The cease-fire agreement signed at the end of February between the warring sides in Syria has long become meaningless. Each side still continues to count the breaches of the other – but the term “the other side” is also a hazy one. According to the agreement, the rebels are not to be bombed or fought against, except for Islamic State and the Nusra Front (which is affiliated with Al-Qaida).
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In the same accord, the city of Aleppo, which Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces had surrounded on the agreement’s eve, is included in the cease-fire. But as the days passed and the breaches persisted, local battles developed not only between Assad’s army and the rebels, but among groups of rebels. Over the past three weeks it has become clear that Aleppo is also the focus of intense fighting, with the Syrian army operating freely together with the Russian Air Force in the city.
Aleppo is divided into two main parts. The western side is controlled by the regime’s forces; the eastern side, meanwhile, is controlled by the rebels, who are surrounded by Syrian forces. Assad wants to take the entire city, the cease-fire notwithstanding, so he can control the essential routes leading to Turkey in the north and the west, and to ISIS’ de facto capital city, Raqqa, in the east.
The fear that the battles for Aleppo will lead to the official collapse of the cease-fire, and then to the fall of the entire diplomatic process (which was, in any case, in deep freeze) led to a new agreement between the Russians and the Americans on Friday. According to that agreement, Assad’s forces will maintain the cease-fire in Damascus and Latakia, which is mostly under Assad’s control, while the status of Aleppo is to be revisited, but in any event will not now be included in the cease-fire.
It seems that even with this agreement Russia is dictating the rules of the game, as it did with the previous cease-fire and the way it has managed the negotiations thus far, dragging Washington behind.
Russia continues to stand with Assad on the question of the takeover of Aleppo, while Washington is pleased that Russian forces continue to attack ISIS targets and so is turning a blind eye on the dire developments in the northern city. According to reports by Syrian opposition groups, about 200 people have been killed in the city over the past nine days, including patients in a local hospital that was bombed. Shortages of food and medicine have brought the besieged inhabitants to impending human disaster, according to UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura, while the rebels are having a hard time fighting off the aerial assaults or providing civilian services to the inhabitants of the areas under their control.
Aid convoys are unable to cross the Syrian military roadblocks, the sick and wounded cannot be brought to hospitals, and the question is how long the West will stand by and let the Russian-Syrian alliance pound the city.
The battle in Aleppo makes very clear the strategic paradox in which, on the one hand, the West (together with Russia) is focusing most of its efforts on the war against ISIS, and on the other, the forces of the Syrian regime can continue to kill Syrian civilians in much greater numbers than those killed by ISIS in Syria. This paradox has led opposition elements to believe that the United States, despite its declared positions, will want to make Assad its partner in the war against ISIS, even at the expense of the political solution that the rebel groups seek.
The battle for Aleppo also makes clear the extent to which local battles can create strategic turning points and strengthen one side, Russia, at the expense of the Western powers. In the balance of power that has been created around Aleppo, it is highly unlikely there will be anyone to stop the takeover of the city by Assad’s forces or who will be able to help the thousands of people in Syria’s second city.
The logical way out is to reach an agreement for the city’s surrender and thus put an end to the bloodletting and allow the passage of humanitarian aid. This might be the solution arrived at in the coming days, because U.S. forces are not expected to intervene in the battle and the rebel forces will find it hard to stop the Syrian army, operating as it does under a Russian umbrella.
If that is the solution to the cease-fire in Aleppo, it could serve as a model for other local cease-fires, and even lead to a renewal of diplomatic talks in Geneva – but this time with Assad holding a valuable strategic asset that will allow him to determine the next moves.