Amid Aleppo’s agony, a new Syria takes shape

Sunday 09/10/2016
A member of Syria’s pro-government forces guards a lookout point as they advance in Aleppo’s rebel-held Bustan al-Basha neighbourhood, on October 6th.

Beirut - The ferocious battle raging in Aleppo will likely de­termine the outcome of the Syrian war and have strategic consequences for the conflict-plagued Middle East and beyond.

Seizing the rebel-held eastern sector of the city will give Syrian President Bashar Assad a victory of immense proportions.

However, the more probable out­come of the war will be a stalemate, with Assad’s regime, backed by Rus­sian air power and Iranian ground forces, holding “useful Syria” — Damascus and its environs, the north-western Latakia region, the heartland of Assad’s ruling Alawite minority and the Mediterranean coastline.

Assad’s enemies, including jihad­ists and Kurdish peshmerga, will control a patchwork of separate strongholds in unwanted territory along the borders of Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon — a probable source of future unrest.

Assad’s reshaping of Syria’s de­mography — driving out the major­ity Sunnis and other troublesome populations from key centres such as Damascus or even out of Syria al­together — has accelerated in recent months as the battle of Aleppo has intensified.

“Assad seems to be moving from ‘starve or surrender’ to ‘war or sur­render’ tactics in order to eliminate any Sunni presence around Damas­cus as soon as possible,” observed Lebanese analyst Hanin Ghaddar in a paper for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

There is no indication the ethnic cleansing, begun by Assad’s late fa­ther Hafez many years ago, should stop. But these days, other forces with ambitions of their own are at work, posing wider, potentially threatening strategic challenges.

To a large extent, Tehran, whose ever-growing military strength in Syria dominates Assad’s military, is the driving force behind the re­gime’s demographic strategy.

While it reduces the domestic threat to Assad’s harsh rule, the Ira­nians’ main objective is to create a Shia crescent running from the Is­lamic Republic through Iraq to Syria and Lebanon on the Mediterranean and consolidating Iran’s supply route to Hezbollah.

The Russians get a firm military foothold in the Arab world nearly four decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union from where to pose a military challenge to NATO in the Mediterranean.

Taking eastern Aleppo, which is being steadily obliterated by Rus­sian bombs and Syrian artillery, is immensely important to the regime because it would provide strategic depth that would ensure the sur­vival of the anticipated Assad-ruled statelet and thus place the Syr­ian leader in an advantageous posi­tion in any peace negotiations that might ensue.

The regime and its Iranian-led al­lies on the ground say the current bombardment is a preliminary to an all-out offensive to overrun the sector.

It seems clear that Putin has or­dered Russian forces to pull out all the stops to achieve that goal even by bombing helpless civilians trapped in the ruins of their ancient city.

“The Syrian Army and its allies are in a sustained offensive to recap­ture… eastern Aleppo,” observed Robert Ford, the last US ambassa­dor in Damascus, now a vocal critic of the US failure to intervene in the conflict during its early stages.

“Unless the balance of the ground forces drastically shifts, the Assad regime will eventually retake from the opposition all of eastern Aleppo and the outlying districts of Damas­cus. This may take months but the balance is certainly in the Syrian government’s favour.”

It seems nothing can stop the slaughter. The United States has severed contacts with Russia fol­lowing the September 19th collapse of a ceasefire that lasted barely a week. Russia retaliated by scrap­ping a 2000 agreement on dispos­ing of weapons-grade plutonium, a relatively minor issue, but one that suggests more trouble to come.

Meanwhile, Putin is beefing up his forces in Syria, with Russia’s only aircraft carrier due in the east­ern Mediterranean in November.

In September, Isvestia newspaper reported that he sent an unspecified number of Su-24 and Su-34 fighters along with additional Su-25 ground-attack jets to Russia’s air base at Hmeimim outside Latakia, reinforc­ing the 48 combat aircraft stationed there since September 2015.

On October 4th, Russia’s Defence Ministry said it had installed a bat­tery of advanced S-300 missile de­fence systems at Russia’s naval base at Tartus, south of Latakia, bolster­ing longer-range S-400 missiles de­ployed at Hmeimim — a move that threatens Israel’s long-held mastery of the region’s skies.

Since Syria’s rebels have no air force, beefing up Russian air defenc­es with these weapons was seen as a clear message to the United States not to interfere in Syria as tensions between Moscow and Washington deteriorate amid mutual recrimi­nations about the collapse of the ceasefire.

The United States suspended contacts with Russia over Syria on October 3rd. US President Barack Obama’s administration is report­edly mulling tougher military op­tions in the Syrian conflict.

But the bottom line is Putin holds the high cards in Syria. The United States, outmanoeuvred through its own inaction, has no leverage that would halt the slaughter in eastern Aleppo.