Russia Moves in For the Kill in Syria

Originally published at The Henry Jackson Society

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on October 21, 2016

Vladimir Putin’s Russia is “deploying all of the Northern fleet and much of the Baltic fleet in the largest surface deployment since the end of the Cold War,” a NATO diplomat told Reuters on Wednesday night. These Naval assets are designed to buttress a final offensive by the remnants of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, which is effectively controlled on the ground by the Islamic Republic of Iran and an assortment of foreign Shi’a jihadists, against the insurgent-held east of Aleppo city, crushing once and for all the strategic threat posed by the rebellion to the regime, a threat that had already been all-but ended in the first months of Russia’s intervention. Nearly a year ago the U.S. began a political process with the Russians intended to end the war and begin a political transition. Moscow has subverted this process, using force to buttress its political efforts to secure Assad in power. The timing of this attack is seemingly intended as one final humiliation for President Barack Obama.

Background to a Disaster

In December 2015, the opposition held a conference to select a representative negotiations team. The notion was to implement a de-escalation leading to a ceasefire, which would then provide space for political talks, forming a “transitional governing body [that] would exercise full executive powers,” in conformity with the 2012 Geneva Communiqué. The members of this interim government would be selected “on the basis of mutual consent,” i.e. both sides could veto people—which would axiomatically mean the departure of Assad.

What actually happened was that the U.S. did de-escalate and, with the rebellion hindered, the pro-Assad coalition stole a march before the formal ceasefire began in February and then continued using the cover of the ceasefire to make military gains that were then used to convert the political process into one where it was about the terms on which Assad would remain.

The facts on the ground meant the U.S. had little to bargain with and, because the U.S. was invested in the process, the only way to keep it going was to bring pressure on the actors it could influence, namely the rebellion, which was essentially threatened with Russian war crimes if it didn’t modify its positions—bringing them in line with the regime’s—so that the talks could continue. The sense that the opposition was being forced into surrender by another name by the U.S. was not an unreasonable one.

Patience eventually snapped and by early May the ceasefire was, in any realistic sense, dead. The insurgency launched an offensive in southern Aleppo, which was notably led by al-Qaeda. The attempted ceasefire had strengthened all the worst actors, given space for massive atrocities and refugee flows, and heaped discredit on the idea of a political settlement, protracting the war and its friendly environment for international terrorism. Naturally, the U.S. administration decided to try again.

The September Ceasefire

The renewed ceasefire agreed to in Geneva on 9 September was favourable to the pro-regime coalition. After a period of calm, the U.S. was to give Russia the thing it has always most wanted: direct collaboration, and therefore legitimacy for its presence in Syria. Over the objections of senior officials, there was to be U.S.-Russian intelligence sharing in launching airstrikes against al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS).

The enforcement mechanisms for this process were wholly one-sided. Rebels would be hit with airstrikes if they did not de-couple from Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS), the rebranded al-Qaeda, while no penalty was to be imposed on Assad for continued atrocities, nor were Assad’s troops demanded to decouple from Iranian-controlled terrorist groups.

Had it worked, the ceasefire would have had serious deleterious effects on the prospects for peace, but on 19 September the pro-Assad coalition spectacularly repudiated months of technical work by bombing an aid convoy that tried to move into Aleppo. It took until 3 October for the U.S. to bow to reality—and even that lasted only forty-eight hours.

No Ally Against Terrorism

That al-Qaeda has been a major beneficiary of Russia’s intervention is a feature, not a bug. From the outset of the uprising, the Assad regime staked its life on making Syria a binary conflict—the dictator or the jihadists—in the belief the international community would then acquiesce to Assad remaining.

Russia’s actions have furthered Assad’s messaging, weakening the mainstream opposition, thus bolstering (in relative terms) al-Qaeda, and leaving IS virtually untouched. IS initially actually gained territory because of Russia’s airstrikes, and even the public-relations capture of Palmyra needs qualification.

