The Expert View: The Significance of Aleppo

Pro-government forces are pushing to seal off the last northern rebel stronghold from its only supply routes, a siege on Aleppo city looks imminent, and the temporary cease-fire set to begin at the end of the week looks increasingly unlikely to happen. But has the war reached a turning point?

Written by Dylan Collins Published on Read time Approx. 9 minutes

As the deadline closes on the implementation of the agreed-upon “cessation of hostilities” across Syria, Russian airstrikes continue to pound northern Aleppo, and ground fighting rages on.

World powers agreed last week in Munich to a limited cease-fire in Syria by Friday, but the agreement was not signed by any of the warring parties.

And although several Western countries had hoped a pause in ground fighting would bring about a halt in Russian bombing, Moscow has said the “cessation” does not apply to its airstrikes, which have shifted the momentum of the civil war over the past few months in Assad’s favor.

A government-imposed siege on Syria’s northernmost city looks increasingly more likely. But with Bashar Al-Assad making public promises to retake control of the entire country and Moscow cautioning him on the dire consequences of not following Russia’s lead on a return to peace talks, many have raised the possibility of a fallout between the allies.

Syria Deeply spoke with Frederic Hof, a former ambassador and resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, and Hassan Hassan, a Syria expert with the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, about the strategic importance of Aleppo, the likelihood of a “cessation of hostilities” by the end of the week, and the difference in endgames between Damascus and Moscow.

Syria Deeply: Would a siege on Aleppo be a game changer for Russia and the Assad regime?

Frederic Hof: A siege of Aleppo would add about 250,000 people to the 1 million Syrians already besieged, the overwhelming majority by the Assad regime. As over 20 reports by Ban Ki-moon testify, the regime systematically denies access by U.N. humanitarian aid convoys to these areas. So a besieged Aleppo would change an already abysmal game to something even worse. There is no evidence of Moscow seeking an exit from Syria, graceful or otherwise. The nature of the Russian military campaign suggests that President Vladimir Putin wishes to neutralize all alternatives to Assad and ISIS in the hope that Washington will embrace Assad and thus implicitly renounce “regime change.” It is not unthinkable that he could succeed.

Dmitri Trenin: Aleppo can be a game changer for the Syrian conflict. It could lead: (1) to a cease-fire along the lines of the Munich agreement of February 11, or (2) to a widening of the war, with Turkey and Saudi Arabia entering the war directly, and on a large scale, or (3) to a turning point in the war with Assad ascending. Moscow at this point is hardly looking for an exit from Syria. The crucial issue is whether the United States and Russia can collaborate in making sure that the Syrian sides and the regional powers accept a path toward political settlement. In Munich last Saturday, Secretary John Kerry talked about a hinge moment that the Syria situation has reached. Since then, Putin and Obama spoke over the phone.

Hassan Hassan: The Russian intervention, especially given the recent developments, is already a game changer. The rules of engagement have changed. The opposition’s calculations and strategic goals have already been affected. Their goal of removing Bashar al-Assad or toppling the regime is far less realistic than it was before, at least in the past three years. But we have to also be realistic about what the regime can achieve in Aleppo and elsewhere. Perspective is important. What the Russian intervention is doing is compensating for the shortage of manpower. The regime’s lack of ground troops is acute, and that’s not going to change anytime soon.

Russia’s intervention has definitely given the regime the ability to break the opposition in certain areas and take back territory. It will continue to take more area and confuse the opposition and weaken regional ambitions regarding the removal of the regime. But the regime will not be able to take Aleppo. That’s for sure. If you look at the areas of control in Aleppo, airstrikes and bombing in the eastern, opposition-held areas become very difficult.

The only game changer at the moment is that the rules of engagement have changed. The Western appetite for removing the regime has dramatically decreased. The regional ability to control and influence what’s happening on the ground has also been weakened. So in that sense, there has been a significant change. But we have to be realistic about the constraints on both sides. The regime doesn’t have enough forces to take over the rebel areas or hold onto them. They cannot magically become an advancing force that takes over new areas like they did in 2012. They were much stronger then. There is only so much the Russian campaign can change. People are devastated morally, for sure, but there are limits to what the Russian campaign can do in terms of lasting change and to what the regime’s ground forces can achieve.

Syria Deeply: What is the likelihood that the “cessation of hostilities” agreed to in Munich will be implemented by the end of the week?

Frederic Hof: There can be no meaningful cessation of hostilities as long as Russia, Iran, Iran’s Shia foreign fighters and the Assad regime exempt themselves from it. They all claim it does not apply to them, that they are targeting “terrorists” and fighting to restore the authority of the “legitimate Syrian government.” So the chances of implementing a cessation of hostilities consistent with the meaning of the phrase (and the understanding of nearly all International Syria Support Group members) appear to be zero.

Dmitri Trenin: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s guess is 49%, German Foreign Affairs Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s is 51%. From John McCain to Assad, skepticism about the chances of the agreement’s implementation is strong. Again, U.S.-Russian cooperation will be crucial. Absent that, the deal will fall through.

