The encirclement of Aleppo, if completed, will be not only the Assad regime’s greatest accomplishment in the Syrian civil war. It will also mark the end of the U.S. administration’s pretensions in the Middle East.
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Under the cover of heavy Russian airstrikes and with the aid of Shi’ite militias from several countries, the regime’s death squads are advancing toward the siege, starvation and perhaps the eventual conquest of Syria’s second-biggest city. Success there is liable to encourage the dictator in Damascus to gamble on similar measures in southern and northwest Syria. Washington looks on with a combination of worry and helplessness, while the American public is preoccupied with the presidential primaries and the Oscars.
President Bashar Assad’s rivals in Syria are far from angels. The atrocities committed by the Islamic State organization and the Al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front have been thoroughly documented, often by the groups themselves. Even the so-called moderate rebel militias which have gotten aid from the West have not hesitated in many cases to murder and torture their enemies.
Still, according to all the estimates published by monitoring groups in Syria and beyond, the regime is responsible for not only the lion’s share of civilian deaths (nearly 300,000 in the five years of the conflict), but also mass murder, rape, starvation and abuse. A United Nations report published this week accuses the regime of a policy of extermination in its prisons.
If Assad’s brutality had previously been seen as a desperate battle for survival by a regime in retreat before the methodical conquests of the rebels, all that changed after Russia entered the picture last fall. The deployment of the Russian air force in northern Syria first helped stabilize the regime’s defense lines, and over the past month it has enabled it to launch a ground offensive that has achieved some early successes.
Like Assad, the Russians have unleashed unfettered power. In January alone they conducted 3,000 sorties over Syria, compared to only 800 in October. Their preferred tactic is carpet bombing, even though its armaments are more accurate than the barrel bombs used by the Syrian air force. Reliable reports from Syria say that in many cases the Russian aircraft bomb targets twice within a short period, with the second attack aimed at the rescue personnel trying to pull people out of the rubble.
The rebels’ marginal anti-aircraft capabilities are no competition for Russian air power. Under those circumstances, the ground forces assisting the Syrian army don’t have to be particularly large. Between 15,000 and 18,000 foreign combatants are fighting alongside government forces. Over a third are from Hezbollah, around 1,000 are from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and the remainder are members of Shi’ite militias from Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
In the face of Syrian dominance, the West has folded. The firm demand for Assad’s removal has been replaced by mumblings about the need for him to leave and a willingness for the country to be divided between the regime and the rebels after Assad and a handful of generals and associates, central accessories to his war crimes, leave the state. It’s a demand the dictator and his cronies have no intention of accepting, particularly when the scales seem tipped in their favor.
Over the past year the West’s priorities in Syria have significantly changed. The Americans and the Europeans have more urgent goals than ending the massacres of civilians. The first is halting the wave of Syrian refugees knocking on Europe’s doors. (Paradoxically, the advance of the regime’s forces in Aleppo is only intensifying the stream of refugees into Turkey.) The second is preventing terror attacks in Europe by jihadis who gained experience on the Syrian battlefields. When these issues, and not the atrocities of the Syrian regime, become the main ones, Assad — and Iran, in light of the nuclear agreement signed in July — seem less like the problem and more like part of the solution.
In retrospect, the seeds of this change were planted long before the Russian planes arrived. The turning point was in August 2013, when U.S. President Barack Obama threatened to bomb Damascus after over 1,000 civilians were murdered with chemical weapons, but was forced to back down when the British Parliament voted against joining such attacks. Opposition in Washington increased, and Russia suggested instead an agreement to destroy Assad’s chemical weapons.
From Israel’s perspective, this agreement was a positive one; there is a reasonable assessment that 99 percent of chemical weapons in Syrian territory have been removed. But the Americans’ restraint despite red lines being crossed signaled to Assad that he had nothing more to fear from the West.