In Syria, all eyes are on the battle for Aleppo
BEIRUT - US Secretary of State John Kerry in mid-June accused Syrian government forces and their Russian backers of breaking the shaky truce in northern Syria by targeting the shattered strategic city of Aleppo.
The Russians averted a diplomatic row with the United States by calling for a 48-hour truce in Aleppo. Meanwhile, battles raged in other parts of the country, underlining that Moscow believes it has to subdue those areas before making an all-out push for Aleppo.
Despite the rhetoric from all sides, Aleppo will be the final battle in Syria because, at this stage, it is too tough a nut to crack. It is Syria’s largest city and the third largest in the Middle East. It has been divided since 2012 between rebels holding the east of the city and the regime controlling the western sector.
Aleppo’s proximity to the Turkish border has been a boon for Syrian rebels, who receive arms and funds from Ankara, and the wild countryside around it has been a breeding ground for jihadists, ranging from the Islamic State (ISIS) to al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s Syrian arm.
The Russians and Syrians wanted to retake Aleppo earlier in 2016 but came to realise that battle would be too costly and difficult — the ancient city would have to be levelled before a military victory could be achieved.
Aerial bombardment alone would not be enough to crush the rebels and street-to-street fighting would exact a prohibitively high casualty toll.
Instead, they pretended to march on Aleppo, mobilising troops for what seemed to be a major assault and stepping up air strikes.
But suddenly, Russian warplanes struck elsewhere, Deir ez-Zor on the Euphrates river and around Damascus, while the United States and its Syrian proxies headed for ISIS-held Manbij, 30km west of the Euphrates, pledging to liberate it from the jihadists.
The Russian diversion caught Syrian rebels off-guard in Deir ez-Zor as well as in the orchards around Damascus and Hama. They were pushed back significantly and government troops advanced with Russian air cover.
This is where the Americans and Russians seemed to agree; the United States has been relatively silent about the Syrian Army’s march on Raqqa and Russia has quietly endorsed the US push on the Manbij pocket.
However, they did not agree on what to do about Aleppo and decided to simultaneously back off and postpone the battle — an agreement that was breached by the Russian Air Force. It had no choice because it needed to fight off an al-Nusra offensive on Aleppo.
The Americans were unhappy, forcing Moscow to call for a ceasefire in Aleppo on June 16th. Moscow insists Aleppo has become al-Nusra Front’s headquarters and needs to fall within the US-Russian understanding before jihadist groups besiege the city.
Tehran sees eye to eye with Moscow, particularly as Iranian forces have suffered heavy losses in northern Syria. They are mainly deployed around Aleppo and have suffered heavily from al-Nusra Front.
At a high-profile June 9th meeting of the Iranian, Russian and Syrian defence ministers, it was decided to coordinate military strategy in northern Syria.
In other words, the three countries were announcing that the UN-mandated peace talks, which began in Geneva in January, were dead. Those negotiations had been expected to lead to a transitional government by August, with a new constitution and power-sharing government between the Syrian regime and the Saudi-backed opposition.
The Tehran meeting clearly showed that neither Damascus, Tehran nor Moscow were in a hurry for more talks in Switzerland. They first want to see the military balance on the ground shift decisively in their favour.
The Defence ministers agreed to give Iran, which had been Syrian President Bashar Assad’s key military supporter until the Russians intervened in September 2015, a more prominent role on the battlefield that the Russians have come to dominate.
This involves increasing the number of Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and Hezbollah fighters in the Aleppo area, helping to minimise opposition gains in the Syrian north. Russia insists that it will not send troops but will let Syrians, Iranians and Hezbollah do the fighting on its behalf.
Iran was also promised a greater role in liberating Raqqa, the de facto capital of ISIS’s self-proclaimed caliphate — until now a Russian-led operation.
To demonstrate their seriousness, Damascus and Moscow appointed Ali Shamkhani, a former admiral and Defence minister who currently heads Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, as senior battlefield coordinator for the tripartite alliance.
For now, communications will go through him, so will arms and funds to war-torn Aleppo. The battle will come later, when the Russians think the time is right.