Analysis

Russian Strategy in Aleppo: Delay Diplomacy, Let Shi'ite Militias Finish the Job

Assad won't win the city by Russian airpower alone, but he stands a chance with Iranian-backed militias fresh from the battle for Mosul.

Asaib Ahl al-Haq Shi'ite militia fighters.
Reuters

“Our Western colleagues need to decide whether they’re fighting terrorists or Russia,” Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu said this week during a meeting with senior Russian officers.

It’s the new form that the Cold War has taken, with its new epicenter in Syria, specifically the city of Aleppo. The United States has two options, according to Shoygu: Be pro-Russia or support terror – with Russia defining who’s a terrorist.

It’s doubtful whether Russia is overly frustrated by Washington’s failure to “rein in” the groups defined by Russia as terrorists, because as long as the United States doesn’t provide the goods agreed with Russia – to create space between the Levant Front (formerly the Nusra Front) and the groups described as legitimate rebels – Russia can say it may continue its attacks on Aleppo, even when they reap hundreds of civilian dead.

Russia is currently playing the role of the righteous, having forgone airstrikes for more than two weeks. It’s also reporting that the Syrian regime is keeping open eight humanitarian crossings through which aid convoys are passing into Aleppo.

But at the same time, Shoygu is warning that the renewal of diplomatic talks to find a solution to the crisis will be “deferred until an unknown date” if Washington doesn’t rein in its allies.

Rebel fighters stand with their weapons inside a building in western Aleppo on November 3, 2016
Ammar Abdullah/Reuters

That, of course, is a puzzling statement because negotiations aren’t dependent on a separation of forces between the “moderate” rebels and the Levant Front, just as the meetings that were held in Switzerland and Vienna weren’t contingent on the existence of talks or the drawing of lines of action to end the crisis.

It would be correct to view the Russian condition as a convenient excuse to delay any diplomatic move until Aleppo’s fate has been decided militarily. Paradoxically, Washington is lending Russia a certain legitimacy, with Secretary of State John Kerry having clarified that he needs more time to persuade the countries that support the rebels to go along with the separation between the rebels and the Levant Front. The truth is, the rebels in the Aleppo area are partnering closely with the Levant Front due to its military capabilities.

While the leaders of the two superpowers exchange diplomatic blows from which it’s clear who’s in control of events on the ground, Russia has issued another warning: The cessation of airstrikes isn’t permanent and Moscow will reexamine the issue in the near future, particularly in light of the rebel attacks on “residential areas, schools and clinics in Aleppo.”

“If the cease-fire ends it won’t be possible to resume it,” the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman warned.

The fighting in parts of Aleppo has not ceased. Unlike Mosul in Iraq, in which the Islamic State is in control and the fighting has a clear goal – to sweep clear the ISIS fighters and return the city to Iraqi government control – in Aleppo the fighting is for sovereignty, influence and Syria’s future. 

Aleppo is a highly important strategic asset for both the Syrian regime and Russia, occupying the junction connecting Syria to Turkey and Damascus to the country’s other large cities. But beyond that, the conquest of Aleppo is similar in many respects to the capture of a capital city.

It could give Assad the psychological, military and diplomatic victory providing the turning point he’s aiming for. It would deprive the rebels the power to force Assad to accept a new political arrangement and prevent them from achieving the territorial contiguity to divide the country into cantons.

That doesn’t mean the rebel struggle against Assad will end with the conquest of Aleppo, but it will give Assad’s army and his allies Russia and Iran the impetus to continue running the country “until 2021, the date on which my legal tenure will end,” as Assad explained to foreign journalists in Damascus last week. That claim is based on the results of the 2014 election in which Assad won 88.7 percent of the vote.

To achieve his aim, Assad will have to rely not only on Russian air support. The war in Aleppo will be decided only by ground forces in bloody warfare from street to street and alley to alley. Russia might bomb Aleppo to smithereens, U.S. Senator John McCain has warned, at a time when pictures of the awful destruction highlight the smithereens it’s already in.

The ground forces that Assad needs are expected to come from Iraq, namely the Shi’ite militias that are taking part in the fighting for Mosul. According to the commanders of the militia, which are financed and trained by Iran, the goal is to get to Syria after Mosul has been cleared. As the head of the Revolutionary Guards said last week, “Iran will determine the situation on the ground in Syria.”

It’s not yet clear whether the militias will wait for the complete liberation of Mosul or leave for Syria earlier. According to reports by Syrian opposition websites, Shi’ite militias are already active in Syria and assisting the Syrian army in the Aleppo area, in part by taking control of positions previously held by Hezbollah, which has reduced its involvement in the fighting due to high casualties.

The strategy of the Syrian army and the Russians also needs to take into account the presence of Turkish forces, which continue to operate with the Free Syrian Army to prevent the establishment of Kurdish territorial contiguity. Turkey may be bombing the Islamic State, but it recently ceased its airstrikes against the Kurdish rebels after Assad warned that his planes would down Turkish jets flying over Syria.

According to reports in the Turkish media, Russia has committed to cooperate with Ankara to prevent what the Turks call “the American scheme” to establish a Kurdish corridor along the Syrian border with Turkey.