TAKING advantage of the US presidential transition, Russian President Vladimir Putin orchestrated a massive attack against opposition–held areas of Syria’s second-largest city of Aleppo. During a presidential transition, Putin calculates, the outgoing lame-duck president would not risk taking big decisions on issues of national importance and the incoming President-elect is not yet legally empowered to do so. This ambiguity in the roles of the President-elect and outgoing President creates the sort of leadership vacuum president Putin hopes to exploit to implement his long-sought after agenda in the Syrian conflict.
Over the past two weeks, Aleppo has been subject to a massive aerial bombardment by Russian warplanes. The city’s markets, clinics, medical centres, schools and other civilian infrastructure have been targeted. Hundreds of civilians have been killed and many more have been injured. Thousands of civilians have been forced to flee their homes and take refuge in nearby areas. The Russian-led military campaign appears to mark the resumption of a one-year-old plan to pressure the Syrian opposition to acquiesce to Russian conditions for negotiations.
In the wake of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254 of December 18, 2015, which stipulated the implementation of the road map included in the Vienna Agreement to end the Syrian crisis, Russia mounted a major military offensive in Aleppo to force the opposition to drop its condition that President Bashar Al Assad must leave. As a result, regime forces, backed by Iranian fighters and militias, made important gains north of Aleppo, with Russia throwing its weight behind the offensive, shifting the balance of power in favour of its allies.
Once Russia had demonstrated its military might, the prevailing belief was that it would seek to demonstrate its ability to implement a political solution to the Syrian crisis. The solution Russia chose to pursue became clear during US Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Moscow in March, where he met with Putin. Kerry’s trip sought to take advantage of the momentum created by Putin’s decision to withdraw a portion of his forces from Syria on March 15, a move widely understood as a Russian attempt to pressure Al Assad into accepting a political settlement.
During their meeting, the Russians sensed that Kerry was wavering over the demand for Al Assad to go during the transition period, so they proposed that Al Assad remains, and even be allowed to run in the presidential elections scheduled for the end of the transition period. In exchange, there would be constitutional amendments and the Syrian political system would be transformed from presidential to parliamentary rule.
This would mean that the president would be elected by parliament, rather than by the people, and would therefore enjoy ceremonial powers. The national unity government would inherit the powers currently the prerogative of the president, including control of the army and security forces. Kerry agreed to the Russian proposal and that the focus for the coming stage should be amending or re-writing the constitution, rather than the transitional governing authority and the question of Al Assad’s future as the opposition was demanding. The opposition refused to acquiesce.
The savage bombardment of Aleppo represents a new Russian attempt to impose its preferred political outcome. In doing so, Moscow is taking advantage of the lack of US opposition to its policies; and some even believe a US complicity. There is today a possibility that Russia, in cooperation with regime forces and the allied militias, will succeed in expelling the opposition out of parts of Aleppo. However, this will not lead to the fall of the entire city, nor will it necessarily facilitate its occupation, since the latter would require tens of thousands of fighters to wage urban warfare amongst piles of concrete.
Such resources are not available to the regime, even if fighting stopped on all other fronts, and Al Assad mobilised the entirety of his forces for an assault on Aleppo. Moreover, such an operation would incur enormous human losses to the regime, which could neither be sustained nor replaced.
It is sufficient to recall that the regime was unable to retake control of small neighbourhoods around Damascus, such as Jobar and Barza, despite a heavy bombardment and Russian and Iranian support for the regime. This means that the savage assault on Aleppo, and the deliberate snuffing out of life in the city, is merely another attempt to persuade the opposition to accept the solution Russia wants, and that perhaps the Americans want too, even if that comes at the price of the destruction of Aleppo and its inhabitants.
— The writer is a Syrian academic and writer. Courtesy: Gulf News