Middle East | Russia puts Aleppo operations on hold but with caveats

Russia puts Aleppo operations on hold but with caveats

M.K. Bhadrakumar May 10, 2016 8:59 AM (UTC+8)
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A long-winded joint statement by two countries on a limited issue becomes necessary for any three reasons. One, given their profound differences or mutual distrust, things need to be spelled out in detail so as to minimize the scope for ambiguities.

Moscow is likely to prevail upon its allies – Syria and Iran – to put the Aleppo operation on hold
Moscow is likely to prevail upon Syria and Iran to suspend Aleppo operation

Two, a careful balancing of mutual interests becomes necessary and both sides need to outline the matrix. Three, the sides are under compulsion to notify other interested parties.

All these factors explain the 1,100 words that were needed for the US-Russia joint statement on the reiteration of cessation of hostilities (CoH) in Syria, issued on Monday.

Washington and Moscow struggled hard to reach new convergence on extending the reach of the ceasefire in Syria specifically to the situation around Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta and Latakia.

The US and Russia have different priorities and interests in the Syrian situation, and both also have to carry their allies who also happen to be ‘stakeholders’ in the ceasefire but over whom their influence is limited. At its core, the joint statement agrees on the following:

  • Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta and Latakia need to be brought within the ambit of the CoH;
  • Moscow will “work with” Damascus to “minimize” aviation operations against the Nusra Front where there is risk of collateral damage to moderate opposition forces or civilians;
  • Washington will “intensify” its efforts to close the Turkish border so as to prevent the flow of fighters, weapons and financial support for extremist groups;
  • The US and Russia will strive to reach an understanding as regards the territories controlled by extremist groups who have been excluded from the CoH.

The Turkish and Syrian governments are the two principal protagonists here. Ankara has not commented on the US-Russia statement. And, at any rate, it seems improbable that Ankara will change course in its policy to give sustained support for the Syrian rebel groups, albeit in a denial mode all along.

The Syrian official news agency, on the other hand, while reporting on the US-Russia joint statement, pointedly excluded any reference to Aleppo, and has instead put the stress on the stoppage of outside support for extremist groups. It has also failed to mention the expectation that there will be curbs on the regime’s aviation operations.

However, Washington and Moscow have compulsions of their own to issue this joint statement. Both recognize the urgent need to revitalize their earlier nation-wide accord on CoH, which created conditions for the resumption of the intra-Syrian negotiations in Geneva.

Things have been in limbo in the recent period which is not a good thing to happen as the locus would inevitably shift at some point back to the fighting. An effort is under way to resume the talks in Geneva in regard of the fundamental issues of a viable political transition.

Having said that, Washington and Moscow have their own priorities. For the Obama administration, it becomes crucial that the city of Aleppo does not fall into the hands of the government forces, since such a development will be profoundly embarrassing politically vis-à-vis the US’ regional allies (Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other GCC states), and, more important, pose a policy dilemma as to whether (or how) to react to the emergent situation.

The US’ regional allies will expect the Obama administration to not only step up the military support for the Syrian opposition but also equip them with advanced weaponry such as anti-aircraft missiles that would help tilt the balance of forces against the Syrian regime.

The Saudis have kept Chinese-made missiles readily available to dispatch to Syria if only Washington gives the green signal. Turkey, too, has been straining at the leash.

On the contrary, an escalation is fraught with the danger of a US-Russia confrontation, which of course is something that neither Washington nor Moscow seeks.

The Obama administration is keenly watching Moscow’s political will to push the envelope on Aleppo – or, alternatively, how far Moscow will be willing to restrain the Syrian government forces (supported by Hezbollah and Iranian military advisors). Damascus is keen to push for a military victory in Aleppo.

In a message of felicitations to President Vladimir Putin last week on the anniversary of Russia’s Victory Day, President Bashar al-Assad compared the Aleppo to the Battle of Stalingrad, which was a tipping point in World War II. Conceivably, Tehran too would see things that way.

It may seem unrealistic to expect Moscow to rein in the Syrian regime and its allies and persuade them to abandon the military campaign in Aleppo. However, it is equally true that Moscow is not wanting to embarrass Washington or weaken the US’ capacity to exert moderating influence on its Turkish and Gulf Arab allies.

Arguably, Moscow will expect Washington to reciprocate a de-escalation in Aleppo. One way could be by Washington ensuring the closure of the Turkish-Syrian border.

Equally, Moscow will expect a separation of the so-called ‘moderate’ groups of Syrian opposition (supported by the US and its allies) from the Nusra Front so that the fight against terrorism does not lose its direction.

The Russian calculation will be that the closure of the Turkish supply routes would incrementally prompt the moderate rebel fighters to reconcile with the Syrian regime (to a limited extent, this is already happening).

A senior US official directly involved in the negotiations with the Russians disclosed in a media briefing on Monday that Moscow has given a “commitment… quite specifically related to the Syrian authorities” to the effect that there will be a “real reduction” of Syrian air force overflights over areas predominantly inhabited by civilian and/or moderate rebel groups “even if they are not dropping ordnance”. He added:

  • Now, there is no prohibition on overflight or general air operations, so an undertaking on their (Russia’s) part to work with minimizing air operations over these areas is an additional measure that, if implemented, would strengthen the CoH. They are not restricted from striking Nusra, but minimizing air operations even where Nusra is present, if in an area that’s predominantly inhabited by civilians or the parties to the cessation would help with implementation of the cessation more generally.

Moscow’s best bet is that the Obama administration’s preference will be not to get entangled in the Syrian conflict militarily – unless it is left with no alternative. Therefore, Moscow is likely to prevail upon its allies – Syria and Iran – to put the Aleppo operation on hold.

One sign of it is that Damascus, which agreed initially for a 48-hour ceasefire only in Aleppo, has now agreed to an extended ceasefire.

If a closure of the Turkish-Syrian border ensues in the coming weeks, there could be a paradigm shift. But then, anything that involves Turkish President Recep Erdogan today becomes at once a big ‘if’.

Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.

M.K. Bhadrakumar
MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for the Asia Times since 2001.
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