Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1307, (11- 17 August 2016)
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1307, (11- 17 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Revising the equation?

Opposition successes in Aleppo this week could mark a turning point in the Syrian conflict, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

The Syrian opposition took a giant step forward this week by breaking the siege imposed by the regime led by President Bashar Al-Assad and its allies on much of the northern city of Aleppo that had been intended to force civilians and the armed opposition holding the area to surrender.

For the first time, Syrian opposition factions, both moderate groups under the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and militant Islamist groups, united as one, and in record time they were able to break the siege and even surround regime forces in other parts of the city.

The developments were not anticipated by the regime or its Russian and Iranian allies. They also came as a surprise to the opposition, which had earlier despaired of uniting around one objective. They upended the scales and shifted international and regional calculations, leading many to reappraise expected outcomes.

Earlier this month, the Syrian regime and Russia announced that they intended to join together to defeat opposition forces in Aleppo. Regime troops advanced on the ground, joined by thousands of fighters from the Lebanese Hizbullah group and Iranian-directed Afghan forces, cutting off the last road into the city and imposing a full state of siege.

Russian forces staged hundreds of air strikes, destroying hospitals, food stores, water stations, and markets, these mimicking earlier Russian actions in the Chechen capital Grozny, reduced to rubble on top of its population as Russian forces took control.

The opposition factions in Aleppo came together in response, and, putting aside their ideological differences, announced they would join forces to stop the advance of the regime and its allies. They waged a battle to break the siege and announced their intention of taking full control of Aleppo, Syria’s second-largest city.

Russian and regime operations stoked tensions between the US and Russia. US Secretary of State John Kerry warned that if Russia engaged in trick operations in Aleppo, this would undermine cooperation between Moscow and Washington. US President Barack Obama urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to halt the attacks on the Syrian opposition and the US defence department called for a ceasefire.

The US realised that the siege of Aleppo would have a major impact on the balance of forces in Syria and the wider region. Most of the combat factions in the city are independent, not jihadi, groups. Only the Fateh Al-Sham Front (formerly the Al-Nusra Front) is designated as a jihadi group among the 32 military factions in the city that took part in the battle.

French diplomatic sources told Al-Ahram Weekly this week that the US “feared a tighter stranglehold of the city could lead the independent factions to ally themselves with jihadi groups, because the destruction of the non-jihadi opposition in Aleppo would create a genuine strategic problem for the US.”

“Long-term US plans rely on the non-jihadi opposition in Syria to destroy the Islamic State (IS) group. Its defeat would mean that Washington was incapable of executing its long-term strategy,” the sources said.

The opposition forces in Aleppo issued statements on the security of civilians and compliance with human rights. They pledged not to harm civilians residing in regime-held areas. Military statements identified the sites that would be targeted in order to allow civilians to leave, reducing civilian casualties to nearly zero.

 “The precision and speed of the attacks and the discipline of the fighters suggest two possibilities,” military expert Salem Jarrah said. “The first is that the armed opposition factions realised that they were fully exposed and without outside support, so they consciously decided to rely on themselves, putting aside ideological or military differences and turning the leadership over to experienced officers in the various groups.”

“The second is that the US itself gave the nod to regional supporting states to compel the armed opposition to focus on this one battle and that the Americans themselves helped to sketch its general outlines.”

While Russian strategy in Syria has been marked by firm support for the Al-Assad regime, American strategy has been vague and contradictory, leading some in the US media to describe its passivity as “shocking”. The US media has portrayed the refusal of the US administration to confront the crimes of the Syrian regime as “caving in” and has spoken of the US “losing its compass” in Syria.

Russia has its own interests in Syria, and they are not those of the US. There are disagreements over who should manage the transitional process in the country, and despite substantial Russian-American coordination the Russians want to persuade the US that fighting terrorism should top the agenda, which means neutrality toward the Syrian regime.

While the US sees counter-terrorism and international cooperation as important, it believes that these things are of little use without a political transition in Syria.

Such differences form the background to the siege of Aleppo and the attempt by the regime, Russia, and Iran to destroy the armed opposition. They also explain why the opposition united and why weapons were made available to it to wage a decisive battle.

The battle for Aleppo will likely not resolve the fate of the Syrian regime, and nor will the conflict as a whole be resolved as a result. The military tug of war will likely continue for some time, with neither party winning or being defeated on the ground.

However, the offensive might come as a US lesson to Russia, cautioning it against trying to manipulate agreements or outmanoeuvre the US defence department, which assumed oversight of the Syrian conflict from the state department earlier this year.

Turkey also cannot be ignored when it comes to events in Aleppo. The city is a strategic issue for Turkey, which has long supported opposition military factions in the city to ensure it does not fall to the regime.

Turkey’s stance will likely not affect the strategic Turkish-Russian rapprochement, however, though the Aleppo offensive will probably benefit Turkey, which supports three of the strongest factions in the city that carried the largest burden in breaking the siege.

This sends an indirect message to Russia in the run-up to the meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Putin that Turkey intends to maintain significant influence in the region.

Some Syrian opposition figures have linked the Aleppo battle and the substantial international support for both sides to preparations for the next round of opposition-regime talks, expected to resume in late August, as it tells Russia that the opposition is still a player to be reckoned with.

Most European nations have condemned the siege, but have done nothing to end it, an equivocal position that led some Aleppo residents to welcome the participation of the Fateh Al-Sham Front out of a feeling that the jihadis in the group had come to rescue them.

“If the regime, Russia, and others had not imposed a siege on Aleppo, we would have been able to avoid an alliance between the Al-Nusra Front and the moderate armed opposition groups,” said Basma Qadmani, a member of the opposition High Negotiations Body. “This is the result of allowing the siege of Aleppo” to continue, she said.

However, others think that the Front’s participation in the battle may give the US an excuse to strike it from its list of terrorist groups and initiate cooperation with it to create a military balance in the Syrian conflict.

The battle in Aleppo exposed Russian and Iranian miscalculations and disregard for the US, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. Al-Assad’s two allies have breached the rules of engagement in Aleppo over the last two years, and it seems unlikely that the US will allow either party to resolve the battle in its interest.

While no red lines have been drawn in Aleppo over the last two years, norms have emerged thanks to understandings between regional and international parties. It has been shown more than once that military capacity is not enough to hold ground and that Aleppo is an arena of engagement and not a site for defeat or victory.

The opposition in Aleppo has scored a victory over the regime, Russia, and Iran, but it is a fragile one. The city is divided, and the opposition does not possess weapons able to counter air strikes even as retaliatory strikes are expected from Russia and the regime.

However, this week’s events were an important victory for the opposition. They restored confidence in its capacities and optimism among many Syrians of its ability to fight the regime.

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