Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1313, (29 september - 5 October 2016)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1313, (29 september - 5 October 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Victims by proxy

Syria has become the major arena for the ongoing Russian-US standoff, writes Bassel Oudat

Al-Ahram Weekly

After the truce collapsed — or more accurately the blueprint for a truce that the Russians and Americans were hammering out — the Aleppo front exploded.

Aleppo remains a strategic goal for all local, regional and international stakeholders in the Syrian conflict. It is the main and strongest front of the opposition and has long served as a gauge of the balance of forces.

A week ago Russian aircraft launched an intensive wave of assaults against the eastern sector of the city which is controlled by the Syrian opposition. The bombardment was so fierce hospitals in the city were unable to cope with the casualties and civil defence units announced they were unable to rescue people from beneath the rubble of collapsed buildings. UNICEF reported that the city’s main water station was struck, compounding the humanitarian disaster by cutting supplies of potable water to nearly a million people.

The sequence of unfolding events offers an insight into what is happening behind the scenes between Russia and the US. Organisations involved in documenting violations of the truce recorded more than 300 breaches during the first days of Eid Al-Adha, 95 per cent of them the responsibility of the regime. The Russians and Americans simultaneously announced the collapse of the truce, marking the breakdown of an agreement that could have been the beginning of a solution to the Syrian crisis.

US-led international coalition air forces subsequently bombarded Syrian army camps in Deir Al-Zor in eastern Syria. “By mistake”, the Americans claim, but if so who supplied the false intelligence? Over 100 Syrian soldiers and members of affiliated militias were killed, most of them from Palestinian factions that support Al-Assad. The Russians were furious. Moscow refused to believe it was a “mistake” and regarded the attack as American provocation.

The US-Russian agreement had provided for the entry of humanitarian aid to areas of Aleppo besieged by regime forces. Ambiguous statements from Washington suggesting the truce was still intact led the UN to approve the dispatch of an aid convoy to areas controlled by the opposition. Russian aircraft bombarded the convoy before it could reach its recipients. Moscow denies targeting the convoy though airspace over the targeted area is entirely controlled by the Russians and the Syrian regime. Most Syrians saw the strike as a message addressed to Washington in retaliation for bombing the Syrian army camps at Deir Al-Zor.

Opposition forces then advanced in Hama, the governorate next to Aleppo, where they achieved some victories. Meanwhile, the Russians and Americans exchanged recriminations over who had undermined the truce in language that sometimes contained thinly veiled threats.

That was when the assault on Aleppo — the most ferocious aerial bombardment to date in Syria — began. The Syrian opposition has accused Russia and the Syrian regime of pursuing a scorched earth policy, levelling everything in preparation for a ground offensive.

On Sunday the Security Council convened to discuss the military escalation in Aleppo. The session quickly turned into a trial of Moscow’s role in Syria. Russia and the Syrian regime were accused of committing war crimes. The US described Russian actions in Syria as barbaric. For the first time since the Syrian crisis erupted five years ago UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon accused Russia and the Syrian regime of committing war crimes. In another precedent, UN envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura held the “Syrian government” responsible for the latest military assault against Aleppo.

The Security Council session drove home the extent of the gulf that now exists between Russia and the US over Syria.

Since the beginning of the Syrian revolution the US administration’s approach to Syria has been reckless, ambiguous and cavalier. The Russians have taken full advantage of this, pursuing their strategy confident Barack Obama would not challenge them politically or militarily. Russia strengthened its role in Syria until it could use the Syrian question to pressure the US and Europe on other issues seen as crucial by Moscow. In doing so it encouraged the Syrian regime to persist in pursuing a murderous military solution without making any concessions.

The fracas between Moscow and Washington raises the question as to whether Russia now has the upper hand.

“When the Syrian revolution began in 2011, Moscow was almost on the fringes of events,” says Fayez Sara, a member of the Syrian opposition coalition. “There were at most 40 Russian soldiers in Syria and they were stationed at the Tartus naval base on the Mediterranean coast. Today the situation could not be more different. The Russians have a huge military force in Syria, a large naval base in Tartus, an airbase in Khmeimim and another at Bassel Al-Assad Airport near Latakia. Russian troops in Syria now number in the thousands and Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict is a central plank of Moscow’s foreign policy. The disputes between it and the US have escalated to a dangerous level.”

As well as being directly embroiled in warfare in Syria Russian diplomacy has pursued two courses that are “contradictory in form but complementary in function,” says Sara.

 “On the one hand Russia has assumed the management of its allies, primarily Iran and the Al-Assad regime. On the other, it is trying to participate with the US in international efforts to resolve the Syrian question and turn those efforts to its own advantage and to the advantage of the Syrian-Iranian alliance. Given the levels of international collusion, silence and regional acquiescence Russia is unlikely to hesitate in using more of its military and material capacities to win the war. But in doing so it is ignoring the Soviet experience in Afghanistan, one of the causes of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Although Syria is not Afghanistan and circumstances there are different the amount of regional and international intervention in the Syrian issue does not work in Moscow’s favour. Instead of winning the war in Syria, it risks losing the war and the price it will pay increases the more it embroils itself.”

Russia and the US appear to have definitively parted ways over Syria leaving the civilian population to wonder what will happen next. Who will stop the catastrophe?

Syrian opposition member Walid Al-Bunni believes the “Russian-Iranian bombardment will continue until the US and Russia decide enough blood has been shed and come to terms on outstanding issues between them.”

He warns that there will be no let-up in the ferocity of fighting during the remainder of the Obama administration and things could easily grow worse.

“The Russian aerial assaults will grow more brutal in the hope of gaining as much territory as possible before the next administration comes into power in Washington. Russia will try to resolve the Syrian question militarily and put an end to the Syrian opposition entirely in the few remaining months of the current administration in the hope that, when the new administration arrives, it will find no one that it can call an opposition and will be forced to work with Russia to fight the Islamic State, the Nusra Front and associated organisations. It will also find that the Al-Assad regime, thanks to Iranian and sectarian militia support on the ground and Russian air cover, will have imposed its control over Syrian territory.”

This scenario can be altered under one condition, argues Al-Bunni — “if the current US administration agrees to conclude a comprehensive agreement that covers not only Syria but other outstanding issues, from Ukraine and NATO missiles to US and European sanctions against Russia.”

He does not anticipate such a possibility. “The Obama administration does not want to encumber its successor with agreements that will circumscribe its own international policies.” 

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