Putin determined to crush Aleppo — and who’s to stop him?

Sunday 16/10/2016
Sources predict that Aleppo fighting will halt by end of October

BEIRUT - Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to believe he holds all the aces when it comes to retaking Alep­po, at whatever cost, be­cause he is convinced no one is will­ing to lift a finger to stop him. And, so far, he is right.

Moscow clashed with Western governments at the UN Security Council in early October, and, for the fifth time since 2011, used Rus­sia’s veto power to block a resolu­tion against its ally, the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, in this instance one proposed by France.

Meanwhile, Syrian and Russian warplanes continued to obliterate entire neighbourhoods of eastern Aleppo, held by Syrian rebels since 2012.

Had the French resolution been approved by the Security Council, it would have called on Syria and Russia to halt their 4-week-old air offensive against Aleppo, the most intensive of the war and which has killed hundreds of civilians and de­stroyed hospitals, sparking an inter­national outcry.

Apart from protestations of an­ger and accusations of war crimes, Damascus and Moscow appear con­vinced that no one is willing or able to stop them.

Moscow has no intention of halt­ing the blistering offensive until ground forces reconquer the east­ern sector of the city. When that happens, the Western-backed op­position will have lost its last major urban centre on the Syrian battle­field.

The important cities of Homs in central Syria and the ancient de­sert city of Palmyra were retaken in March. The Mediterranean coastline has been in state hands since rebel forces were driven out in September and the outskirts of Damascus have been largely cleansed since the re­gime retook the strategic town of Daraya in September.

The other northern cities like Idlib are held by Jabhat Fateh al- Sham (Conquest of Syria Front), for­merly the al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nus­ra Front, while in the north-east, Deir ez-Zor, Raqqa and Albukamal are controlled by the Islamic State (ISIS).

The opposition cannot negotiate on their behalf because they are totally absent from all of these cen­tres. The same applies to Kurdish towns and villages in eastern Syria, all held by Kurdish peshmerga.

Losing Aleppo would be a major setback for the political opposition, greatly damaging its negotiating position ahead of any further UN-mandated peace talks in Geneva.

Having lost all major urban cen­tres, they would have very little to say at the negotiating table, apart from trashing the Russians while asking them to halt their attacks and calling on Assad to step down. Clearly, neither party is willing to comply since Moscow and Damas­cus feel that nobody in the region or the international community is willing — or able — to stop them.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the main foreign player in northern Syria, was effectively sidelined by Putin at a meeting in St Petersburg in August.

They met again in Istanbul on October 10th and agreed to revive a suspended natural gas pipeline project to run under the Black Sea to Turkey, allowing Russian gas to reach Western markets without go­ing through Eastern Europe, thus make it much easier for Putin to cut off gas supplies to Ukraine.

The Russians have put their full weight behind crushing Kurdish ambitions along the Syria-Turkey border and did not interfere when Turkey invaded the Syrian border city of Jarabulus in August, expel­ling ISIS from Ankara’s backyard.

In exchange for Russian support on the Kurdish issue, and Erdogan’s wide-ranging purge in the aftermath of the July coup attempt, the Turks are looking elsewhere — and being remarkably silent — about Russian military operations in Aleppo.

The Qataris, once hard-line back­ers of Assad’s opponents, have long quit the Syrian scene. Saudi Arabia is too entangled in Yemen and its internal problems to give much at­tention or money to Syria’s rebels.

Since Russia intervened in Sep­tember 2015, Saudi Arabia’s access to Syrian cities and towns has been severely curtailed.

The United States is too busy with its bruising presidential election to do anything constructive about Syria and will likely remain indiffer­ent until a new administration takes over in January 2017.

That gives Putin time to retake territory he sees as vital for what is called “Useful Syria”, namely Da­mascus and its environs, the Ala­wite heartland in the north-west, the Mediterranean coast and the central region that binds it together. The rest of the country is consid­ered irrelevant.

Military sources in Damascus predict that the Aleppo fighting will halt by the end of October, well ahead of the November US elec­tions, with the rebels either forced to surrender or be wiped out.

But the battle for Aleppo is not as clear-cut as that. The government may be firmly in control in the met­ropolitan west of the city but every­thing to the east, including the Old City, is still in rebel hands.

East of the city, government con­trol extends more than 30km from Aleppo International Airport all the way to the Kuweires airbase, recent­ly reconquered and now being used by Russian warplanes. The rest of the territory is in ISIS’s hands.

Putin seems determined to have his way, regardless of what Euro­pean leaders and US politicians say. His resolve to take Aleppo seems to be greater than any country’s will­ingness to stop him.