U.S. Leaves Russia to Sink in the Syrian Mud

A Syrian victory in Aleppo was and remains crucial, not just for reasons of morale but as a springboard to resuming diplomatic talks. A war of attrition seems more likely.

A Civil Defense member tries to put out a fire after an airstrike on al-Jalaa Street in the rebel-held city of Idlib, Syria, August 10, 2016.
Ammar Abdullah/Reuters

In less than 10 minutes, one of Idlib’s main markets was totally destroyed. A series of bombings by President Bashar Assad’s air force left at least 20 people dead and dozens more wounded. Stores went up in flames and homes were demolished.

This was not a strategic bombing aimed at opening a road or doing serious damage to the rebel forces that control large parts of the northwestern city and its environs. It seemed to have been primarily aimed at somewhat blurring the strategic change over the past few days in Aleppo, which has turned the Syrian army from an offensive force besieging the city to a force under siege by militias.

A Jaish al-Fatah force – which unites a group of militias together with the large forces of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (the new name of the Nusra Front) – succeeded not just in breaking through a few main arteries on the ring road that surrounds Aleppo. They also seized several important bases in the city’s southwest, and two military colleges where large Syrian forces were positioned. As a result, a Syrian force on those bases withdrew, and another Syrian force in the city center is now under siege, with no access to part of the rearguard forces.

If last week it seemed that the Aleppo campaign was about to be decided in favor of the Syrian forces and their partners – Iran, Russia and Hezbollah, which recently got a boost of a few hundred fighters – this week, things have changed. It’s still too early to determine if it will be possible for either side to declare victory.

A Syrian victory in Aleppo was and remains crucial, not just for reasons of morale but as a springboard to resuming diplomatic talks.

Syria and Russia had hoped such a victory would allow them to dictate their conditions from a position of strength. Now it seems that the city, with 300,000 people trapped in it, will be the site of continued attrition, even if Russia steps up its attacks.

In this huge city, Syria’s second-largest, airstrikes will not be able to decide the military campaign, particularly since the rebel forces are found in the heart of residential neighborhoods.

It seems that Russia’s military intervention in Aleppo, after declaring in March that it was withdrawing its forces because “all the objectives were achieved,” has only intensified. It presents Russian President Vladimir Putin with a complex challenge. As the one who is actually directing the Syrian strategy, and after it replaced Iran as the military decision maker, Russia must achieve victories in the field, on which it can base the implementation of its diplomatic plan for Syria’s future. Such achievements are especially crucial after it shattered its previous agreements with the United States – starting with the cease-fire signed in February that collapsed shortly afterward, through the agreements of last month in which Russia committed to stop attacking rebel bases and would focus on attacking the forces of the Islamic State and Nusra Front.

Now, it seems that even without a formal declaration, the United States is leaving Russia to sink in the Syrian mud, and is making do with pressing to allow the passage of humanitarian aid to the besieged of Aleppo and other cities. It’s doubtful Washington is too worried about the renewal of relations between Turkey and Russia, or the summit meeting held this week between Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which produced a military, diplomatic and intelligence coordinating body. There are still large gaps between Russia and Turkey on Assad and the preferred solution for Syria. Moreover, Russia continues to aid the Syrian Kurds, whom Turkey defines as a terror group.

Furthermore, Turkey is a NATO member, and that framework is more important to it than any military alliance with Russia – which Turkey has always been suspicious of, even in better times. There are also disputes in the Syrian military theater. Turkey is demanding that Russia not attack rebel bases, including those of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, on grounds that the forces of this militia are geographically adjacent to the bases of “legitimate” rebel forces. Russia, on the other hand, is exploiting this proximity to attack the rebel bases while claiming that, “as agreed,” it is attacking the bases of terror organizations.

The Aleppo arena points to another strategic shift in the perception of the fighting in Syria. If in the beginning the superpowers had been “invited” to intervene to help either the rebel forces or the Syrian regime – to the extent that every Western power and some of the Arab countries had “their” militias that fought as agents of these external interests – it seems as if the order has been reversed.

Russia, the United States, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have themselves become dependent on the victories – or losses – of their militias in the field. This dependence means these countries can’t stop assisting their militias because of the competition between them, while in parallel they are having a hard time dictating military tactics to them or controlling their diplomatic views on Syria’s future. This is hardly the scenario the powers envisioned only a year ago, when Russia began its active military intervention in the country.