By Patrick BAHZAD
It has been several days since the start of the joint Syrian-Russian offensive on Aleppo and here we are again, contemplating an already familiar level of urban devastation and human suffering, wondering which turn events are now going to take in the city that epitomizes what the Syrian civil war stands for. Now obviously, there is no doubt as to the horrendous level of destruction Aleppo has suffered, at the hands of the various actors involved, but such is the fate of cities entangled in prolonged urban combat. The public outrage at the tactics employed by the SAA and its Russian backers can only be attributed to lack of understanding of the mechanics of war in such theatres of operation, combined with a healthy amount of selective memory loss. History is awash with examples of "siege" stories, sectarian strife and civil war destroying the fabric and the people of great cities. However, what is currently unfolding in Aleppo – beyond a level of violence hard to comprehend for most Westerners – is anything but a surprise. SST readers in particular will remember a number of articles published here in the past months that underlined the high probability of what is happening. But unlike six months ago, several geopolitical and military factors have substantially changed the equation and the latest round of fighting looks nothing short of a showdown for Aleppo, possibly for Syria altogether.
A word of advice however before diving into the subject: you better stop counting the stories, editorials and other pieces that our newspapers and TV networks are publishing or airing about Aleppo. Some of this journalism could be regarded as honest reporting not taking into account the contingencies of fighting an enemy embedded with the civilian population in a large urban area. But most it is tainted by a level of hypocrisy that defies the whole purpose of such pieces. What is the empathy for Aleppo worth, when you are not even willing to mention Saudi airstrikes over Yemen in a similar fashion ?
Besides, it may be dangerous to cry "war crimes" and "atrocities" at this point in time, when the US lead Coalition in Iraq is about to launch a major offensive against the so called Islamic State and its capital. The Jihadis in the Middle-East and other places will make sure to remind us of the strong wording used for Aleppo once the onslaught on Mosul will have started. And they will definitely try to point to the bias and double standard of Western media outlets if we do not display the same sense of outrage at the casualties that the offensive on Mosul might cause among the civilians there. Don't throw with stones when you live in a glass house …
Anyway, we shall see how the Coalition handles that siege. Hopefully it will not turn into a slaughterhouse like Aleppo, but in truth, it will be impossible to avoid a "minimal" level of collateral damage, unless you change the ROEs in such a way that a ground offensive will be utterly useless, which brings us back to the current topic. Looking at Aleppo and how things developed into the current situation calls for several factors to be mentioned.
The Moderates … and not so Moderates in Eastern Aleppo
One of the reasons explaining the failure of the latest US-Russian ceasefire agreement is the refusal by what is left of moderate rebels inside Aleppo to break-up with the more radical groups, first and foremost "Jabhat al-Nusra", or whatever other name they like to be called these days. The two major groups that controlled the Eastern neighbourhoods, namely the "Nour al-Din al-Zenki" movement and the "Suqour al-Sham" Brigade, actually joined the Al Qaeda Jihadis and left them in charge of the operational command inside the city.
The fact that this plays right into the hands of the Assad regime and its Russian allies is secondary in the short term, although it provides Putin, Lavrov and Co with enough ammunition to show the world that the so-called "moderates" supported by the US are actually infiltrated or even openly cooperating with Al Qaeda. A number of recent reports about the disastrous relationships between American SFGs and their local trainees bear testimony to this ancient problem.
As for Aleppo, it was definitely not helpful that Nusra moved hundreds of its fighters into the city at a time when the Northern LOC into the city was being cut off by the R+6, and moderates were deserting the city, in anticipation of an onslaught that did not come at that point. Probably, the Turkish handlers of "Zenki" and " Suqour al-Sham" also wanted to call back their local assets through the Western Bab al-Hawa border crossing and send them into their Northern buffer zone, through Bab al-Salameh this time, in order to prevent any attempt by the Kurds to achieve territorial junction between their Afrin enclave and the rest of "Rojava".
What these movements of fighters did to the rebellion inside Aleppo is pretty simple: the moderate leftovers were weakened further, both in numbers and influence, while Nusra took over command and control of the Eastern parts of the city, making good use of the 200 000 civilians living in the area to avoid turning into an easy target for the Syrian or Russian air force.
Breaking the siege, temporarily
To the credit of Nusra, it has to be said that the offensive they organized in order the break the so-called "siege" a few weeks ago would probably never have succeeded were it not for their expertise and determination. Following a string of SVBIED attacks in the South-East of government controlled areas, near the Artillery college, a massive ground offensive took place that finally managed to get a few dozen fighters all the way through to the encircled rebel areas in the East.
