IT has been five years, since Syria began its slow, agonizing descent into an inferno that makes
Dante’s seventh circle of hell with its river of boiling blood and barren burning sands ignited by flakes of fire, look like a tolerable trail. Aleppo, Syria’s largest and one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, is about to fall into the hands of invaders from the East; Russians who are raining fires from the skies, and on the ground cutting swaths of desolation are Iranian-led Lebanese and Iraqi Shiite militias and the disheveled forces of their local lisping and pathetically delusional satrap holed up in Damascus.
Abandoned by the world, another once great city is being methodically sacked for the first time in six hundred years, and emptied of its people, the very descendants of the great ancient empires that built, destroyed and rebuilt Aleppo; Akkadians and Hittites, Greeks and Romans, Arabs and Ottomans. Rich cultures and religions, that left behind their distinct marks; schools, temples, libraries, palaces, forts, souks, public baths, magnificent Mosques and graceful Churches and Synagogues. Aleppo’s killers are a motley crew of mostly regime henchmen and their battalions of supporters who are doing the systematic destruction, and extreme local and imported self-described jihadists.
A war of all against al: On Spanish soil in the 1930s a civil war was morphed into a continental epic war. Europe tore itself apart in three bloody years. Soldiers and military advisors came from Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union, along with tens of thousands of volunteers from many countries to engage in the ‘good fight’. The Syrian war was turned initially and diabolically by the regime into a sectarian war which evolved into a regional war and eventually into an international conflict and war by proxies. The failure of containing the conflict quickly, made its internationalization inevitable. It is stunning to think that in the skies of Syria in the last year the air forces of four of the five permanent members of the Security Council of the United Nations have been, along with other allies conducting military strikes. On the ground a war of all against all is raging on and each of the major players has a list of primary and secondary enemies. For the U.S. ISIS is the primary enemy, followed by al-Nusra Front with the Assad regime at the bottom. For Russia, the enemies begin with the opposition to Assad, then ISIS and al-Nusra. For Iran, the opposition to Assad is first on the list, then ISIS and al-Nusra. For Turkey, the enemy list begins with the Kurdish YPG, then the Assad regime. For ISIS, the immediate enemy on the ground is the anti-Assad opposition groups, and in the skies the bombers of the International coalition.
Sharp words vs Sharp swords: The fall of Aleppo, a clear military objective of the axis of Russia, Iran and the Assad regime, that is not going to be altered by the surreal talk of cease fires and peace talks in European capitals, will deal the Syrian opposition groups that are tepidly supported by the United States a severe blow. Such a setback will constitute a radical shift in the balance of power in favor of the axis seeking a partial restoration of a truncated state they call ‘essential Syria,’ an area that includes the country’s main cities, from Damascus in the South to the central cities of Homs and Hama, along with the coastal region and all the way to Aleppo in the North.
Russia’s military intervention in Syria has elevated Moscow’s profile in the Middle East in ways not known since the collapse of the Soviet Empire
The tactical but serious defeats of the opposition forces in the North that the U.S. claims to support, at the hands of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units YPG, in military operations that are clearly coordinated with the intensified Russian air campaign and benefiting from the ground attacks by the pro-regime militias is ironic in the extreme. The YPG is Washington’s main ground de facto ally in the fight against the so-called ‘Islamic State’ ISIS, America’s most dangerous enemy in Syria. This is a collaboration made in purgatory, since the YPG is essentially the Syrian incarnation of Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party PKK, a group designated by the U.S. as a terrorist organization. This is one of Washington’s worst kept secrets, an arrangement that damages further, The Obama administration’s already tarnished image in the eyes of the main non-Jihadi Syrian opposition groups.
In the face of Russia’s stepped up brutal air attacks in the environs of Aleppo in conjunction with the regime’s continued savagery in the form of barrel bombs against civilian targets, and in reaction to Moscow’s manipulation of Secretary of State John Kerry’s diplomatic gullibility, the advances of the YPG, and Turkey’s recent artillery attacks against targets across the Syrian borders, the Obama administration has been reduced to issuing statements ranging from condemnation and indignation, to pleading and beseeching. Recently, when Russian bombers attacked hospitals and schools in Azaz city, the State Department issued a statement condemning the attacks, but without naming the Russian aggressor. But America’s sharp words are no match to Russia’s sharp swords.
Dr. Pangloss and Prince Hamlet: Secretary of State John Kerry, a man of boundless energy and infinite optimism is America’s version of Dr. Pangloss, Voltaire’s incurable optimist in Candide, whose slogan ‘all is for the best, in the best of all possible worlds’ animate his diplomacy even in the face of catastrophe. When Russia deployed its attack jets and bombers in Syria last summer, he initially refused to see the move as offensive in nature. Then he, along with President Obama began to lecture Russian President Vladimir Putin that what he is doing will not serve Russia’s long term interests, or that it is a sign of weakness and advising him to avoid such a ‘quagmire’, reminiscent of the Soviet quagmire in Afghanistan.
Russia’s military intervention in Syria has elevated Moscow’s profile in the Middle East in ways not known since the collapse of the Soviet Empire. In fact the Obama administration is using Russia’s dominant position in Syria nowadays to justify its feeble diplomacy and its reliance on Moscow to ‘deliver’ Assad to the negotiating table, and its refusal to embark on any serious military action, beyond deploying a small number of special forces against ISIS, that could enhance the capabilities of the opposition and weaken the regime. Russia’s violent ownership of Syrian skies, forced the Obama administration to inform the Russian military vaguely supposedly, about the areas of operations of the American Special Forces in Syria. Lt. Gen. Charles Brown, commander of the U.S. Air Forces Central Command, told reporters during a briefing on Thursday, ‘I don’t have any assurances, really, from the Russians. But we told them these are the … general areas, where we have coalition forces and we don’t want them to strike there because all it’s going to do is escalate things. And I don’t think the Russians want to escalate against the coalition’. Try to explain that one to the incredulous Syrians.
Against a mountain of doubts about Russia’s intentions in Syria, Secretary Kerry spoke about the ‘success’ achieved recently in Munich regarding the imminent ‘cessation of hostilities’. One could see the snicker on the face of his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov who has heard Kerry on multiple occasions in recent months and years talking about Syria being on the cusp of a ‘big transition’ as he did last November.
[Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted “Across the Ocean,” a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. @hisham_melhem.]