Aleppo’s peace conundrum?


S Qamar Afzal Rizvi

UNDENIABLY, the ongoing war in Aleppo is a reflection on multiple conflict/interplay of interests between regional and international actors. Both Washington and Moscow are engaged to preserve their own interests in the region; whereas the rebels and the Daesh-supported ethnic groups tend to forcefully defend their respectively indoctrinated motives. If no confluent and workable peace strategy is galvanized into action, the Aleppo war might expand into the whole Middle East.
After heavy bombardment— by the Russian and the Assad forces — transforming Aleppo into smithereens, Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov met his outgoing US counterpart John Kerry in Peru last week to discuss conflicts in Syria. A German newspaper notes the start of Euphrates Shield transformed the war in Syria into a scene of a mini-World War III whereby along with countries — such as the US, Russia, Britain, France, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Jordan, Bahrain, Kuwait, Iran, Lebanon, Israel, and non-governmental forces— are seen to be at play with the internal actors: like the Hezbollah, local Kurds, ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, and the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Moscow and Damascus have accelerated air raids in the northern city recently. But earlier, it remained the policy of the Syrian army to partly allow civilians to leave opposition-held eastern neighbourhood by having a consolidated control of the al Jandoul traffic circle at a major road intersection on the northern outskirts of Aleppo. The armed groups — carrying out indiscriminate attacks on Sheikh Maqsoud — are part of the Fatah Halab military coalition, which includes: Islamic Movement of Ahrar ash-Sham, Army of Islam, al-Shamia Front, Brigade of Sultan Murad, Sultan Fatih Battalions, Fa Istaqim Kama Omirt Battalions, Nour al-Deen Zinki Battalions, 13 Brigade, 16 Brigade, 1st Regiment (al-Foj al-Awal) and Abu Omara Battalions.
According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, hundreds of civilians were meanwhile killed by YPG shelling and sniper attacks in opposition-held areas in Aleppo so far. Amnesty is calling on the Gulf states, Turkey and others believed to be providing support to armed groups in Syria, to immediately block the transfer of arms to such groups, including logistical and financial support for such transfers, where there is credible evidence that they have committed serious human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law.
The UN’s chief humanitarian official Stephen O’Brien said the people of Aleppo are facing a humanitarian catastrophe worse than anything witnessed so far in Syria’s brutal five-year war. Stephen O’Brien made the remarks to the UN Security Council as Russia rejected calls to halt its bombing campaign on eastern Aleppo, saying it might consider a 48-hour humanitarian pause instead. “Let me be clear: east Aleppo this minute is not at the edge of the precipice,” he said. “It is well into its terrible descent into the pitiless and merciless abyss of a humanitarian catastrophe unlike any we have witnessed in Syria. “Syria is bleeding. Its citizens are dying. We all hear their cry for help.”
The main problem the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) faces is a limited manpower. After more than five years of battlefield attrition, the pool of reliable Alawite recruits — the backbone of the army’s front line units — is drying up. Government forces have displayed considerable resilience, and Russian air support would not have changed the balance of forces on the ground if the SAA was not an effective fighting force. Nevertheless, the history of fighting in and around Aleppo may have marked the limit of the army’s current offensive capacity in labor-intensive operations. That capacity may be bolstered, but only to a limited extent, if Iran steps up training, arming, and stand-off capabilities of local and foreign Shia militias which have been acting as the SAA’s auxiliaries.
In the longer term, various Salafist outfits — the only fighting opposition in Syria — will be in serious trouble if Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan softens his resolutely anti-Assad position, which is a seemingly distinct possibility in the light of his recent rapprochement with Russia and the post-coup chill in his relations with Washington. Erdogan is seriously interested in improving Ankara’s relations with Tehran. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim has already said that it is time for Ankara to normalize ties with Damascus and resolve the Syrian crisis “in cooperation with other regional players.”
Sadly, no moderate opposition exists in Syria. Needless to say, the Asad’s regime’s downfall has to be followed by three negative developments: massive carnage; new waves of refugees heading west; and the imposition of a jihadist dictatorship. Weather it is an al-Nusra embodiment or an IS establishment —all that remains irrelevant to the millions of Syria’s beleaguered Alawites, Christians, Druze, as well as many moderate Sunnis who do not cherish the prospect of living under Sharia. Since 2013, Syria has seen many false dawns of peace. It seems that Russia-US recourse to power tussle in Aleppo ventures out no positive hope for peace prospects. A supply base for the Russian navy at Tartus, Syria, will be expanded to a permanent naval base, Russian Defence Minister Nikolai Pankov said. Trump’s Syria policy per se indicates that his main priority in Syria likely will not be invoking humanitarian intervention to save civilians but killing IS terrorists who might attack the United States. And it must be assured that any future intervention would be a disaster for America and the region.
As for Asad’s view regarding Trump, he said, “If — if — he fights the terrorists, it is clear that we will be a natural ally, together with the Russians, Iranians and many other countries who want to defeat the terrorists”. For the past three years Bashar al-Assad’s strategy has been based on re-establishing control over Syria’s most populous and economically viable third, from the Mediterranean coast and Aleppo in the north to Damascus in the south, with Homs in the middle. Given the vicissitudes of American dominance in the region, the Syrian crisis seems characterising a geo-strategic corollary of the conflict between the Atlantist camp and Russo-Chinese block. And yet, indigenously this war reflects an ideological clash between extremists and moderates.
— The writer is an independent ‘IR’ researcher based in Karachi.