October 1, 2016

Aleppo - the impotence of American diplomacy

The images of the ferocious Russian and Syrian air and missile attacks on Aleppo are heart-breaking - media reports show horrific results. Since the complete collapse of Secretary of State John Kerry's latest attempt to engineer another "cessation of hostilities" between the Syrian coalition and the anti-regime rebels, the fighting has intensified to unprecedented levels.

Little, if any, humanitarian aid - the heart-string issue that originally drove the recent ceasefire attempt - has arrived for people in besieged Syrian cities, including hundreds of thousands in Aleppo. The United Nations will not deliver aid without security assurances from the Bashar al-Asad government, and that is not forthcoming.

Russian and Syrian warplanes have launched an astounding number of airstrikes on anti-regime opposition groups, and almost none against positions of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Moscow's stated reason for deploying force to Syria. No surprise there.

What is a surprise is the ferocity of the Russian air and missile campaign against the hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped in the opposition-controlled areas of Aleppo, as well as opposition controlled cities all over the country. The Russians have also introduced new weapons to complement the terror-inducing barrel bombs dropped by Syrian Air Force helicopters.

The Russians had previously used conventional high-explosive bombs, thermobaric (fuel-air explosive) bombs, and some cluster munitions. However, in the last few weeks, they have added phosphorous incendiary bombs, napalm, and huge "bunker buster" bombs called "shaking" bombs by the residents of Aleppo in reference to the earthquake sensations the bombs produce when they penetrate deeply into buildings before they detonate. They have also deployed rocket launchers firing thermobaric and incendiary weapons into Aleppo. It is reminiscent of Russian attacks on Grozny, Chechnya in 1999-2000.

The Russians and Syrians have gone after the anti-regime rebels with a vengeance, almost as if it is in retaliation for the failure of the ceasefire. The choice of targets in Aleppo is also disturbing - hospitals, blood banks, other medical facilities, civil defense centers, and virtually any infrastructure that might support the rebels in any way. Medical supplies are dwindling fast as doctors attempt to treat the large and increasing number of civilian casualties inflicted by the more lethal ordnance being used.

Why the savage attacks on Aleppo?

The Russian goal in Syria is not the defeat of ISIS, although that would be an additional benefit. Their primary interest in Syria is the survival of the Syrian government and its president, Bashar al-Asad. To guarantee that outcome, the Russians need to destroy or defeat the anti-regime rebels, some supported by the United States, others supported by Turkey, Saudi Arabia or Qatar. Taking Aleppo is a key part of that effort.

The Syrian Army and their supporters are massing for an eventual ground assault to do just that - the ferocious air and missile campaign is the first phase of that operation. Forces from the Syrian Army, the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' Qods Force, Iranian Army, Lebanese Hizballah, Iraq's Badr Corps Shi'a militia, and Afghan Shi'a militiamen, all backed by Russian artillery and air support, will prove to be too much for the opposition forces in and around the city.

Aleppo will fall - it is only a matter of time. The city will come back under regime control - it will be used as a base to launch more attacks on other remaining opposition cities, probably starting with Idlib province, the province that sits between regime-controlled territory in Hamah and the newly-captured city of Aleppo.

If the Russians continue the current pace of air and missile operations and the Shi'a coalition supporting Bashar al-Asad is willing to continue to press the attack on the ground, it is likely that the opposition will be defeated in western Syria. The only viable opposition enclave will be the Kurdish-controlled area in the northwest and northeast areas of the country, and a small Turkish-backed FSA presence between the Kurdish enclaves.

At that point, the Russians will have been successful in achieving their primary goal - the survival of the Ba'ath regime of Bashar al-Asad. Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will have outplayed President Barack Obama and Secretary John Kerry again.

The United States will have to reassess its goals in Syria, which since 2011 have included the removal of Bashar al-Asad. The United States may have to settle for solely focusing on its primary objective - the eradication of ISIS and the former al-Qa'idah affiliate Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.

As for the removal of Bashar al-Asad, I think it safe to say that window of opportunity is rapidly closing if it has not closed already. Even John Kerry, in leaked conversations reported in the New York Times, has said as much. A reading of Kerry's comments indicates he would accept a referendum on the continued governance of the al-Asad regime, in stark contrast to the hard-line American foreign policy of five years ago when President Obama said unequivocally that Bashar al-Asad had to go.

Virtually nothing Secretary Kerry has proposed in Syria has worked - the Russians are now firmly in the driver's seat. The world, especially our allies in the region who feel this Administration has cozied up to the Iranians at their expense, is witnessing the abject failure American foreign policy in Syria. They worry that, when needed, the United States will not be there for them.

If I was them, I would be concerned as well.