Why is Aleppo under heavy fire despite international outcry?
Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and once its commercial center, has been under ferocious bombardment from Russian and regime warplanes. The bombing campaign is intensified enough to reduce the intensely populated city to total destruction, as the UN envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura previously warned.
Alarmed by the terrible humanitarian consequences of the unprecedented bombardment of Syria’s northern city, the UN has been “desperately” calling for ceasefires to ease civilians’ despair and agony in Aleppo. World leaders have also met in the Swiss city of Lausanne to discuss with the Russians a common strategy to end the long-running conflict in Syria. However, the high-profile gathering ended with no breakthrough. Before that, in the Security Council, Russia had vetoed a French-draft resolution aimed at stopping airstrikes on Aleppo (it was the fifth time Moscow using its veto on resolutions related to Syria).
All the UN’s pleas and the intensified diplomatic efforts have fallen on deaf Russians ears. The Kremlin has seemed at ease even when the US’s unsettling rhetoric on Aleppo stirred up memories of the Cold War. Why are the Russians this persistent and relentless on moving heavily on Aleppo and Syria?
Relentless shelling and airstrikes
From a military point of view and for some territorial gains, the Russians’ relentless shelling and airstrikes on Aleppo and their unaltered aerial assistance of the regime’s rusty warplanes aims primarily at cutting the supply lines and rebel conduits that link Syria’s northern city with Turkey. Moscow’s keenness on building new bridges with Ankara is also inseparable from its endeavor to corner the Syrian opposition.
What is giving the Russians some kind of legitimacy in pounding Aleppo is the presence of the blacklisted Jabhat al-Nusra in the northern part of the city
Aleppo is also the last city in Syria with strong opposition presence. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) and other opposition forces are present in other parts across the war-torn country but in the form of scattered posts here and there that are all surrounded by the government forces. In fact, the regime’s forces and its allies and the Syrian opposition have all been pushing hard to gain the upper hand on the northern front which is militarily, politically and geopolitically easier and a lot less complicated than going westward and southward to the borders with Israel and Jordan respectively or eastward into ISIS-held territories.
With Damascus still under the control of the regime and with the other parts of Syria either partially neutralized and finalized or integrated into wider files like the international war on terror, the Kurdish cause and the refugee crisis, i.e., not of territorial nature, Aleppo, for both the regime and opposition, is now the last bastion that determines a lot of what could come next. But that does not mean at all that whoever holds Aleppo wins the war because the Syrian war has become ultra-complicated both locally and internationally – to the point that an absolute win cannot be claimed. Yet the party which holds Aleppo can have better bargaining position in any future settlement. This, in addition to Aleppo’s historical, commercial and strategic importance, is another major reason behind the regime’s and Russia’s relentless bombardment of the opposition-held areas in Aleppo.
In a bid to have their own capital to rival Damascus, Syrian opposition forces have established strong posts in Aleppo. To effectively face of the regime and its allies the Russians, Iranian, Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite forces, the Syrian opposition forces -especially the FSA, Jaysh al-Fateh, Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya, Suqour al-Sham and Liwa al-Tawhid – have formed a united front. With the aim of fragmenting the unified opposition front and isolating rebel-held areas from one another and turning them into vulnerable and insignificant pockets as in other parts of Syria, the regime and Russians have been pounding Aleppo with heavy fire since late September.
What is giving the Russians some kind of legitimacy in pounding Aleppo is the presence of the blacklisted Jabhat al-Nusra in the northern part of the city. To sound appealing, the Russians have been linking their bombardment of Aleppo to the international war on terror also benefiting from the Western perplexity in defining who exactly is moderate among the numerous Syrian opposition forces that are operating in Aleppo.
But the Russian’s relentless bombing campaign over Aleppo is not merely to help its ally the Syrian regime recover and gain the upper hand in the war. Moscow has another strategic goal that lies at the heart of President Putin’s efforts to resurrect the empirical image of Russia exploiting President Obama’s withdrawal policy from the Middle East and the US’s transition period ahead of the presidential election. By winning the war in Syria or shattering the anti-Russia Syrian opposition, Putin seeks to force the next US president to deal with him as the master of Syria. Russia’s heavy bombardment of Aleppo has been accompanied by other defying actions including the deployment of nuclear-capable missiles in Kaliningrad on the borders of NATO members Poland and Lithuania and moving its nuclear-powered battleships to the north coast of Europe and the English Channel. Russia’s recent attempts to engage more with India and China and in the disputed South China Sea are also part of Putin’s defiance of Washington.
Putin is fully confident that President Obama couldn’t afford to go to war during his early months in office, let alone in his few remaining days. This is it in brief.
Raed Omari is a Jordanian journalist, political analyst, parliamentary affairs expert, and commentator on local and regional political affairs. His writing focuses on the Arab Spring, press freedoms, Islamist groups, emerging economies, climate change, natural disasters, agriculture, the environment and social media. He is a writer for The Jordan Times, and contributes to Al Arabiya English. He can be reached via [email protected], or on Twitter @RaedAlOmari2