The Russian air strike that killed Zahran Aloush, the founder of the Syrian rebel group Jaysh al-Islam and his deputy, on Friday, Dec. 25, gave President Bashar Al-Assad a big breakthrough in the Syrian war.
This loss will accelerate the breakup of Syrian rebel strongholds in and around Damascus, while also hastening the evacuation of about 2,000 rebels from the Damascus region, under a UN-sponsored ceasefire.
For nearly five years, the war seesawed back and forth, with neither the Syrian army nor the insurgents gaining the upper hand for long.
Interventions by the US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Jordan and Israel were too petty and hesitant to tilt the balance in favor of the anti-Assad insurgent militias. Weapons supplies were inferior and tardy and kept the rebels heavily outgunned by the Syrian army.
The Obama administration backed this uneven support strategy, going so far as to constrain the rebels’ other foreign backers against giving them the needed resources.
This strategy had the effect of prolonging a vicious conflict, until President Vladimir Putin’s decision, in late September 2015, to build up a Russian military force for a direct intervention in the war in Syria.
In contrast to President Barack Obama, who sought to deal with the conflict through a complicated system of dribbling arms to select Syrian rebel groups, Putin came up with a massive military and strategic backing to assure the Syrian ruler and his Iranian ally of victory.
The Russian strategy is now clear: It is to drive the rebels out of the areas they have captured around the main cities of Latakia, Aleppo, Idlib, Homs, Hama and the capital, Damascus, giving them two options: join the opposition front around the table for negotiating an end to the war, or total eradication.
According to Moscow’s priorities, first Bashar Al-Assad’s authority as president must be restored and his country must return to his army’s control and only then will the fight against the Islamic State fully start.
But Putin has run up against the failure of Iranian, Shiite militia, Hizballah and Syrian army ground forces to keep up with his plan: Russian air strikes and missiles would clear rebels out of one area after another and pro-Assad ground troops would take over the control. Yet, these troops are too slow in pressing the advantage gained by the Russians.
As effect, the Russians decided to use their intelligence assets to speed things up, by borrowing an Israeli counter-terror tactic to start targeting and eliminating key rebel chiefs.
The death of the Jaysh al-Islamc commander, as the result of a Russian airborne rocket strike on Friday, was an intelligence feat, rather than a military one. Just as Israel has recently used its clandestine assets in Damascus to target and kill Samir Quntar in the Jaramana district, so the Russians directed their agents on the ground to mark the secret meeting of Jaysh al-Islam commanders at Marj al-Sultan, at the exact moment for taking them down.