In Syria, all eyes are on the battle for Aleppo

Sunday 26/06/2016
Syria Democratic Forces fighter looking at Manbij\'s mills where ISIS militants are positioned

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.