign to deliver humanitarian supplies to the city. Some aid Russia airlifted to Deir ez-Zor had been provided by the United Nations.
On September 5 Syrian forces under General Suheil Hassan broke the Islamic State’s siege of the city. Russia supported the Syrian forces on the ground by air strikes and Kalibr cruise missiles launched from the Black Sea’s frigate The Admiral Essen.
Three days later Russian aircraft operating near Deir ez-Zor wiped out a command post, a communication center and four warlords, including the Islamic State’s "war minister" Gulmurod Khalimov. On September 14 another strike with Kalibr cruise missiles followed, this time from the submarines The Veliki Novgorod and The Kolpino. On September 26 strategic bombers Tupolev-95MS contributed their share to the operation to launch X-101 cruise missiles, which eliminated terrorists’ command centers, a considerable amount of manpower and materiel and ammunition warehouses. By now the militants have been rolled back 5-7 kilometers away from Deir ez-Zor’s city limits beyond the Euphrates river. For now they keep the city’s residential areas under mortar fire.
In one such attacks on September 23 the chief of a group of Russian military advisers, Lieutenant-General Valery Asapov, was killed. He was the first Russian high-ranking officer to have lost his life in the conflict in Syria. According to the Russian Defense Ministry, he was the 38th Russian military serviceman to have been killed in Syria during the 24-month-long operation.
Not the slightest warming of relations between Russia and the US-led coalition has occurred over the past two years. Military officials do keep in touch for preventing air incidents in the sky over Syria, but against the backdrop of mutual calls for pooling efforts in the struggle against terrorism suspicions can be heard at various international platforms ever more frequently that the United States’ real aims in Syria are quite different.
Russian and Syrian officials have said more than once that victory over terrorists in Deir ez-Zor could have been attained at a far smaller cost but for the coalition’s intervention. Syria’s UN envoy Bashar Jaafari says the United States, its allies and the armed opposition groups they support have suspended the operation to retake Raqqa from terrorists and moved their forces to the area of Deir ez-Zor to prevent the Syrian army from establishing full control of the city. He also claimed that a year ago US planes provided fire support for Islamic State militants to have hit a strategic height controlled by the Syrian army near that city. All this prolonged the siege the defenders of Deir ez-Zor had to endure.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is of the same opinion. He believes that the United States’ priorities in Syria have changed and now it is far more important for Washington to prevent the Syrian government from putting the border with Iraq under control than defeating the Islamic State.
Russian military specialists, too, see signs pointing in the same direction. In June 2017 the chief of the Main Operations Department of Russia’s General Staff, Sergey Rudskoy, said Islamic State armed groups near Palmyra and Deir ez-Zor were able to beef up military muscle largely because the international coalition posed obstructions to their defeat by government troops.
The Russian Defense Ministry said US secret services on September 19 initiated a major offensive by Jabhat al-Nusra (outlawed in Russia) against Syrian troops in the de-escalation zone Idlib with the aim to disrupt the government troops’ successful advance near Deir ez-Zor. A Russian military police platoon (29 men) was surrounded. A special commando group enjoying air support upset the encirclement and the military police personnel taken to safety. Three Russian military police were wounded in the operation. Russia has not received any plausible explanations from the United States yet regarding the situation following clashes near Deir ez-Zor, the Russian Defense Ministry said.
The UN Secretary-General’s special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has recognized that Deir ez-Zor and the area round it have turned into a scene of confrontation between government forces and the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces, enjoying the support of the US-led coalition.
The liberation of Aleppo, one of Syria’s strategically important cities, paved the way for truce talks. As a result the Syrian government and fragmented groups of the so-called armed opposition signed agreements on ceasefire and preparations for peace talks. The truce took effect at midnight on December 30, 2016.
On February 22, 2017 Russian President Vladimir Putin and his US counterpart at that time, Barack Obama, adopted a statement on ceasefire in Syria starting from February 27. Both parties pledged to influence political forces within their respective realms of influence in order to achieve the cessation of hostilities. An overwhelming majority of armed groups fighting under the aegis of the Free Syrian Army declared their consent to truce starting from February 27. One hour before the deadline the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution in support of an end to combat operations in Syria.
A new format of talks in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana, proposed by the Russian president, allowed for achieving far greater results in just six months than the previous years-long attempts to come to terms. The guarantor countries - Russia, Turkey and Iran - managed to bring to the capital of Kazakhstan many leaders of Syria’s armed opposition. One of the most important results of the Astana talks was the separation of the armed opposition from the terrorists, something Russia had asked the United States to do for the previous two years. Instead of fighting each other, in fact, waging a civil war, Syria’s opposition groups began to unite in combat operations against terrorists and joining government forces in their operations.
