Amid Aleppo’s agony, a new Syria takes shape
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.