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Assad's first big Russia-backed campaign is not going well

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad is launching his first major offensive since Russia began its intervention on his behalf. Iran has also joined the offensive, reportedly sending one of its largest ground forces to date, including fighters from Hezbollah and Iraqi Shia militias.

But even with all that, Assad's campaign so far does not seem to be working, according to a report by the Institute for the Study of War.

"The Syrian regime has not gained much terrain in the first week of its large-scale ground offensive against rebel forces, despite support from intensified Russian airstrikes and hundreds of Iranian proxy reinforcements," Chris Kozak, a Syria research analyst at ISW, writes. "Operations against the Syrian opposition will likely prove harder and slower than anticipated by either Russia or Iran."

Russia's airstrikes and Iranian troops are, so far, not turning the tide for Assad

ISW, widely considered the best outside group in tracking shifts on the ground in Syria, locates most of the offensive in rebel-held territory in northwest Syria. That's the yellow patch in the red-circled area on the below map — the heaviest site of Russian bombardment:

(Institute for the Study of War)

Yet Assad-allied forces, which began their campaign about a week ago, have so far made minimal gains, at best, in those areas.

"Confirmed reports indicate that pro-regime fighters have seized only six villages and towns, while rebel forces repelled heavy attacks against several key positions," Kozak writes. He illustrates this point with a more granular map of the fighting in the area, which shows both towns taken by the regime and those recaptured by the rebels:

(Institute for the Study of War)

Moreover, this assault has come at real costs for Assad.

"Regime forces suffered heavy losses in manpower and materiel in the face of heavy rebel resistance," Kozak writes. "Free Syrian Army (FSA)-affiliated rebels forces claimed to destroy at least twenty tanks and armored vehicles as well as a helicopter gunship in a 'tank massacre' on the first day of the offensive. ... Continued heavy casualties may leave pro-regime forces vulnerable to a counterattack by Syrian rebels."

It would seem that, at least so far, neither the Russian nor Iranian deployments are substantial enough to fundamentally alter the balance of power on the ground. That could certainly change, and perhaps Assad's campaign will ultimately break through, but at the moment this is looking like a failure for him and his allies.

This has costs for Russia as well. The Associated Press's Vladimir Isachenkov points out, "Protracted Russian military action without any visible gains by the Syrian army would quickly erode the propaganda effect Putin has achieved with his bombing blitz."

Again, maybe things will change on the ground. But so far this is not looking good for Assad or his allies.