The Astana process brought into being a draft of Syria’s new constitution, national committees for reconciliation across the country and four de-escalation zones - in Idlib Province, north of Homs, in Eastern Goutha near Damascus, and in southwestern Syria. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the creation of de-escalation zones helped prevent violence and ensure the observance of ceasefire. He said it was a great breakthrough Damascus officials and representatives of Syrian armed opposition groups confronting the government army had gathered at the negotiating table in Astana for an eye-to-eye discussion.
Great attention is paid to the national reconciliation committees, responsible for addressing reconciliation issues locally, thus enabling the conflicting parties to have a direct dialogue. The committees incorporate provincial self-government authorities, armed opposition representatives and officials from the Russian center for reconciliation. The national reconciliation committees have already held the first joint video conference on the results achieved. The conference linked Daraa, Damascus, Homs and Latakia. The commander of Russia’s military group in Syria, Colonel-General Sergey Surovikin promised all participants that the Russian side would be considering within the tightest deadlines all measures the national reconciliation committees would propose for maintaining peaceful life in the de-escalation zones.
By now, according to the Center for the Reconciliation of Warring Factions in Syria, 2,200 localities have joined the ceasefire agreement and more than 230 armed groups vowed allegiance to the terms of the cessation of hostilities.
According to Syrian officials, postwar reconstruction in the liberated territories is getting underway.
Russian and Syrian bomb disposal specialists are the first to enter the regained villages and cities. The Russian Armed Forces’ Anti-Mine Center opened its branch in Syria this year to run crash courses for Syrian personnel. The chief of the anti-mine-center’s branch, Anatoly Morozov, has said 600 sappers have been trained by now. Their skills and competence are good enough to handle the most tricky tasks. Currently mine-clearing work is in progress in Akerbat and Deir ez-Zor. Russian specialists say it will take five to ten years to clear Syria’s territory of explosive items.
Urban infrastructures, water and power supply in the first place, are being restored step by step. Social institutions, such as schools and hospitals, are on the list of the Syrian authorities’ high priorities. Deir ez-Zor is on the path back to normal life. Problems with water and power supply do exist, but steady work is in progress to restore infrastructures. Food and medical supplies keep pouring in.
Efforts are being exerted to restore monuments of culture to the original condition. As soon as Palmyra was liberated in 2016 Russian specialists joined repair and restoration activities on the premises of the archeological preserve. Researchers then arrived at the conclusion that the ruined cultural architectural monuments, such as the Temple of Bel and the Arch of Triumph can be restored, but the militants blew up what was still left of the arch when they briefly seized the city for a second time. In order to estimate accurately the scale of losses pillaging caused to Palmyra specialists are to examine the monument in greater detail. The Material Culture History Institute under the Russian Academy of Sciences is creating a geo-information system Palmyra, which may help restore the ancient city to its prewar look and at the same time serve as evidence of terrorists’ crimes.
Cultural monuments in other cities are being reconstructed, too. The crusader castle Crac des Chevaliers in Homs province is an example of how repair work is proceeding. The Umayyad Mosque, one of the oldest in Damascus, and the Christian town of Maaloula, devastated by the militants, are being restored, too.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said in course of the general political debate at the UN General Assembly session that the successes of the Syrian army and its allies in Aleppo, Palmyra, Deir ez-Zor and other parts of the country were a clear sign the ultimate victory over the terrorists would be achieved soon.
Moscow, too, hopes that the struggle against terrorists will be over within months.
Rudskoy said the termination of Deir ez-Zor’s siege completed the defeat of one of the strongest Islamic State groups in Syria. It was to that area that militants from Mosul and a large-share of the most combat-ready groups of terrorists from Raqqa had migrated.
The chairman of the Russian Federation Council’s international affairs committee, Konstantin Kosachyov, believes that Russia’s air strike in Der ez-Zor heralded a dramatic psychological and military turn in the situation in Syria and is a solid reason to say that the civil war in that country is coming to an end. That city was one of the last strongholds of radical Islamism in Syria and a source of lasting military threat. Now, Kosachyov said, there are only two pockets of resistance left - Raqqa and part of Idlib - but they are unable to have a decisive influence on the general trend of events in the country.
About the chances of reconciliation the Russian Foreign Ministry said that Syria should not be allowed to be dismembered by any means. Otherwise a chain reaction would follow in the whole of the Middle East. Diplomatic efforts are now focused on the process of a peace settlement.
Both Russian and Syrian military commanders stress the intention to push ahead with the operation until the elimination of the last terrorist.