Hassan Hassan: It’s hard to tell. When [Russia] agreed to a cessation of hostilities, they probably meant a de-escalation. It was largely to appease the West. There are practical reasons why that’s not possible. The entire point of Russia’s campaign, the heavy-handed bombardment, is to inflict fear in the opposition and also neutralize extremist forces and their ability to maneuver and mobilize. The heavy-handed approach will continue, and I don’t think anything can be done to stop that. They might say that they’ll stop attacking certain areas, but on the frontlines, when there are moving targets, they can always claim that they are targeting al-Nusra-led hostilities … The United Nations has already admitted that they cannot monitor this sort of move. So if we’re being realistic about it, I don’t think the Russians and the regime will stop the campaign or even de-escalate it in any meaningful way. The regime relies on this type of disproportionate violence. Let’s not forget that the regime’s recent advances in Aleppo and Daraa happened because of this campaign; not because of anything else. It’s not because the regime, all of a sudden, has better tactical planning or because it had a sudden increase in troops. It happened because of the airstrikes. Without these airstrikes the regime would suffer. Based on that, I don’t think the campaign will be reduced anytime soon.

Syria Deeply: What is Russia’s endgame in Syria? And are Putin’s and Assad’s interests in Syria identical?

Frederic Hof: For President Putin, Syria is a stepping stone toward the restoration of Russia’s great power status. This is of enormous domestic political importance to him. Putin claims that the U.S. has been on a regime change and democratization jihad since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. He calculates – largely on the basis of the disconnect between official American rhetoric and action – that he can stop the alleged American agenda cold in Syria. Beyond that, he cares nil for Syria, its people or his client: Assad. Assad’s political survival, however, is his key to victory. Putin will have won if Barack Obama or his successor is forced to embrace Assad as an ally against ISIS. He also hopes that his resolute support of a client – even someone so unimpressive and needy as Bashar al-Assad – will resonate positively with other Middle Eastern authoritarian rulers.

Putin’s interests and those of Assad remain aligned so long as Putin is pursuing his goal of presenting the American president with a binary “choice” between Assad and ISIS. So long as the Russian president is engaged in this pursuit, he and Assad agree totally on the only thing of mutual interest: political survival at the head of family-directed regime. If and when Putin achieves his goal, his interest in perpetuating Assad will probably wane. But until then, they are totally on the same page. The only “negotiated” settlement that interests Russia is one in which Assad retains full executive power during the transitional period and the right to run in the next presidential election. Assad would be just fine with this. A dividend for Putin in all of this – and something that disturbs Assad not at all – is the poisonous effect the Syrian migration crisis is having on the politics of NATO and E.U. states.

Dmitri Trenin: Russia would want: (1) U.S. recognition of its status as a great power (achievable through a Dayton à deux-style agreement presided over by Washington and Moscow); (2) a confirmation of Russia’s role in the Middle East (by means of winning peace on more or less its terms in Syria; closer relations with Iran, Iraq and Egypt; a measure of respect in the Gulf States); (c) a friendly, if reformatted, regime in Damascus; (d) ISIS defeated by Syrian government forces, Hezbollah and the Iranians, with Russian air support, and driven out of the Syrian territory.

[Their] interests intersect, up to a point. Assad knows he cannot win without Russia’s support, and moreover, that he is still in Damascus thanks to the Russian intervention. That gives Putin a lot of leverage with Assad. Putin will not abandon his ally, but he will expect Assad to cooperate when needed. In 2013, Putin got Assad to agree to give up Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal. Since then, Moscow’s influence in Damascus has much grown.

Hassan Hassan: The endgame for Russia and the regime is one and the same. They might disagree about how to get there, but the endgame is the same, being the regime in control of the entire country, and Bashar al-Assad in power for the time being. Because for practical reasons, neither the regime nor its backers in Tehran or Moscow can afford to remove Assad for now. He has a psychological authority. His continued presence has a psychological presence on whether or not the regime will crumble. Maybe Russia can say that they could get rid of Assad eventually, but I don’t think he is dispensable at this moment. He holds the regime together. He can make a call to Latakia, or to Daraa, to Aleppo or even to Qamishli and make things happen. No other person can do that, including high-ranking generals within the regime. If he goes, there will be problems. With the uncertain situation in Syria at the moment, the endgame for Russia, Iran and the regime is for the regime to gradually take back control of the entire country and for Bashar al-Assad to stay in power, which will bring stability back to Syria, and will allow it to be reintegrated back into the regional and international order.

I think the Russians are using the same playbook, the same script. The regime probably got its script from Russia in the first place, which is bombing and using disproportionate violence in targeted areas so that the regime can amass its forces enough to take each area back. The short-term goal is to stabilize and secure the heartland of the regime, which is Hama, Homs, northern Latakia, Aleppo and its rural areas, the areas around Damascus. Taking Deir Ezzor and Raqqa are long-term objectives. The regime doesn’t have the resources or the appetite to go there at the moment. They are delaying any kind of hostilities with the Kurds because the Kurds are indirectly “doing their job” by fighting the rebels and ISIS. They’ll focus on the more pressing issue, which is northern Syria. And that is basically being done to neutralize Turkey. The Kurds have secured the areas east of the Euphrates and now the regime is focusing on securing the border to the west, although the Kurds are also helping with that, too. Securing the Jordanian border will come next. They have a standing agreement with the Jordanians and Russia, but eventually they’ll move to secure all the borders and enforce their sovereignty. That’ll be the medium-term objective.

If the regime takes Aleppo and the surrounding areas, it will have no interest in negotiating. It’s a bit of a slippery slope. The regime wants to make gains so that it can go comfortably to negotiations, but once it is a little bit stable in these areas, it won’t need to talk about anything. It will have even more momentum to move forward. If the regime succeeds in Aleppo, it will be emboldened to go even further.

Top image: Fghting around Syria’s largest city of Aleppo has brought government forces closer to the Turkish border than at any point in recent years, routing rebels from key areas and creating a humanitarian disaster as tens of thousands of people flee. (Associated Press)

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