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Choices in Syria

Sep 28,2016 - Last updated at Sep 28,2016

The Syrian government and Russia have gone over to the offensive against insurgents in eastern Aleppo because they no longer believe the US is serious about a ceasefire and negotiations.

Three developments seem to have led Russia to this conclusion: the September 17 attack by US, British, Australian and Danish aircraft on a well established Syrian army position at Deir Ezzor’s airport; the Pentagon refusal to establish a centre for coordinating Russian and US strikes on Daesh; and the failure of the US to compel insurgent allies to cut ties with Al Qaeda’s branch in Syria. 

Neither Moscow nor Damascus has accepted the US contention that the air strikes against the Syrian army that has been battling Daesh in Deir Ezzor were a “mistake”.

Damascus and Moscow argue that the US and its allies seek to weaken the army in its efforts to roll back Daesh in the oil-rich province and end Daesh’s siege of troops and up to 100,000 civilians trapped in Deir Ezzor city. 

While Russia adopted the view that the strikes were a result of the US refusal to coordinate the campaign against Daesh and other takfiri groups, the attack appears to have prompted the Syrian army to declare an end to the truce.

This was followed by the assault on the Red Crescent-Red Cross-UN aid convoy on the night of September 19, an event that deflected international attention from the Deir Ezzor incident and led to a fresh acrimonious blame game. 

Ever since its intervention in the Syrian conflict a year ago, Russia has called upon the US to establish a joint operations room in Jordan to coordinate air action against Daesh in Syria.

The Pentagon and US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter, still rooted in Cold War hostility towards Russia, firmly rejected this plan, although the White House and State Department agreed to go forward with it when they agreed with Russia on the terms of the latest ceasefire. 

On the Nusra issue, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has repeatedly warned the US that it cannot continue to support groups which collaborate with and fight alongside Jabhat Fatah Al Sham, the rebranded Jabhat Al Nusra.

Lavrov commented in particular on the US inclusion of Ahrar Al Sham, Nusra’s closest ally and the second most powerful armed faction in Syria after Nusra, on the list of groups not to be targeted by Russia in the battle against takfiris, although Ahrar had refused to sign up to the ceasefire. 

In his report to the Security Council on September 25, UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura revealed that “more than half of fighters present in eastern Aleppo are Al Nusra”, and that “counter offensives” against the government have been led either by Nusra or “Fatteh Halab Operations Room of [Free Syrian Army] groups”. 

He also made it clear that insurgents in eastern Aleppo are intentionally placing “firing positions close to social infrastructure and inside civilian quarters”, which is contrary to international law.

Having given up on ceasefires and negotiations which go nowhere, the government has announced its determination to retake the whole of Syria from insurgent forces.

Damascus’ current objective is to put an end to the insurgent/Nusra presence in eastern Aleppo. 

The effort can be expected to involve massive firepower and siege, as has been the case elsewhere.

The coming US-supported Iraqi army and militia offensive against Daesh in Mosul is likely to involve siege, heavy bombardment and ground assault. This is, unfortunately, the way of war.

Taking eastern Aleppo would end an insurgent-held pocket jutting into government-ruled territory and give the government control of Aleppo, Damascus, Homs, Hama, Latakia and the coast, as well as swathes of the south. 

Damascus would then hold areas where more than 70 per cent of the population remaining in Syria lives. The rest would stay in more easily recoverable small pockets of insurgent-held territory in the countryside.

Idlib could remain for some time under Nusra and Ahrar, while Raqqa and Deir Ezzor would stay under Daesh until the government, Russia, the US and its allies, finally decide to get together to tackle Daesh in Syria. 

Or, the government, Russia and Iran could finish off insurgents in and around Aleppo and then focus on Daesh — which is a declining power under challenge in both Iraq and Syria. 

Nusra-Ahrar-held Idlib could become a gathering ground for a range of takfiris and insurgents of different hues.

The government, Russia and Iran clearly no longer believe in the Western mantra “there is no military solution” to the Syrian conflict. Furthermore, they may consider it is in their interest to use their military power to secure territory and take the military initiative before US President Barack Obama leaves office at the end of January 2017.

If more assertive Hillary Clinton succeeds him, she might intervene with force more decisively than Obama did. 

Her rival Republican Donald Trump is a wildcard whose actions are unpredictable. Therefore, Damascus, Moscow and Tehran might consider that it is in their interest to opt for military action in spite of the cost on the international political and public relations plane.

The government, Russia and Iran are willing to risk external condemnation as they are banking on war-weariness among the overwhelming majority of Syrian civilians and a desire for the five-and-a-half-year conflict to end soon and to end with the government in power.

In spite of its faults and brutality, the government still governs. The alternative could be anarchy and a failed state.

Syrians need only to turn their eyes to neighbouring Lebanon, which suffered 15 years of civil war, between 1975 and 1990, and an Israeli invasion in 1982. The Lebanese war went on until Syrian troops, deployed from 1976 in Lebanon under an Arab League mandate, were given the green light by the US to end it. 

Lebanon has not recovered from that war which damaged its infrastructure and wrecked its political system.

Today Lebanon has no president, parliament is long past its term of office, and the Cabinet cannot even dispose of festering garbage.

During a visit to friends in Beirut after spending a week in Syria’s capital some time ago, I said the situation in Damascus is better than in Beirut. 

My Lebanese host replied: “Syria has a government, we don’t.”

 

Post-war Lebanon is afflicted by persistent but low-level anarchy that could explode into civil conflict any time.

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