A series of rebel advances around Aleppo has set Bashar al-Assad’s government back on its heels a bit, resulting in what appears to be a Russian air campaign against Aleppo using restricted incendiary weapons. Rebel forces are also closing in on Manbij, the last major Syria-Turkey border town still in ISIS’s hands. At the same time, though, ISIS fighters in Raqqa province have made some significant territorial gains at Assad’s expense.
It’s become fairly clear recently that unless Russia is actively engaging in a major air campaign against the Syrian rebels, Assad’s forces will go back to floundering the way they were floundering before Russia entered the war in November. Since April, as Russia has scaled back its air campaign, rebel forces (including Jabhat al-Nusra) have been advancing south of Aleppo. This has prompted some apparently consternation with the Russians and the Iranians, who have held a couple of high-level meetings with Syrian officials this month to discuss how to respond to the setbacks. Russia has lately been heavily pushing–at least rhetorically–for a ceasefire around Aleppo, which may be the best evidence that Assad isn’t doing well there.
Now there are reports that Russian aircraft are striking rebel-held parts of Aleppo province with thermite incendiary weapons, which are illegal for use against civilian populations according to a treaty, the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, that Russia has signed. These reports seem to be largely coming out of Turkish media, which doesn’t print much these days that hasn’t been spoon fed to it by Tayyip Erdoğan’s propaganda team, but interestingly (and a little hilariously), a Russia Today (i.e. Putin’s propaganda team) video broadcast on Saturday appears to show thermite weapons being loaded onto Russian aircraft in Syria. This news may draw some kind of response from Washington, which has already been advising Russia that its “patience” for an end to this most recent uptick in fighting is “very limited,” whatever that means.
Assad’s forces are also newly struggling to the east, in Raqqa province, where ISIS has rolled back an offensive by Assad’s army and allied militias to capture the airbase at Taqba. The Syrian army had come near to the base over the weekend, but now appear to have been driven back. Elsewhere in the fight against ISIS, the US-backed and largely-Kurdish SDF has made advances in northern Syria and now looks closer than ever to driving ISIS out of Manbij and cutting them off from that corridor to the Turkish border. Closing off the Manbij artery is a clear priority leading up to any eventual offensive against Raqqa.
Last but not least, there have been some recent signals from Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif that he and President Hassan Rouhani may be playing a bigger role in setting Iran’s Syria policy moving forward than they have played to this point. If true, and if it sticks, this could be a major development, as it’s possible that Zarif/Rouhani will be more amenable to a Syrian transition away from Assad than some of Iran’s other foreign policy stakeholders (the Quds Force, for example) have been. It would be hard for them to be any less amenable to that, anyway.