Putin’s miscalculations in the battle for Aleppo

August 14, 2016

The balance of power in the Middle East and beyond has been changed by the Syrian civil war, particularly following the internationalisation of this crisis and the increasing presence of Russia and Iran in the conflict.

With the Syrian rebels on the front foot, now is the perfect time to ask just what Russia’s ongoing, and evidently failing, military intervention has achieved in the country and why Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pursued this dangerous course.

Aleppo is simply not a city that can be easily occupied and quelled, whether by the Syrian Army, Russian air strikes or Iran-backed militias such as Hezbollah, which are participating in the war against the Syrian people.

Moscow had hoped its air power would be enough to tip the scales in Aleppo but the besieged Syrian rebels in the city have endured. The destruction and civilian casualties caused by the siege have failed to demoralise the people of Aleppo and have strengthened their resolve.

Following news that the rebels’ advance could be traced to outside help, particularly arms and equipment from Turkey, it is clear that Moscow underestimated the geo-strategic importance that Aleppo — less than 50km from the Turkish border — holds for Ankara.

This is a political reality, regardless of who is in power in Turkey or the balance of power in the region. If Turkey finds itself under threat from Syrian territory, and particularly Aleppo, it has no choice but to respond.

The other important factor that Putin overlooked is that, after more than five years of war, the Syrian people and particularly those remaining in the besieged city of Aleppo are more prepared than before to make sacrifices and suffer to the last man, woman or child. After all this death and destruction, they know that they cannot simply yield. Prior to the failed coup in Turkey, relations were strained between Turkey and Russia. Ankara and Moscow now appear on the road to rapprochement following a meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Putin in St Petersburg. It remains unclear how this will affect Syria and the battle for Aleppo, if at all.

Whatever the case, Moscow made a mistake in believing that it could prove the decisive factor in the battle for Aleppo. The thousands of armed rebels in Aleppo are prepared to fight to the death. Russia and Iran failed to understand that after all this death the people of Aleppo will never bow their heads to the Assad regime, which has carried out a series of massacres against them since the 1970s. They know that they have no choice but to hold on.

Russia will not succeed in its mission through air power alone. Iran will not succeed with its militias where the regime failed with its army and thugs. The battle for Aleppo has been raging virtually since the start of the Syrian revolution in March 2011 and the people of Aleppo have learnt from the experiences.

Why did Moscow make this dangerous gamble? The answer is simple: Putin was suckered into playing a stronger role than he otherwise might have, seeking to make gains on US President Barack Obama’s more hands-off approach to the region. This is a foreign policy that has seen Iraq fall under almost complete Iranian influence thanks to a resurgent Tehran following the controversial Iran nuclear deal.

Obama, set to leave office in January 2017, acknowledged that many of his grey hairs have been caused by the Syrian crisis that has spiralled out of control on his watch. As for Putin, his grey hairs might be less obvious but the Syrian conflict remains a key part of his foreign policy towards the region.

One question remains: What will the Russian president do when Obama leaves office and the next president, whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, takes a markedly different approach on Syria?