Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Pro-Regime Forces Relieve Besieged Airbase in Symbolic Victory

By Christopher Kozak

The Syrian regime and its allies reestablished a ground line of communication (GLOC) to the hitherto-besieged Kuweires Airbase east of Aleppo City in their first significant victory since the start of the Russian air campaign in Syria on September 30. Activist sources and Syrian state television reported that an advance party of regime forces established contact with several hundred Syrian Army soldiers besieged by ISIS in Kuweires Airbase on November 10 after seizing the adjacent village of Kuweires al-Sharqi. Clashes are reportedly ongoing as newly-arrived regime reinforcements attempt to expand the base’s defensive perimeter. The advance marks the culmination of one component of a multi-pronged offensive which began on October 15. The success of the operation relied heavily upon Russian air support as well as reinforcement from hundreds of Iranian-backed proxy fighters. U.S. officials previously reported in mid-October that up to 2,000 Iranian, Hezbollah, and Iraqi Shi’a militia fighters had massed southeast of Aleppo City in order to participate in ongoing offensives targeting Kuweires Airbase as well as rebel-held terrain in the southern Aleppo countryside.

The successful relief of the regime forces trapped in Kuweires Airbase will provide a powerful morale boost to the military forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The operation constitutes a much-needed symbolic victory for the Syrian regime following major territorial losses in the first half of 2015 as well as an initial lack of significant progress following the Russian intervention. The rescue of several hundred Syrian Army soldiers who have been besieged since December 2012 will tamper simmering discontent regarding his conduct of the Syrian Civil War. Alawite populations along the Syrian Coast – a core base of popular support for the Syrian regime – organized several protests this summer criticizing the government for failing to relieve Kuweires Airbase and other besieged pro-regime enclaves in northern Syria.

The Syrian regime’s operational intent following the offensive to secure Kuweires Airbase remains unclear. Kuweires Airbase provides no tangible benefit to the Syrian Air Force, which maintains a well-defended and functional airfield at the Aleppo International Airport thirty kilometers to the west. The position of the base itself, however, provides a potential staging ground for regime forces to conduct follow-on operations that challenge ISIS’s presence in eastern Aleppo Province. A continued presence in Kuweires Airbase could allow the Syrian regime to contest ISIS-held terrain on the eastern outskirts of Aleppo City as well as critical ISIS supply lines connecting ar-Raqqa City to the Turkish border. Claims that the elite Syrian Army ‘Tiger Forces’ will soon redeploy from Kuweires to Hama Province nevertheless suggest that the Syrian regime does not intend to use the airfield as a launch pad for major offensive operations in the near-future. The base also remains vulnerable to an ISIS counterattack unless regime forces can seize additional terrain to provide their salient with defense-in-depth. Alternatively, the Syrian regime may intend to withdraw from Kuweires Airbase after securing safe passage for the exfiltration of the base’s garrison. A withdrawal from the airfield would free significant amounts of manpower, equipment, and aerial resupply assets for use on other fronts.

The advances east of Aleppo City nonetheless do little to change the immediate strategic outlook for President Assad. Pro-regime forces have thus far achieved only tactical gains throughout other parts of northwestern Syria despite expanded support from Russia and Iran. Meanwhile, rebel forces seized the operationally-significant town of Morek along the strategic M5 Highway on November 5 as part of a new offensive threatening regime-held Hama City. ISIS also continues to pressure key supply lines for the Syrian regime in both Homs and Aleppo Provinces. Activists reported that ISIS deployed a convoy of at least forty vehicles from ar-Raqqa City to eastern Aleppo Province on November 9 in a likely response to the imminent fall of Kuweires Airbase. These challenges suggest that the Syrian regime and its allies will struggle to translate symbolic gains into enduring operational success.