Monday,19 March, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1305, (28 July - 3 August 2016)
Monday,19 March, 2018
Issue 1305, (28 July - 3 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Aleppo in the balance

The parties in the Syrian conflict are descending on the northern city of Aleppo for a battle that may decide the country’s future, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

The parties in the Syrian conflict are gathering around the northern Syrian city of Aleppo as the battle for the city heats up. All of them are watching the course of the battle in the north, sensing that the fate of the regime, the opposition, and regional powers like Turkey and Iran will be decided there. It may also determine whether Russia or the US wields the most influence over the country’s future.

The battle for Aleppo has drawn in forces from the International Coalition, advisors with the US special forces, Russian aircraft and ground troops, forces with the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, the regime army, revolutionary forces, the Iranian army, mercenaries from Hizbullah, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and Islamic State (IS) fighters of different origins.

The areas under the control of the Syrian opposition have been experiencing a genuine human tragedy, since they have been violently shelled by the four forces competing for victory. The Russian air force is carrying out intensive raids on the city in order to expel IS, while forces with the US-led International Coalition are staging airstrikes in the same areas with the same objective.

Regime forces are shelling Aleppo to break the Syrian opposition deployed in areas of the city. They have been joined by Kurdish pro-federalist forces seeking to occupy towns around Aleppo and expel their inhabitants in order to change the local demography and annex them to a future Kurdish federal state.

More than one hundred people are being killed every day in the conflict over the city, the vast majority of them civilians. Airstrikes by the International Coalition and Kurdish forces have resulted in massacres, in one case taking 360 civilian lives. The Russian and regime air forces have destroyed seven hospitals and medical centres, a blood bank, and several mobile clinics in rural areas.

All the military forces have deployed near the Turkish border close to the area held by IS and areas under Kurdish control with reserves of oil and gas. The area is also crawling with Iranian military units that have left their country for the first time since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, as well as mercenaries from Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Pakistan fighting on the side of the regime led by Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad.

They claim to be fighting IS, but in practice they are fighting the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the armed Syrian opposition factions.

The demands of the warring parties are mutually exclusive. The Kurds want to clear this area of Syria of its Arab population in order to flesh out the borders of the Kurdish region they want to establish in the north of the country. They have been exploiting US support to undertake massacres against residents and have killed hundreds of civilians.

Recently, the Kurds intentionally supplied International Coalition forces with erroneous coordinates. Coalition forces launched air strikes based on them, only for it later to transpire that the sites were shelters in which civilians had taken refuge. 360 civilians were killed in just one night.

The Syrian regime and Iran aim to inflict the greatest possible number of casualties on the armed Syrian opposition and civilians for supporting it. They are pushing north towards the Syrian-Turkish border in order to cut off the opposition’s supply lines and its human and strategic depth in Turkish territory. Aleppo, they hope, will become a trump card in any negotiations with the opposition.

The Russians want to test their weapons and tip the balance of power on the ground against the opposition. Only the US does not have a clear objective in the conflict, apart from supporting the Kurds and trying to push back IS.

IS itself is fighting to preserve the Islamic emirate it wants to extend throughout Syria. The FSA is fighting to establish a democratic and citizenship-based state to replace the existing authoritarian order.

According to Syrian opposition figure Fayez Sara, a member of the Coalition of Revolutionary Forces, “the developments in the field against armed opposition forces in Aleppo are not divorced from political objectives. They are directly linked to the political process that was launched in the Vienna meetings, the subsequent issuance of UN Security Council Resolution 2254, and the Geneva Conference.”

“It is clear that the suspension of this process is linked with developments in the field, particularly in Aleppo. The regime and its Russian allies want to go back to the conference table having scored a decisive victory in Aleppo, which would put the opposition in a weaker position when the Geneva III Conference resumes,” he said.

Russia and the Syrian regime have pursued this tack, while IS and the Kurdish forces are going up against opposition forces and Turkey at the same time. They have waged battles against them in the Aleppo countryside, IS using the local population as human shields and the Kurdish forces engaging in ethnic cleansing and alleged crimes against humanity.

“The nature of the conflict in Aleppo demonstrates that the primary objective is to eliminate the armed opposition, which in turn would weaken the political opposition,” Sara said. “The second objective is to break Turkey’s connection to Syria, not only by weakening its Syrian allies, but also by closing its border with Syria. These objectives are tacitly agreed on by the regime and its allies, as well as by IS and the Kurdish forces, despite the hostilities between these parties.”

Thus far, the Syrian opposition has not budged from Aleppo, however. It has remained steadfast despite the aerial and ground forces targeting it and the tens of thousands of Iranian fighters or Iranian-backed militias and regime fighters it faces. This might lead Russia to try to save the situation from further deterioration, especially since the opposition forces have managed to expand and inflict substantial human casualties on regime and Iranian forces.

After US Secretary of State John Kerry announced recently that an understanding had been reached with Moscow on putting the Syrian peace process back on track, the opposition said the agreement would entail reining in regime violence in exchange for US agreement to coordinate efforts with Moscow in fighting the Al-Nusra Front.

Meanwhile, the Syrian regime unexpectedly announced its readiness to resume the peace talks in Geneva “without preconditions and with the support of the UN and the international community,” according to the foreign ministry. Information has also been leaked that the Al-Nusra Front has decided to sever its ties with IS and align itself with the Syrian opposition instead.

These developments open up new horizons in the Syrian crisis, or allow for the possibility of an agreement between Russia and the US that could lay the groundwork for a solution to the crisis. However, these possibilities remain remote as long as there is no decline in the violence against civilians.

“The Syrian opposition will not go to Geneva as long as the arbitrary shelling continues and the terms defined by UN Security Council Resolution 2254 are not met,” Sara said. “These involve a ceasefire, a lifting of the siege on blockaded areas, the entry of humanitarian assistance, and the release of detainees.”

 “It will not go to Geneva having lost its position in Aleppo. If the Russians and Americans do not find a solution, support for the opposition in the city is expected only to increase,” he said.

Two problems face any potential solution or Russian-US agreement. The first is Iran, which is unlikely to accept any solution that denies it part of the Syrian cake. The second is the Kurds, who have become uncontrollable in fighting for the chance to realise their dream of a Kurdish state.

Many Syrians believe that any solution ending the targeting of civilians and leading to a ceasefire would be acceptable. Most have only one condition: that senior regime figures with blood on their hands do not participate in the peace process. This could be achieved with Russian and US pressure, or it might never be achieved.

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