Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1317, (27 October - 2 November 2016)
Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Issue 1317, (27 October - 2 November 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The calculus of destruction

Will Aleppo turn into another Grozny, asks Bassel Oudat in Damascus

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Talk of Russian preparations for a “final military campaign” in Aleppo is gaining momentum as the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetzov heads towards the Mediterranean and Syrian armed forces and pro-Iranian militias mobilise on the ground. Observers believe the battle for control of the city will be brutal, and long.

The fears of many Syrians about what form the battle will take have been compounded by Russian threats to turn Aleppo into another Grozny, the Chechen capital which was besieged by Russian forces between 1999 and early 2000. The result of the siege, according to the United Nations, was to turn Grozny into the most destroyed city on earth.

Russian military experts see little to hinder Moscow’s plans. They believe the battle for control of Aleppo will be facilitated by US silence, Western inaction, the weakness of the Gulf states and the failure of the UN to impose any formula for a solution on the international and regional powers involved in the Syrian crisis.

Meanwhile, the Turkish military is moving freely in Northern Syria, providing support to militant Syrian factions as they seek to expel the Kurds from towns and villages over which they had established control in the hope of eventually establishing a Kurdish federation. The speed with which Turkish-backed forces have cleared the Islamic State (IS) from its strategic strongholds in Northern Syria is remarkable. Turkish military involvement on the ground in Syria has so far encountered neither Russian nor American objections, suggesting that both Moscow and Washington have given Ankara a green light.

Not that this complicity is likely to last long. The sudden decision of Turkish-backed forces to shift course and head towards Aleppo in order to “break the siege” on the city points to a conflict of interests and foreshadows a Turkish-Russian confrontation, via their proxies, on the ground.

All parties are gearing up for the battle over Aleppo — the regime in Damascus, the Russians, the Turks, the Turkish-supported Free Army factions and the Kurds. The militia factions currently in Aleppo are estimated at 8,000 men, including 800 Al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham fighters. These battle hardened troops are also waiting for the zero hour and hope to demonstrate their hold on the city.

Moscow, now pivotal to the international diplomatic play over Syria, is unlikely to step back from its strategy and plans for Aleppo. On Saturday Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov announced the end of the brief ceasefire in Aleppo and said Moscow was not considering renewing it. Ryabkov also ruled out the possibility of another meeting between the Russian foreign minister and his US counterpart.

Moscow apparently sees a clear path to press forward with its plans. There can be no doubt that international circumstances have helped Russia strengthen its position in Syria. The US is preoccupied with presidential elections and the Europeans will not act against Russia without a green light from Washington. Turkey’s sole interest in the Syrian question, for all practical purposes, is to stamp out Kurdish separatist dream. Moscow is happy to appease Ankara over this if only to keep it quiet. The prevailing view in Moscow is that any obstacles to its Syrian ambitions have been neutered.

“All that may be true but in the end Russia cannot end the Syrian crisis alone,” Colonel Ayham Barakat, a Free Syrian Army commander, told Al-Ahram Weekly. “If Aleppo falls this might strengthen its position but neither Russia nor the regime possesses sufficient manpower to consolidate their control. The opposition, however, does possess the manpower. It will be able to recuperate its losses at a time of its choosing. All it needs are effective weapons, especially anti-aircraft missiles, which it will obtain sooner or later.”

Fayez Sara, a member of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, is not so sure.

“The Russians, allied with the Iranians and the Al-Assad regime, are capable of making progress on the ground in Syria,” he told the Weekly. “They will most likely win the battle of Aleppo and that will alter the balance of power. This is an unequal war, politically and militarily, a result of the decline in the strength of the armed opposition, the regional and international situation, and of a host of local factors.”

The position of the opposition, says Sara, has been undermined by ongoing confusion between the political and the military components of the struggle. He argues that military factions that are essentially promoting an Islamist project have drowned out those who support the concept of Syria as a pluralistic democratic state. One result of this confusion, he argues, “is that a blind eye has been turned to the presence of groups, such as the Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham, formerly Jabhat Al-Nusra, and the Jund Al-Aqsa which is affiliated with Daesh, which are internationally categorised as terrorist organisations”.  

“The calculations are very complicated,” says Syrian political analyst Said Mokbel. “Firstly, overcoming opposition forces in eastern Aleppo will not be that easy. They are all battle hardened fighters, veterans of an uninterrupted, five-year long war. They are fully aware aerial bombardment alone does not win battles. There has to be a ground war for that. Their familiarity with the city means they are likely to be able to sustain street warfare for years. It means the battle for Aleppo will be very costly for the Iranian-backed Iraqi and Lebanese militias which will be at the forefront of the ground war in Aleppo.”

The Russians are certainly aware of this, says Mokbel. “They know their destruction of Grozny by artillery, missile and aerial bombardment did not achieve victory. An army on the ground was necessary for that and it did not achieve full control of the city until its defenders decided to withdraw. And there were no more than 1,000 Chechens. The one thing we can be sure of is that the Russians will be ferocious in their use of artillery and aerial bombardment.”  

In the midst of this climate of fear some regional powers have been working on last-minute initiatives in the hope of forestalling the destruction of a 4,000-year-old city and preserving the territorial integrity of Syria. Cairo, for example, has been meeting with representatives from both the opposition and the regime. The Egyptian Foreign Ministry is working with Spain and New Zealand on a draft resolution to submit to the Security Council. The details are not clear yet but it may offer a compromise between the positions of the regime and the opposition. If the formula includes military and security powers being retained solely by the Al-Assad regime it will fail, in the same way that dozens of Arab and international initiatives have failed before. The Syrian opposition will not accept a deal that perpetuates Al-Assad’s control. It insists on executive power being transferred to a joint interim ruling body, as stated in the Geneva communiqué and Vienna conference. Anything short of this means the opposition will continue its military struggle until the last man, making the battle of Aleppo even more difficult for Russia and the Syrian regime.

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