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As Optimism Fades, Russian Air Campaign Fails To Make Impact In Syria


To talk about how the Russian air campaign is affecting what's happening with rebel and regime fighters on the battlefield, NPR's Alice Fordham is here in the studio. Hey there, Alice.


CORNISH: So has this Russian incursion actually, in fact, strengthened the regime forces?

FORDHAM: Well, when the Russians initially arrived, we heard a lot about a surge of optimism among Assad supporters. And the rebels, frankly, were alarmed. Russia had said it was going to bomb ISIS. But from the outset, it was mostly bombing non-ISIS rebels with heavier weapons than they were used to. But in fact, when you look at the map of Syria - who holds what turf - that hasn't changed very much yet.

CORNISH: So the rebels pushed back.

FORDHAM: Yeah, exactly. So there's large parts of Northwest Syria now that are held by rebel forces. You could argue that Russia intervened because this summer, Assad was at his lowest ebb yet. And the Russians have pounded those rebels, including ones believed to be backed by the U.S., with airstrikes. And then there was an offensive by Assad's army, but it didn't go according to plan.

So the Syrian opposition sources say some of those U.S.-backed rebels, among others, used missiles to destroy about 20 of the army's tanks. And they hung onto a lot of those villages that they're holding in that area. So while the Russians may see the Syrian army as a - its ground partner in Syria, it's not clear that this force, which we know is hollowed out, is exhausted by years of fighting, is really that effective partner.

CORNISH: At the same time, looking at the rebel side, can they really hold on to the gains they've made?

FORDHAM: Well, what they're telling us is that if the Russians keep this air campaign up, they can't hold the ground indefinitely. But they are well armed. They have local support. They're hardened fighters now, and they can put up stiff resistance. The BBC has reported that Saudi officials say they are outraged by the Russian incursion in Syria and they're going to continue to arm those rebels who are their allies, which is very likely to have U.S. support as well. But then U.S. officials tell us Assad's allies are also moving hundreds of Iranian soldiers into Northern Syria and then Lebanese fighters from the Hezbollah militia.

CORNISH: Iranian, Lebanese - I mean, the list is getting longer. You're talking about a kind of escalation. Where does the U.S. stand in all of this?

FORDHAM: Well, remember, the United States says its top priority is ISIS. So where does this leave them? Well, actually, in the area north of the city of Aleppo, ISIS has been able to take advantage of the fact that the rebel groups have been weakened by Russia, and they have been able to move into a few more villages there. So although the Russians said from the outset that their goal was to defeat ISIS, what we have seen has been an expansion - admittedly, a small one - of ISIS territory.

CORNISH: And what about the U.S. effort to train and equip anti-ISIS fighters? I mean, essentially, that's collapsed.

FORDHAM: Well, not totally. But it's certainly changed a lot. A new coalition has been unveiled of some Arab fighters, and they're the United States' best partners in Syria, a Kurdish group. And they are not being trained, but they are being equipped to fight ISIS, which began with an ammunition drop earlier this week.

CORNISH: Is that any more likely to work?

FORDHAM: It does have risks, Audie. So this is a Kurdish-dominated alliance with a few Arab groups in it. The United States initially said that they'd drop the ammunition to the Arab fighters, but there were conflicting reports on the ground that all the ammunition, in fact, went to Kurdish factions. Now, the Pentagon insists the ammo got to the Arabs. But another U.S. official did say to us that they do expect tensions within the Arabs and Kurds in this alliance.

Now, this seems complicated, but it really matters, in part because Amnesty International has already accused the Kurds of burning Arab villages following battles. The Americans want this coalition to move into ISIS-held areas, but these are Arab areas. If Arab civilians are hearing stories of Kurds attacking Arabs, they might be more afraid of the Kurds than they are of ISIS. And we see this over and over in Syria. Factions can get better armed, but without unifying or compromise, they can't achieve their goals. No one can hold sway.

CORNISH: That's NPR international correspondent Alice Fordham. Alice, thanks so much.

FORDHAM: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.