How Russia and Iran took advantage of Syrian peace talks to choke Aleppo

The supposed ceasefire is a fantasy – the surprise was to have Assad say so quite so quickly

In the coming days and weeks many people will weep for the fate of Aleppo. Many of these people will also continue to support the nuclear deal, which has facilitated this US-Iran détente and supplied Iran the resources to make war. They will still consider it a triumph of diplomacy over military action – and never be called to account for the obvious contradiction.

The Geneva III peace process is the most immediate cause for this latest offensive against Aleppo, led on the ground by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its proxies, as well as Russian airstrikes. The regime and Russia have used it as a cover to gain ground. The US took the process seriously so sought to de-escalate, taking steps to weaken its own side. This included restricting the rebels' access to anti-tank missiles.

Russia, on the other hand, enabled the IRGC-run forces that control the Bashar al-Assad regime's security sector to cut the rebels' final Aleppo supply line into Turkey and move to impose a starvation-siege on the city like the ones they have imposed on forty-nine other areas in Syria. The regime coalition can then either bring the city to its knees and complete the reconquest, or quarantine the rebels in the city, freeing up resources to deploy against rebels on other fronts.

Meanwhile, at the peace talks the US increasingly acted to enforce the regime's edicts on the opposition. It was not difficult to see that this would happen. Anyone could see, all the way back in December, the only party on whom pressure could and would be exerted to keep Geneva III going was the moderate rebels. Russia and Iran were not going to pressure Assad and nobody can pressure Isis or Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda in Syria). So for the US the choice was simple: let a process it had invested political capital in fail and boost the rebellion to a point where it could apply enough pressure on the regime to eventually force negotiations on meaningful terms, or pressure the rebellion into accepting the regime's terms in order to preserve the process.

This Alice in Wonderland predicament was put on hold earlier this month, until 25 February, because the rebel representatives refused to engage with the regime and its backers while the bombardment and starvation of civilian areas continued in violation of a UN Security Council resolution, 2254, that Russia itself voted for. Amazingly, on that issue, too, the United States adopted the Russian position, arguing that allowing humanitarian access and ceasing war crimes was a precondition—ie it was something that should be up for negotiation.

At first glance, then, it can seem odd that Russia ostensibly agreed to a ceasefire on the morning of 12 February. But on closer examination this is less confusing.

First, a massive loophole is included so that Russian operations against terrorist groups—Isis and al-Nusra—do not have to cease. Russia defines all armed opposition in Syria as terrorist and regularly mislabels them either as Islamic State or al-Nusra to justify their strikes. That Russia apparently got the US to define a “couple of other groups” as terrorist is merely a bonus.

Second, the ceasefire was not supposed to start for a week, which meant a week of internationally-recognised time for the Russia-Iran-Assad coalition to advance on Aleppo. It also meant that once this ceasefire began, the pro-Assad coalition would be able to claim international legitimacy for the new battle lines it had imposed in Aleppo, and when the rebellion refused to be bound by this aggression, Russia could blame the rebels for violating the ceasefire.

Thus, the ceasefire is a fantasy. The surprise was to have Assad say so, in public, quite so quickly. Speaking to AFP, Assad announced—a mere twelve hours after the ceasefire was agreed—that his intention was to reconquer the whole country. Given that the premise of the ceasefire is as part of Geneva III, the essential element of which is a political transition that gets Assad out so a government can be formed in Damascus that works with the rebels fighting Isis rather than blitzing them, this was as good as a flat repudiation not only of the ceasefire but the overarching peace talks.

To further complicate matters, over the last ten days, both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have said they will deploy troops in Syria as part of the US-led effort against Isis. This was undoubtedly an answer to President Obama's call in December for US allies to do more, and also a political move to push the US into greater intervention in Syria. It now seems that some kind of Gulf deployment really will take place in Syria.

Officially, however, those Saudi troops would be aimed at Isis in Raqqa. The wildcard with regards to Aleppo is Turkey. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is politically invested in the Syrian rebellion and the downfall of Assad. Turkey also hosts 3 million Syrian refugees, which has already caused internal turbulence. Fifty-thousand people have fled Aleppo in just the last few days to avoid being trapped by the regime coalition's siege and hundreds of thousands more are likely to follow after a Russian-enabled attack on the city of Aleppo begins. This is not something Turkey can be indifferent to.

Russia claimed on 4 February that Turkey was preparing to invade Syria, and the Turkish Prime Minister has now signalled that Ankara is considering moving into Syria directly to at least re-open the corridor that Russia helped the pro-regime forces close earlier this month. An immediate problem here for Erdogan would be getting his own military to obey his orders. 

The Russian response was to declare that any foreign troops in Syria—presumably except their own and Iran's—would cause a world war. There is indeed some margin of danger of a wider conflagration given that U.S. policy has convinced Moscow it has no red lines in Syria. It is a dangerous position when there is a meaningful tripwire and an adversary doesn't know about it.

Likely, however, whether Turkey intervenes or not in Syria the risk of a major war is minimal. The possibility of the pro-Assad coalition re-establishing regime control over the whole country is also unlikely. What is possible is an Assadist political victory.

If the pro-regime coalition is able to retake Aleppo City, either killing or hastening the trend of the mainstream armed opposition leaving the battlefield, so only al-Qaeda and Isis remain as significant opponents, then they will have won. Assad, Iran, and Russia have worked tirelessly to eliminate the moderate opposition so that there will be nobody for the international community to interface with, and Assad's reign will have to be accepted—and perhaps even supported to reconquer the Isis-held areas in the east. An Assadist victory of this kind is all the more imaginable because of the Obama administration's pro-Iran/Assad tilt in Syria, which will then be able to present itself as the practical option of a prescient President.

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