Monday,23 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1294, (5 - 11 May 2016)
Monday,23 July, 2018
Issue 1294, (5 - 11 May 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Gauging international influence

The conflict in Aleppo is part of a battle between regional and international interests, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

The regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has stepped up its military activity in the wake of the opposition’s withdrawal from the Geneva talks.

The city of Aleppo, the centre of gravity for the opposition, has seen intensive air strikes that have killed scores of civilians and left widespread destruction in their wake. The opposition believes that Russia gave the regime the green light to use this means of pressure to force it to return to the negotiating table in Geneva.

The US has stood idly by, more interested in supporting Russia on the need for the opposition to return to the talks than in the military and humanitarian situation in Syria. Russia hopes the opposition will come back to Geneva with lowered hopes, allowing it to push through its plan to keep the Syrian regime in power.

Syrian opposition figure Sayed Muqbil told Al-Ahram Weekly that the military escalation in Aleppo “is a sort of punishment of the opposition for leaving the negotiations, which interest Moscow and Washington more than the Syrians. This escalation will continue to be used as a threat against the opposition — the military violence will increase if the opposition leaves the negotiations, and it will be eased if it agrees to return with fewer conditions.”

Despite the violence meted out by the regime and its allies in Aleppo, observers doubt its ability to take the city. Its army is in tatters and there are not enough pro-Iranian troops to hold the city. Any attempt to advance on the centre would be extremely costly.

As a result, the international pressure has been focussed on bringing the parties back to Geneva. The Russians have denied that they are assisting the regime in retaking Aleppo, while the Americans have said they are working with Russia to “draw a line” in Aleppo that neither side will cross.

The troops mobilised by all the parties in Aleppo will only be used if further developments extinguish any chance of a political settlement, they have said.

However, the US stance cannot be relied upon, for the US indirectly facilitated the regime’s escalation. Days before the regime offensive against Aleppo, US Secretary of State John Kerry said the city was home to fighters from Al-Nusra Front, who had been deployed in such a way as to make it difficult to distinguish them from the moderate opposition.

The regime seized on this statement to claim it was fighting Al-Nusra Front in the city, which is linked to Al-Qaeda. Syria’s chief mufti, Ahmed Hassan, who is close to Al-Assad, even called on the army and pro-regime militias to “wipe out” the city of Aleppo, describing it as a “city of terrorists” and urging civilians to abandon the city and leave it to the fighters.

As the military escalation to force the opposition’s hand continues, Aleppo is going through a critical period. An estimated 250,000 people remain in the parts of the city controlled by anti-regime groups, down from a population of 1.3 million in 2014.

Over the last two weeks, these people have seen a massive intensification in the scope of the fighting and the number of deaths. Only one road out of Aleppo remains open, and if it is cut the city will be blockaded and its population threatened with death.

The opposition believes that the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria has exposed the international community’s refusal to shoulder its responsibilities to protect human rights. The Syrian regime has been insisting on a military solution and the perpetuation of Al-Assad’s rule, and in this it is supported by Iran, which seeks to make up for its losses in the nuclear deal with the West with expanded influence in Syria.

Russia seeks, by its intervention, to stave off the collapse of a battered regime and gain a foothold in the Middle East. Washington has taken a more ambiguous stance, and it has refused to pressure its international and regional partners, except to mobilise them around its war on terror and have not offered a realistic solution to the Syrian conflict.

The battle for Aleppo thus seems to send a Syrian-Russian-Iranian message that Al-Assad’s fate is not on the negotiating table. It also gives Iran and the Syrian regime a chance to improve their combat positions and impose new facts on the ground around Aleppo.

However, all of the Syrian regime’s military efforts, backed by Iran and Russia since the latter intervened militarily in September 2015, have not achieved the goal of destroying the Syrian opposition or compelling it to surrender.

They have only increased the tragedy of the humanitarian situation. The Syrian regime and its allies are betting that it is the humanitarian factor that will eventually prompt the opposition to concede, in order to stop the wholesale slaughter of civilians.

The battle for Aleppo has multiple ramifications for the regional and international balance of power. The Syrian regime wants to bury the dream of the opposition under the rubble of destroyed buildings and the weight of civilian deaths, while Russia seeks to punish Turkey, which has long found in Aleppo geographic, demographic and economic support for its own expansion.

Iran wants a foothold to anchor its presence in northern Syria, and the superpowers see it as a stage for a battle of wills and influence.

In the numerous proxy wars that make up the Syrian conflict, responsibility for the catastrophe is shared. Many internal and external factors are at play, with multiple competing actors. The Geneva talks have clearly demonstrated that the US-Russian understanding is not complete, and Russia does not yet have the Syrian issue fully in its grasp.

Iran is trying to rehabilitate the Syrian regime, while the US is in the middle of a presidential campaign that will likely sideline Syria for the rest of the year. All these factors suggest that the idea now is to teach the Syrian opposition a lesson, forcing it to return to Geneva with reduced demands that are acceptable to the regime and pose no threat to its existence.

Russia has been pivotal to the survival of the Syrian regime. Showing a new face on the world stage after the fall of the Muammar Gaddafi regime in Libya, Russia abandoned its policy of distancing itself from controversial international issues and began throwing its full weight behind the Syrian regime, rejecting a settlement and clinging to a military solution.

The Russian shift saw Moscow impose its conditions on the Geneva Conference. Having provided cover for regime crimes in Aleppo, many Syrians now see Russia as the greatest obstacle to aspirations for democratic change in the country.

Many also expected the regime’s military offensives and the massive destruction visited on Aleppo to spur states supporting the opposition into action, but this has not happened.

The West has effectively attributed the suffering of 24 million Syrians to the actions of the Islamic State (IS) group, and all it has done is send military reinforcements to the international coalition shelling areas under the control of IS.

The US has done no more than send 250 members of its special forces to train Kurdish separatists in northern Syria. Meanwhile, the Turks have threatened to enter Syria to pursue Kurdish rebels allied with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which is listed as a terrorist group in Turkey.

The Arab states have been unable to break the international consensus and unilaterally arm the Syrian opposition to enable it to stop the war.

All the parties say that given the existing balance of power the Syrian conflict can only be ended through a political resolution at Geneva, believing that international conditions now allow this. But Russia’s insistence on supporting the regime’s bloody practices perhaps suggests that circumstances have evolved only enough to permit negotiations, but not to assure compliance with the terms of the political settlement envisioned by UN Security Council Resolution 2254.

The conflict over Aleppo is more than a battle for the control of the city. It is an opportunity for Russian or Turkish retaliation, an occasion to settle Iranian sectarian accounts, and even a battle for Kurdish self-determination in the state of which they dream.

The conflict is all these things, a tangled web of international and regional interests and calculations. The fear is that it will also become the graveyard of the Syrian people’s dreams, becoming the stage for an international battle of wills and influence, and part of an open-ended conflict that the Syrian people can only hope will one day end.

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