The 12-hour long meeting U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry held last week with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, bore very little fruit. The main achievement was the decision to reach a resolution of the Syrian crisis “in stages,” starting with focusing Russian attacks on Islamic State, or ISIS, and stopping the Russian assaults on rebel concentrations. According to this agreement, the rebels will gather in well-defined areas, making it easier to distinguish between the ISIS forces and those of the Nusra Front, which is defined as a terrorist organization. The inability to identify the different groups has been used as an excuse by Russia for attacking other militias.
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The next phase, according to the plan, will deal with the status of Bashar Assad, without specifying a date or the manner in which the president is to be removed, if at all.
This new arrangement worries the rebels, who are well acquainted with the impotence of the U.S. administration, which so far has been unable to implement earlier agreements, the key one being a cease-fire accord struck in February. The opposition is worried by the prospect of the administration viewing the agreement with Russia as a “last chance” for continued U.S. involvement in the Syrian crisis: Indeed, if the new scheme also falters, Washington will likely leave Moscow with total responsibility for handling it. This would mean an intensification of fighting on all fronts and a total freeze of the diplomatic process, which in any case has been going nowhere.
One of the major tests for implementation of the Russian-American plan is now unfolding in the city of Aleppo, in which between 200,000 and 300,000 people are besieged and under heavy bombardment by the Syrian Army, assisted by Iranian forces and Hezbollah fighters.
Russia has started airlifting supplies to the trapped civilians and Assad has declared an amnesty for anyone putting down their weapons, but only a few residents have managed to actually receive any assistance. Government-issued photos of a few rebels handing over their arms will not stem the course of battle.
Aleppo, which has been devastated over the last three years, is now divided between its eastern and western sectors. The latter parts are controlled by Assad's forces whereas the rebels rule the eastern sections. They are composed mainly of forces affiliated with Jabhat al-Fatah – an umbrella organization that unites several large militias such as the Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham. Estimates are that they include more than 20,000 fighters, equipped with several dozen tanks, and that they are being financed by Arab states.
Monday it was reported that rebel forces had downed a Russian helicopter with five crew members and officers. The rebels also manage occasionally to destroy government tanks or to carry out suicide attacks that have caused many deaths among civilians and the Syrian Army. Their spokesmen say that they’ve broken through a few government-controlled areas in Aleppo, allowing civilians to escape the city.
Even though the disparity in capabilities between the rebel and the military forces is huge, the rebels have proven, in other cities, that sometimes a relatively small force that knows the area well is sufficient to block the advance of the Syrian Army, but this is insufficient when it comes to determining the outcome of the warfare.
This is why the battle for Aleppo is so important, since a victory there could generate a strategic and diplomatic turning point. A Syrian Army victory in taking the city will constitute a huge blow to the morale of the rebels and will provide Assad's troops with vital control of several important routes and junctions, enabling them to rapidly deploy in other areas in the north and east of the country. In contrast, a prolonged strong stand by the rebels could prove costly in blood, both military and civilian, and lead to broader Russian intervention in order to break those groups.
This is, therefore, a battle whose results will have implications for other military hot spots in other parts of the country, as well as for future diplomatic negotiations. The conquest of Aleppo would grant Assad and Russia the turning point they need in order to announce a strategic victory, from which they’ll be able to come to negotiations from a position of strength, while the rebels and their allies will have to, according to Syrian estimates, accept the dictates of the regime.
Aleppo has thus become a bloody political arena in which Western powers are sitting and waiting on the sidelines, without intervening, waiting for the outcome and for the right elements who will be able to join and upgrade developments on the diplomatic scene. However, even if the battle in Aleppo ends decisively, Washington lacks any real plans for it. Since the administration agreed to postpone discussion of Assad’s future, it is unwilling to deploy ground forces to help the rebels (other than small-scale forces assisting in the fight against ISIS). The U.S. is powerless to resolve disputes among pro-Western militias and it has no lever with which to force Russia to change its attitude towards Assad. It will therefore have to continue accepting Russian dictates, which could also determine combat plans against ISIS, which are not a Russian priority.