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