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Russia, Iran, and Syria Are Teaming Up to Break an Islamic State Siege

The apparent recapture of airbase besieged for two years by the Islamic State marks the most significant advance for the Syrian regime since Vladimir Putin deployed Russian forces to the country.

by Avi Asher-Schapiro
Nov 12 2015, 12:00pm

Photo via the Syrian Arab News Agency

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his allies scored a major victory this week, overrunning Islamic State (IS) forces around the Kweires airbase in the eastern countryside of Aleppo.

The base had been besieged by the Islamic State (IS) since 2013, and its apparent recapture marks the most significant advance for the Syrian regime since Vladimir Putin deployed Russian airpower to prop up his beleaguered ally in late September. 

Over the past month, Russian planes made more than 1,600 sorties on the various rebel factions that oppose the regime. And the depleted Syrian army largely held its positions, even as Iranian-backed militias poured into the country to provide more manpower. 

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"At first, everyone was awed by the Russian intervention," said Aron Lund, editor of Syria in Crisis blog, which is published by Carnegie Endowment for International peace.  "But on the map there hadn't been that much changed — everyone's been waiting to see how it plays out."

Though the Russian intervention had shored up several Assad strongholds that had previously been threatened by al Qaeda's regional affiliate the Nusra Front, the major gains against IS that Russia had promised never materialized.

Watch the VICE News documentary Inside the Battle: Al Nusra-Al Qaeda in Syria:

In fact, the massive bombing campaign more often than not targeted rebel factions at odds with IS. By some estimates, four out of five sorties targeted non-IS positions. Many of the bombs actually fell on civilian targets, including four hospitals in the Idlib province.

In the end, however, that aerial campaign may have paid dividends.

"Over the past few weeks, the Syrian regime was talking a lot about destroying supply depots and communication centers; it seems they may have been softening up the rebels," Lund said. "But then again, that might be bullshit."

Either way, with the recapturing of the airbase, Syrian and Russian propaganda went into high gear, as Assad and his allies touted the victory as a major blow to IS. 

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"Army and the armed forces eliminated large numbers of IS terrorists and make contact with the forces defending Kweires Airport in Aleppo's eastern countryside," the state Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) reported late Tuesday.

State TV showed images of jubilant soldiers celebrating. "We, the heroes of Kweires, are now celebrating this victory with our brothers," one fighter told the anchor of an official station.

The recapture of Kweires is not an isolated military maneuver. It's part of a two-pronged offensive launched from the city of Sfeira, just southeast of Aleppo City, to widen Syrian government control of the region that's long been out of the regime's hands. 

'It seems they may have been softening up the rebels. But then again, that might be bullshit.'

Before the offensive, Syrian forces only controlled a small strip of land that runs southeast from Aleppo. That strip has long served as an artery to funnel troops from the more secure Homs region to the front lines. 

Apart from freeing Kweires, Assad's forces are simultaneously trying to push west and widen the swath of countryside under their control.  But It's unclear if that separate maneuver is bearing fruit.

In the past few weeks, the Shiite Hezbollah militia, which supplies some of the most hardened fighters to the Assad regime, has reported heavy losses in that area. And Aymen Tamimi, writing for the Syria Deeply blog, noted on Wednesday that a key Hezbollah commander was recently killed trying to defend that slim supply line.

Related: Russia Now Has 4,000 People in Syria — And They're Not in a Rush to Fight the Islamic State

Still, the victory at Kweires thrusts pro-Assad forces slightly closer to the Islamic State's capital Raqqa. And that, Lund says, could really change the balance of forces: It's not only a powerful propaganda tool for the Assad-Russia alliance but also a lever to pressure the United States into recognizing Russia and Assad's role in the global anti–Islamic State coalition.

"Russia's goal is to tip the balance so that the world must recognize the Assad regime is viable," Lund said. "They want to turn him into someone everyone can work with to fight the jihadists." 

Today, it seems Russia may have gotten one step closer to that aim. 

Follow Avi Asher-Schapiro on Twitter: @AASchapiro