Assad’s connection with IS goes all the way back to the Iraq invasion—and indeed before—and has continued long after. Just this week, the State Department reiterated that “we’ve seen, frankly, collusion between the Syrian regime and Daesh [IS] in Syria.”

While Putin’s Russia has supported Assad at every stage of this policy, Moscow has been more directly involved, providing the middle-men for trade with IS, the technicians to keep parts of the caliphate functioning, and effectively recruiting for IS, sending its jihadi problem to Syria, serving its own security needs and bolstering Assad’s presentation as a bulwark against terrorism.

Yet Washington is, even now, continuing (unsuccessfully) to chase Russia to restart the political process.

Aleppo’s Tragedy

The pro-Assad coalition managed to besiege eastern Aleppo city and its quarter-million people in mid-July, only to see the siege broken by the insurgency in early August. The insurgency threatened to reverse the siege for a time, but a month later its position deteriorated and the siege was re-imposed. Since then, the pro-Assad coalition—Assad and Russia from the air, Iran and its Shi’a jihadi international on the ground—have inflicted “crimes of historic proportions” on eastern Aleppo city.

Russia has repeatedly claimed that terrorists hold Aleppo city, and at times the U.S. has appeared to agree. It isn’t true. The United Nations envoy, Staffan de Mistura, estimated that of 8,000 insurgents in besieged Aleppo, a maximum of 900 (11.25%) were from JFS. Some Western officials claim JFS has a merely “symbolic” presence of about 200 (2.5%) in Aleppo city.

Russia is currently claiming to be operating a unilateral ceasefire in Aleppo and allegedly opening humanitarian corridors to the besieged enclave. The Assad regime has been much less diplomatic, dropping leaflets telling the population to seize its last opportunity to flee.

In this context, De Mistura’s offer to personally transport JFS out of Aleppo city to remove an “easy alibi” for the continued bombardment looks more like facilitating depopulation, which the U.N. has already been accused of with the clearances of the sieged-and-surrendered suburbs around Damascus (Daraya, Maadamiya, Qudsaya) and Homs (al-Wael), and that is indeed how the rebels have interpreted it.

The nationalist rebels under the Free Syrian Army banner released a statement yesterday expressing dismay at the “flawed” U.N. approach that has “failed to act in line with its responsibility to protect civilians,” instead consenting to the regime’s scheme of emptying areas of hostile populations. “The U.N. has been treating the executioner and the victim as equals,” the FSA said, and “become a tool in the hands of Russia”.

The Assad regime’s systematic crimes against Syria’s population, on a scale to dwarf anything IS has even considered, have been multiply documented. The Russians have assisted Assad and now added their own crimes, not just directly against civilians but against the infrastructure that makes life possible like water treatment centres and hospitals, even using “bunker-buster” bombs to target hospitals that have moved underground in Aleppo.

Russia’s actions this week suggest that it believes it has inflicted enough punishment to complete the conquest of eastern Aleppo city. It is to Russia’s advantage if anyone heeds its advice and exits Aleppo during this pause in airstrikes, and it allows time for Russia’s Naval assets to be moved into place. The ships are not necessarily needed militarily, but they are as much a political message to the West, which is, of its own volition, powerless to stop them or hinder their mission in Syria.

The End of the Revolution?

It is crucial to notice that, despite all the predictions that Russia was walking into a “quagmire” in Syria, that has decisively not materialized, and will not, even with the economic woes, unless significant external pressure is added to raise the costs. All the same, it is important not to overstate Russian capacities.

The flagship aircraft carrier now sailing to the Mediterranean, Admiral Kuznetsov, is nearly as lethal to its crew as it is to Syrians. Moscow has also at times shown some reticence about being dragged in too deeply, though this now appears to be over. Russia is “all in” in Syria, as Hillary Clinton put it in the second presidential debate. It is now a matter of prestige for Russia that Aleppo city be conquered by the pro-Assad coalition. There are reasons for scepticism about Moscow’s ability to defeat the insurgency in Aleppo, however.

