- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 14, 2016

Syria’s largest city has become the biggest prize for embattled President Bashar Assad and his Iranian and Russian backers, as the Obama administration pushes to implement a cease-fire that would effectively consolidate their gains around the onetime moderate opposition stronghold of Aleppo.

If the cease-fire holds to its deadline Friday — something the Russians say is a long shot — it may allow for humanitarian aid to reach millions of civilians besieged by violence. But it also would bar U.S.-backed rebels around Aleppo from fighting to regain territory seized by forces loyal to the Assad regime in recent weeks.

The result is that the city would sooner than later fall to the regime, according to analysts, who say such a development would be a major turning point in Syria’s nearly 5-year-old civil war because all of the nation’s major cities would be back under Mr. Assad’s control and Washington’s attempt to uphold a moderate rebel army would have failed.

“Aleppo is incredibly important for the U.S. because that is where some of the most powerful and significant opposition forces that are not actually aligned with the Islamic State or al-Nusra Front, the al Qaeda branch in Syria, are concentrated,” said Fred Kagan, who heads the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project in Washington.

“If we allow Aleppo to fall,” Mr. Kagan said in an interview, “it will further radicalize the opposition because it will eliminate the most powerful moderate forces and ultimately strengthen the narrative that the extremists, particularly al-Nusra, are promoting — which is that the U.S. is aligned with the regime against Sunni Muslims and that only [the extremists] will protect them.”

This sobering analysis hangs in the background as the world waits to see what will come of Friday’s announcement by Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov of a plan to allow humanitarian relief to flow to besieged Syrian cities and for a “cessation of hostilities” within a week’s time.

In making the announcement at a security conference in Munich, Mr. Kerry pushed back against the suggestion that the temporary truce would solidify the Assad regime’s recent gains around Aleppo and in effect give the Syrian leader a path toward victory in a war that has killed more than 260,000 people.

“I disagree completely,” Mr. Kerry said at a news conference. “Yes, it is true that the bombing of the last weeks and the aggressive actions of the Assad regime, together with the forces from other places and countries that have helped them, has made a difference for Assad. But that difference doesn’t end the war. That difference does not mean that Assad is secure or safe for the long term.”

“It does not mean that Syria is free from the scourge of terrorist activity by [the Islamic State] al-Nusra and others,” he said. “And it does not mean that the war is able to end at any time in the foreseeable future.

“It is our belief that the more successful Assad is in securing territory against the opposition, the more successful he is in creating more terrorists who threaten the region,” he said.

Encircling Aleppo

Critics say the secretary of state’s comments stab at the heart of what’s so precarious about the cease-fire plan: It does not cover areas of Syria that are controlled by al-Nusra and the Islamic State.

It’s a factor that Moscow may be keen to exploit during the coming days and weeks by continuing to go after targets wherever it wants in the war zone while publicly claiming to be honoring the cease-fire.

Since Moscow opened its air campaign in Syria in September, Russian officials have asserted that “terrorists” are their only targets, even as Russian fighter jets repeatedly have hit what Obama administration officials say are “legitimate opposition groups” and civilians — particularly in areas around Aleppo.

The city, roughly 30 miles from Syria’s northern border with Turkey, had a population of nearly 5 million before the war and was home to one of the first and most fervent anti-Assad, pro-democracy uprisings that preceded the outbreak in 2011.

The Syrian military’s response during the years since has turned much of Aleppo’s center to rubble. Most estimates claim more than half of the city’s inhabitants have fled, joining millions of other Syrians on the trail to refugee camps in neighboring nations or pursuing asylum in Europe.

As Russia’s campaign in Syria has grown, so has the Assad regime’s push to drain Aleppo of opposition rebels.

Over the past week, Syrian troops and allied militia forces have taken control of several villages and towns around northern Aleppo, encircling the rebel-held areas of the city, according the analysis website Syria Deeply. The website reported Friday that the offensive, backed by heavy Russian airstrikes, has killed more than 500 people since it began about two weeks ago.

While Mr. Kerry told reporters over the weekend that Moscow must change its targets to respect the cease-fire, the fear is that Russian fighter jets, as well as Iran-backed forces loyal to the Assad regime, will continue to target Aleppo on grounds that it is under terrorist control.

If Russian President Vladimir Putin were “serious about reaching a diplomatic solution, he would stop his disgraceful bombing campaign immediately,” Rep. Edward R. Royce, California Republican and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Friday. “Instead, Russian warplanes resumed strikes on Aleppo within hours of the announcement in Munich. And Russia has made clear it will continue to target anyone who does not support the murderous Assad regime.”

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, went further in remarks Sunday at the security conference in Munich.

“Mr. Putin is not interested in being our partner,” he said, according to CNN. “He wants to re-establish Russia as a major power in the Middle East. He wants to use Syria as a live-fire exercise for Russia’s modernizing military and he wants to exacerbate the refugee crisis and use it as a weapon to divide the trans-Atlantic alliance and undermine the European project.”

Retaking all of Syria

The Kremlin said Sunday that Mr. Putin had spoken by telephone with President Obama and that the two had agreed to intensify diplomatic and other cooperation toward implementing the cease-fire in Syria.

However, in public remarks, the Russians also seemed to be casting doubt on the prospects for success.

When asked Saturday to assess the chances that the plan would hold, Mr. Lavrov replied, “49 percent.”

Some analysts say the Russians may be keen to ease off around the city in the near term.

Joshua Landis, who heads the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, argues that the cease-fire is “necessary for Russia to finesse international outrage at the terrible human cost of its advances around Aleppo.”

But in the long run, Mr. Landis said, “the cease-fire is going to be a temporary thing because Assad and Russia are committed to taking back all of Syria. We don’t know if they can, but that’s their goal.”

Mr. Assad has vowed to reclaim the entire country, although he has warned it could take a “long time.”

In an interview with Agence France-Presse just hours before the cease-fire plan was announced, Mr. Assad said he backed peace talks but that negotiations do “not mean that we stop fighting terrorism.”

“Regardless of whether we can do that or not, this is a goal we are seeking to achieve without any hesitation,” he said. “It makes no sense for us to say that we will give up any part.”

The advance on Aleppo, meanwhile, has resulted in a fresh surge of Syrian refugees toward the Turkish border and prompted outrage from opposition backers Turkey and Saudi Arabia, both of which have hinted that they may soon respond with direct military engagement of their own inside Syria.

In his Agence France-Presse interview, Mr. Assad admitted that his forces have been fighting to sever the supply line to Aleppo’s opposition rebels from Turkey. He also said that if Turkish or Saudi forces were to intervene militarily inside Syria, his forces would “certainly confront” them.

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