While this operation did probably a lot to enhance Nusra's prestige and standing among the rebels, it was nothing short of a scam, probably bordering on the military disaster, such was the loss of resources and manpower incurred by the rebels. Ignorant media outlets all over the world praised the rebels' victory for days and days, not realizing the only thing they managed to get through were a couple of rusty trucks carrying a few vegetables boxes. In truth though, the offensive cost the rebels hundreds of casualties and the ground they conquered was always covered by fire, whether from SAA artillery or Syrian and Russian fighter jets.
Two weeks later, the "hole" Nusra had punched through R+6 lines had been plugged again, only this time, the situation of the rebels was more dire than ever before. They had played their trump card when they staged their surprise offensive, but they had failed to achieve a game changer. They had not even managed to turn their progress into a stalemate. Time had come for the US to step in, once again, in an attempt that Obamanites would describe as "a negotiated settlement to the crisis". That is certainly one way of looking at what took place during the discussions between John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov. Cynics however could argue that the entire process undertaken by the US administration, in particular the State Department, was to stall for time, in the hope the rebels in Northern Syria might either accept the terms they were offered or be given enough time to regroup and start all over.
Negotiating as a way to stall for time … or avoid defeat
Probably all too aware of the seriousness of the situation, Secretary of State John Kerry candidly described what was in store for Aleppo should negotiations fail at that point: "What's the alternative? The alternative is to allow us to go from 450,000 people who've been slaughtered to how many thousands more? That Aleppo gets completely overrun? That the Russians and Assad simply bomb indiscriminately for days to come, and we sit there and do nothing? That's the alternative to trying to get this done, if America is not going to go in with their troops — and America's made the decision we're not going in with our troops. And the president's made that decision".
Kerry said this two weeks ago and for all the belligerent and irresponsible bullshit being uttered lately by the State Department's spokesman, he is right. There is no alternative to the US coming to terms with Russia and Assad over Syria, unless they are willing to go to war with Syria – and Russia – as was very eloquently explained by the current CJCS, General Dunford, to a quite stunned Senate Armed Services Committee on September 22nd.
Today, it is clear to everyone that the ceasefire agreement negotiated by the US and Russia is dead and buried. Contrary to popular belief, which seems to blame exclusively the Russians for that failure, this is good news for any actor in favor of a military solution to the conflict. In Riyadh in particular, they are probably celebrating – behind closed doors – at the news of another US foreign policy fiasco.
Let's not forget that the Saudis were the last regional actor to approve the ceasefire, way after the Turks, which perfectly illustrates how much they opposed Kerry's renewed diplomatic offensive. Lots is being said about the Russians' disregard for the rules of international diplomacy, but if you are looking for one regional power that is genuinely reckless in its policies and has nothing but contempt for any loss of life outside its borders, no need to look further than Saudi-Arabia.
The politicians in Riyadh want Assad removed by any means necessary, make no mistake. In traditional Saudi fashion, they are willing to put in lots of money into such an enterprise, an endeavor that actually translates into pouring oil onto the Syrian fire … To the Saudis, the latest attempt at a ceasefire – brokered by alien powers, i.e. the US and Russia – is totally unacceptable. They were and still are willing to fight to the last Syrian in order to get what they desire so much: a Syrian State that will be an empty shell, something resembling Libya maybe, with anybody basically fighting anybody else, just to make sure their Iranian foes lose a major ally in the region.
Fact is the Kerry–Lavrov ceasefire would have kept Assad in power, at least for a transitional period. In other words, the ceasefire was a big "no, no" for the Saudis. That many Syrian women and children might die as a consequence of the Saudis' "all in" attitude does not bother anybody in Riyadh. After all, the Saudis' open disregard for human life in Yemen is proof enough of the Kingdom's general outlook on international law.
Riyadh's objectives in Syria are clear and unchanged. They want Assad gone and they will do whatver it takes to try and drag the US into doing their military bidding on the ground. People in D.C. better be aware: Riyadh still has a few tricks up its sleeves and just as they don't care about Syrian civilians, they won't care much more about US servicemen being killed in a new Syrian adventure. That is the Saudi way. It has been their trademark for decades and it is not about to change anytime soon.
