The turning point in the battle for Aleppo, where the Assad regime has racked up a major success after years of little progress in Syria’s civil war, happened far from Israel’s borders, but it is nevertheless being closely watched by Israeli intelligence. In Israel’s view, the most important development is that the balance has tilted in favor what it terms the “radical axis” — the Shi’ite alliance led by Iran and Hezbollah, which supports Syrian President Bashar Assad’s Alawite regime.
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Though it almost never says so publicly, Jerusalem would clearly have preferred a continuation of the status quo ante: a war of attrition between the regime and its enemies, whose forces were equal enough that each side had to devote all its resources to this war, thereby largely preventing either from taking any action against Israel. The resounding success in Aleppo won’t merely entrench the Assad regime, but could also bolster the status of its allies and ultimately affect the situation on Syria’s border with Israel in the Golan Heights.
There’s one main reason for the change in the Syrian situation: the deployment of Russian fighter planes to northwestern Syria in late August, and the nationwide aerial assaults they began a month later. Russia’s entry into the picture prevented the regime’s collapse, something Assad had genuinely feared in the spring and summer, and quickly stabilized its defensive lines.
Since January, the regime and its allied Shi’ite militias have also had some minor successes on the ground. But its first major success on the ground happened in the last few days, when regime forces nearly encircled the rebels in Aleppo, thereby cutting them off almost completely from the Turkish border and severing most of their supply lines.
Predictions of a rapid and complete surrender by the rebels in Aleppo still seem a bit premature. Aleppo’s dense urban areas, including many in ruins, will require large forces to capture and make every regime advance costly, especially during the harsh Syrian winter. But refugees are already fleeing Aleppo en masse under massive pounding from Russian planes, more of which have recently arrived.
These planes are conducting sorties throughout Syria, but Aleppo is suffering especially heavy bombing. The regime evidently seeks to complete the encirclement and then impose a lengthy siege on Aleppo to starve the population into submission, as it has done elsewhere in recent months, including in the Shi’ite town of Madaya near the Lebanese border.
Assad’s army, with close Russian and Iranian support, is also pushing the rebels away from the edges of the Alawite region in northwest Syria. And another significant battle is taking place in southern Syria, where the regime is slowly advancing on Daraa.
It has taken time, but Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brutal, uncompromising strategy has begun to bear fruit in Syria. Not only has it saved the Assad regime, an important strategic asset for Russia because of its location on the Mediterranean Sea, but the flood of refugees, which is now expected to increase due to the encirclement of Aleppo, will worsen the unrest and confusion in Europe. Meanwhile Turkey, which challenged Russian policy, is embarrassed by its inability to save the rebels. The Russian-backed assault on Aleppo, which happened just as failed peace talks were taking place in Geneva, did spark Western anger and even a UN condemnation of Russia, but Putin can evidently live with that.
In Aleppo, like elsewhere, the Russians are focusing on attacking rebel groups that endanger the Assad regime. The Islamic State, which is the focus of Western airstrikes, is only a secondary target for the Russians. In any case, it has little presence in Aleppo, though it controls large swathes of territory east of the city.
As Frederic Hof, an American expert on Syria, argued in an article published last week that Putin may have had a clear plan all along. His intervention in Syria was designed to divide the country into two zones of control — one under Assad and one under Islamic State — while gradually eliminating all the other rebel groups. Then, left with a choice between Assad and Islamic State, the West would fight the latter and Assad’s regime would be assured of survival. And in truth, even though Islamic State periodically disseminates horrific films of abuse and murder whose victims are regime soldiers, the group has long since virtually ceased fighting the Syrian dictator directly.
The battle in Aleppo, like the entire war, hasn’t yet been won. But developments there bolster several emerging Israeli conclusions. First, Russia has reinforced its status as a key player in the Middle East, and everyone else must take its views into account. Israel is already doing so, via deconfliction procedures to avoid aerial clashes with the Russians over Syria, but it will have to continue acting cautiously on the northern front so as not to interfere with Moscow’s interests.
Second, the assault on Aleppo, at the height of the Geneva talks, once again highlighted America’s weakness: It can neither save those it repeatedly defined as the good guys in the Syrian war nor block Russia’s influence.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly from the standpoint of Israel’s security, a victory in Aleppo might convince the Assad regime to increase its efforts in southern Syria, in Daraa and then westward toward the Golan Heights. Violent clashes between regime and rebel forces on the Golan would undermine the stability of the Syrian-Israeli border and could ultimately lead to a bigger presence of Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard alongside Israel.