THE bombardment of rebel-held east Aleppo by Russian forces, the Syrian army, and Iran-led militias has been unprecedented in its intensity, even by the standards of Syria’s brutal six-year civil war. The blitz has also been effective at removing rebels – some of them backed by the US, others Islamic jihadists – from their most significant urban stronghold in Syria. President Bashar al-Assad is celebrating his most significant battlefield victory so far, even though Iran-Russia squabbling interrupted what was supposed to be a final cease-fire, and images showed block after block of pulverized neighbourhoods – punctuated by terrified citizens’ please on social media “save Aleppo.”
It is here that Russia and Iran invested military power and orchestrated an outcome they desired, preserving the Assad regime and preventing a takeover by Islamists and, they say, even greater chaos. At the same time, they defeated the half-hearted effort pursued by Washington and its allies Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar to remove Assad by backing rebel groups. For Iran, that means expanding the influence of its “axis of resistance” against the US, Israel, and their allies. For Russia, it marks a critical step toward restoring past influence, even as American power projection and willingness to engage in ME declines.
“This is what really matters to Iran and Russia, that the political, geo-strategic project of the anti-Assad and anti-Iranian position has failed, and it has been buried in the Aleppo rubble,” says Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East expert at the London School of Economics and author of “ISIS: A History.” “Syria really could be a signpost for the emergence of a new international system,” says Mr. Gerges. President Obama made a decision “not to involve, not to entangle, not to invest major political and military capital” in the Middle East. Gerges and other analysts caution, however, that even after seizing all of Aleppo, Assad still controls only one-third of the country. Russia and Iran therefore see the war in Syria as continuing, and are likely to press for a political solution to the conflict. The human cost continues to grow, with the fight for Aleppo and its years of regime barrel bombing in the city contributing heavily to the war’s death toll of some 470,000. Among reports of atrocities on both sides, the United Nations said Tuesday that 82 civilians had been killed by pro-Assad troops. Heavy shelling of the city resumed Wednesday with the collapse of a Russia-announced deal for the departure of rebel fighters.
President Putin, however, has pointed to Western failures in Syria, and last week told the NTV channel that “the world balance is gradually being restored. The attempts to create a unipolar world failed.” Russia’s expanded role in Syria is yielding some benefits. Moscow is being courted by Persian Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia, and is rebuilding ties with Turkey and Egypt – all of them traditional US allies. Palestinian leaders have also requested Putin’s help in convincing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to resume peace talks – a role long played by Washington. Yet as Russia steps up its intervention in Syria, the quagmire scenario grows, along with the risks. “Russia knows this,” he says. “Without a political settlement, Syria will remain a battlefield for many years to come.”
Iran faces its own challenges, not least because of uncertainty about how a new US administration under Donald Trump may improve ties with Russia at Iran’s expense. So it, too, is inclined to seek a political solution. “The perception in Tehran is there is no military ending in Syria,” says Nasser Hadian-Jazy, a political scientist at Tehran University. “In other words, it is a good time to go for a negotiated solution, because from a position of strength it is easier to convince Assad to give concessions, rather than a position of weakness,” says Mr. Hadian-Jazy. — Courtesy: The CS Monitor