The Siege of Eastern Aleppo
Reality on the ground, on the streets of Aleppo, is obviously light years away from such considerations, yet it is the result of the balance of military and diplomatic power that keeps shifting one way or the other in this five year old conflict. Currently, following the much vaunted yet failed rebel offensive of August and September, we are looking at a potential game changer unfolding. All this could have happened in February or March of 2016 already, but a combination of factors – from Turkey's "cold war" with Russia to the climatic conditions in the Middle-Eastern spring – prevented such an outcome. This has now changed.
For one thing, Sultan Erdogan seems to have come to terms with Tsar Putin. We do not know the exact nature of the agreement Turkey and Russia have reached, but it is pretty safe to assume that the Turks have accepted to stop, or at least significantly reduce their support to the rebel groups in Northern Syria in exchange for a normalization of their relations with Moscow and a Russian "laisser faire" when it comes to the Turkish army's dealings with Kurdish separatism. Add into the mix the upcoming US Presidential elections and you'll get a totally different background. The Assad regime and the Russian military probably consider they now have a 5-6 months long window to achieve their ideal end state situation.
As far as Aleppo is concerned, this means basically obliterating the rebellion, or push them into the arms of Nusra and other Jihadi groups, thus turning them into an unacceptable actor for the US and its allies. From the regime point of view, the main issue is to convince the civilians of Eastern Aleppo to "leave" their neighborhoods. Now the means used to achieve such a goal are not very elegant, but when you are fighting in an urban area, there are not that many options open to you from a military perspective. You can either fight with civilians present, and incur civilian casualties on a level Aleppo has not witnessed yet, or you can do whatever it takes to push civilians into leaving.
For the rebels of course, the equation is the opposite. They need to keep as many woman and children in the areas they control, so as to avoid large scale airstrikes and artillery shellings, or exploit the civilian casualties in nicely organized PR-campaigns. One side will argue about civilians being deliberately targeted by the regime, while the other will accuse the rebels of hiding behind "human shields". Such is the nature of urban combat. It is one of the most deadly and horrendous forms of warfare, but it is not an unwinnable one, that is something a number of commentators in the West seem to have forgotten when they talk about Aleppo.
US options ?
No need to look further than the NYT to have an idea of the abysmal level of ignorance when it comes to such military matters. Max Fisher's piece of September 28th, "Russia's Brutal Bombing of Aleppo May be Calculated", is a perfect example. A blatant disregard for the facts on the ground, a deep rooted misunderstanding of the balance of power in the Middle-East in general, and Syria in particular, and a gross misrepresentation of Russian tactics … So much for unbiased reporting !
True, the R+6 are trying to drive civilians out of key areas of Eastern Aleppo. Who wouldn't ? Rebels control an area that is home to somewhere between 150 000 and 200 000 people. Government controlled Western Aleppo on the other hand has around 1 000 000 inhabitants, a fact that is also often forgotten by those clamoring about Assad's "siege of Aleppo". Nonetheless, trying to take hold of an urban environment with 200 000 noncombatants present is a tricky business for any armed force, as we shall probably see when the time comes to take back Mosul.
In all likelihood, the SAA and its allies will carry on their current offensive until they are satisfied that their local foes won't be able to prevent an exodus of civilians from the key areas that need to be controlled in order to take over all of Aleppo. At that point, they will offer some sort of truce, opening up "humanitarian corridors", so that civilians who may want to do so can leave the city. Anybody not taking up the R+6 on their offer will probably have to accept the consequences …
Cities as the ultimate (winnable) battlefield
You may argue this is unethical and bordering on "war crimes". Maybe so, maybe not. Hard to prove in any case. The truth of the matter is, it makes no difference in the end. Cities are battlefields with rules of their own. They are definitely NOT unwinnable, as recently underlined by a well documented French book on the subject ("L'ultime champ de bataille – Combattre et vaincre en ville").
For the R+6, the outlook is pretty good. The US are hamstrung by their Presidential election. The Saudis and other Gulfies are willing yet unable to provide the rebels with the necessary hardware to resist much longer, if Turkey sticks to its deal with Russia. In the South, Damascus has had the upper hand for quite a while, courtesy of a Russian brokered deal with Jordan. In the East, the Iraqi government has also reached a "modus vivendi" with Assad and Putin some time ago. What is left to gain access to the Syrian meat grinder does not amount to much: a few areas in lawless Northern Lebanon, no more. In this context, and however brutal the R+6 offensive on Eastern Aleppo may look like, it certainly provides Assad and its allies with the best opportunity in months, maybe years, to strike a devastating and possibly decisive blow in this war.