One factor complicating Russia’s ability to take the city is Turkey, or more precisely Turkey’s allies. Turkey’s intervention in northern Syria, Operation EUPHRATES SHIELD, had two aims: (1) push IS away from its border, cutting off its access to the outside world, and replace it with moderate rebels; (2) prevent the Kurdish PYD/YPG, the Syrian wing of the PKK, establishing a contiguous statelet from Hasaka to Efrin. Both objectives have succeeded, and Ankara appears to have acted under some kind of modus vivendi with Russia. As the Turkish-backed rebels push south, however, the Russian-Turkish entente cordiale is likely to be disrupted, and there is little either side can do about it.

EUPHRATES SHIELD swept IS from Dabiq on Sunday and is now moving toward IS-held al-Bab. If the pocket around al-Bab is cleared of IS, it will remove the strategic depth the regime has in enforcing the siege of Aleppo, and rebel-held areas will bump up directly against regime-held areas. The rebels who signed on to EUPHRATES SHIELD did not abandon the conflict that defines them—the rebellion against Assad—and have made quite plain that the ability to reach, and definitively break the siege of, Aleppo city was a tacit condition of helping Ankara clear the IS menace from its borders.

(A similar consideration applies about the PKK, which might be considered a wildcard in this situation. An organization designed to cause friction between Turkey and Russia, which Turkey bombed just south of Dabiq in the week and which clashed again with the FSA groups today, the PKK’s takeover of the Arab town of Tel Rifaat, with the help of Russian airstrikes, is something the Arab rebels aligned to Turkey will want to reverse come what may. The Assad regime, meanwhile, has reacted to the Turkish airstrikes by threatening to attack Turkey. Despite the West viewing the PYD/PKK as their primary anti-IS instrument, the group’s historical links with Assad and Russia remain. What that means for Aleppo remains to be seen.)

At one level, therefore, the question is one of time: can the rebels reach Aleppo city before the pro-Assad coalition take it? And at another level, the doubts remain about the pro-regime coalition’s capacity to take the city. Urban warfare has never been the pro-regime coalition’s specialty, and the deep-rooted nature of the opposition in Aleppo city could be seen during the synthetic ceasefire in the last few days: with this slightest lull in violence, just as in the spring, the peaceful, nationalistic, anti-regime protests were revitalized. That said, it is possible that an indiscriminate campaign of total slaughter on the model of Hama in 1982 or Grozny in 1999 might clear the city and give some short-term sense of “victory” to the pro-Assad coalition, but this would be an illusion.

The perennial problem of the Assad regime’s lack of manpower, as forensically explained recently by Tobias Schneider, means it likely cannot hold Aleppo city in any sustained and stable sense, even if it can take it. There are severe structural limits to how far the regime-held areas can be expanded. The most that a Hama/Grozny-style campaign can achieve is to degrade the nationalist rebels enough that they become a guerrilla force totally dependent on al-Qaeda, which would be a political victory, but would not end the insurgency. Still, the nationalist rebels remain numerous nationwide and in the north the rebels now have Turkish support as a real, on-the-ground alternative. Turkey’s intervention has been a boon all round for the anti-jihadist cause, damaging IS physically and politically isolating al-Qaeda within the insurgency. Whether that dynamic would outlast Turkey failing even to try to prevent the fall of Aleppo is doubtful.

The West’s unwillingness to complicate the pro-Assad coalition’s policy of mass-homicide and -expulsion will undoubtedly allow the infliction of many more deaths in Aleppo over the coming months, however the pro-Assad offensive turns out, than if the population was protected from aerial bombardment or provided the weapons to protect itself. Frederic Hof has noted that “the West has protected not a single Syrian inside Syria,” and President Obama’s term in office will likely conclude with that record intact. If the Turkish-supported rebels reach regime-held areas soon and Hillary Clinton is victorious and enacts her stated policy of a no-fly zone in reasonably short order, then the battlefield might look very different in six months. But the outlook on present trajectory is very bleak for the opposition in Aleppo city.

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