New York, Cairo-The US Institute for the Study of War (ISW) and the Critical Threats Project (CTP) at the American Enterprise Institute conducted an intensive multi-week exercise to frame, design, and evaluate potential courses of action that the United States could pursue to defeat the threat from ISIS and al-Qaeda in Syria.
The report notes that its major idea is based on the fact that Bashar al-Assad’s regime is neither sovereign nor a viable US partner against ISIS and Qaeda.
The other major idea addressed in the report is that Russia and Iran have penetrated the Syrian Arab Army’s command-and-control authorities at all levels and propped up the force by providing the bulk of its offensive combat power.
“The pro-regime coalition cannot secure all of Syria and primarily serves as a vehicle for Moscow and Tehran’s regional power projection,” the report says.
It also confirms that any US strategy in Syria that relies on pro-regime forces will fail to destroy Jihadists while empowering Iran and Russia.
The report explained that the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) no longer exists as a unified or coherent fighting force capable of independently securing the entire country.
Six years of defections, desertions, and combat attrition have more than halved its pre-war combat strength to an estimated 100,000 soldiers as of 2014-primarily ill-equipped and poorly trained conscripts.
Only a fraction of these forces can reliably deploy in offensive operations – perhaps as few as 30,000-40,000 soldiers.
Regarding Iran’s role in Syria, the report stated that Iran currently provides the high-end manpower capable of securing significant gains for pro-regime forces on the ground.
Iran operates a coalition of nearly 30,000 militants that includes the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraqi Shi’a militias, and Afghan Shiite fighters.
Notably, Iran has deployed at least 7,000 of its own fighters to Syria. These forces include elements of the IRGC-Ground Forces and Iranian ‘Artesh’ that represent the first expeditionary deployment of conventional forces by Iran since the Iran-Iraq War.
Iran also played an integral role in the development of pro-regime paramilitary groups ostensibly under regime authority in order to establish the long-term infrastructure of a ‘Syrian Hezbollah.’
Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah played a foundational role in building the NDF based on the Iranian ‘Basij.’
Iran also oversaw enlistment campaigns across the country – in some cases competing directly with the regime for new recruits by providing competitive salaries and military equipment.
Furthermore, the report shed light on Russia’s role in the Syrian war by stating that it strengthened the regime’s military and security services’ formal structures.
“Russia has nonetheless eroded the regime’s sovereignty. It took control over major operations in Northern Syria in late 2015, including key battlefronts in Latakia and Aleppo Provinces,” the report pointed out.
The report finally confirmed that any policy that leverages Russia and Assad against Jihadist groups will thus empower Iran in Syria by default.
Conversely, any effort to drive a wedge between Russia and Iran in Syria in the near-term will also fail due to the critical role of Iran in supporting both parties.
Neither Russia nor Iran requires an end to the Syrian Civil War or the defeat of ISIS in Syria.
Rather, Russia and Iran have consistently intervened in the conflict in order to suppress the opponents of the regime, enhance their own regional freedom of action, and oust the US from the Middle East.
Their public appeals for political and military cooperation with the US are disingenuous and unconstructive.
Based on these facts, the report said that the US must focus on regaining leverage and extracting meaningful concessions from the pro-regime coalition rather than surrendering to the interests of strategic adversaries for unsustainable gains against ISIS and Qaeda.