In the year since Russia began its air offensive in Syria, it has become clear that the depleted forces of its ally Bashar al-Assad cannot match its air strikes with momentum on the ground. Moscow’s solution to this manpower shortage is now on full display in Aleppo: to increase the ferocity of the bombardment so as to obliterate the target, to turn the rebel-held east of Syria’s great trading capital into the Grozny of this pitiless war .
It is, by now, an almost intrinsic part of the Syrian horror that the latest spiral of carnage should accelerate out of a ceasefire linked to diplomacy that Russia, the Assad regime’s chief international patron, has conducted with some duplicity.
There were two headline events that unravelled the brief cessation. First, US jets killed 62 Assad loyalist soldiers, confusing them with Isis jihadis, the Pentagon said. The response was last Monday’s air strike on a humanitarian convoy near Aleppo that killed 20 civilians and aid workers and destroyed 18 out of 31 trucks, for which Moscow denies any responsibility. The Assad government had, by then, formally ended the truce.
Yet, in practice, the regime’s attempt to recapture Aleppo, launched two months ago after heavy Russian bombing of the east of the city, paused only briefly. After rebel forces spearheaded by jihadis last month blew a corridor through the south-west of the crumbling city to break the regime siege, Russian and Syrian jets kept bombing intensively to close it. But what is happening now is of a different order.
This war has seen the massacre of civilians in rebel enclaves through a combination of barrel bombs, cluster bombs, white phosphorous and chemical shells, as well as regime forces using starvation and siege as routine tactics. To this we must now add the use of very high explosive bunker buster bombs against civilian targets. The assault is hitting water and food supplies and continues to target already skeletal rescue and medical services, in a situation where there are only 30 doctors left for the 250,000 people trapped in eastern Aleppo.
In angry scenes at the UN Security Council in New York, Samantha Power, the US ambassador, denounced Russia for “barbarism”; Matthew Rycroft, her British counterpart, spoke of “war crimes”; and François Delattre, the French envoy, said: “Aleppo is to Syria what Sarajevo was to Bosnia or what Guernica was to the Spanish [civil] war”. If anything, and even by the standards of a war that has already killed up to half a million people and displaced half the population, this could turn out worse.
It looks as though Russia, having concluded that its Syrian and Iranian allies on the ground are unable to recapture rebel Aleppo, plans to raze it to the ground.
Moscow, whose nearly half century-long relationship with the Assad clan’s dictatorship has mainly been army-to-army, has had a year to conclude that the Syrian Arab Army has all but collapsed, and given way to a network of militias and private armies. A devastating assessment of the Assad army by a Russian military expert that appeared recently on a Kremlin-friendly outlet said “the Syrian armed forces have not conducted a single successful military offensive during the past year”, and echoed opposition claims they were basically running an extortion racket through a chain of sieges and network of thousands of checkpoints.
Unable to defeat an array of Sunni rebels, Russia has decided to destroy their civilian milieu on behalf of its Syrian ward, and drive them from the urban wasteland of what will constitute the perimeter of a rump Assad state in the coastal west of the country. All this amid the sort of double talk that enables Vitaly Churkin, the Russian envoy to the UN, to praise the Assad regime for its “admirable restraint”. Or, as Tacitus had it, “they make a desert and call it peace”. Will the world stand idly by in the face of this new Grozny, an extermination that will live in the annals of infamy?
Given the differing strategic aims of the main external actors, why not? President Vladimir Putin’s goal seems to be a spectacular comeback in the Middle East that gives him leverage in Europe, while President Barack Obama, in his articulate paralysis over Syria, is fixated on driving Isis out of its Syrian and Iraqi strongholds. Iran seems determined to use its expeditionary militias to cement its influence in Arab capitals of the Levant, while Turkey’s once-ambitious regional policy is now entirely devoted to halting any further Kurdish advances. Put another way, the jihadis would seem to have everyone where they want them — high time they all realise Syria is a geopolitical cockpit that will end by destabilising them all.
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