Syria: Aleppo Offensive

Since my last post, there have been important changes taking place relevant to the Syrian conflict. Russia is now taking a more direct, open role in the conflict and Iran has also increased its military presence. As a result, pro-government forces, now boosted in morale and military equipment, are attempting to expand their region of control. These can be signs of an imminent agreement on the future of Syria. In other words, Russia and its allies are putting all their efforts in preparing a strong hand before they seriously sit at the negotiation table.

Setting

The viral images of dead asylum seekers, specifically the pictures of the three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, as well as several weeks of wide news coverage of the refugee crisis in Europe, have built a strong enough momentum among the population to pressure world leaders to try to find an effective solution for the greatest humanitarian crisis after the Second World War

As I explained in the previous posts (Foreign Involvement and Light the Dark), the Syrian crisis is not a simple civil war in which only domestic interests are at play. It is, in fact, a proxy war between Russia and the West on one level, and on another level, between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and some other less powerful Arab states. These powers have to, and probably will, negotiate and come up with a solution that maximises their benefits. To that end, they will try to sit at the negotiation table with the strongest hand possible. The new evolutions in the area, particularly the recent offensive of Aleppo, can be viewed from this viewpoint.

Aleppo is the largest city of Syria with a population of more than two million. Because of the importance of the region, after the initiation of the Civil War, all groups tried to gain control of it and, at the moment, it is divided between different forces. While some areas are under the control of the pro-government forces, terrorist groups, such as ISIS, as well as more moderate rebels, e.g. Free Syrian Army, control parts of this region.

But since October, this region is witnessing more serious tensions and the arrangement of forces is beginning to change, although slowly. These changes can be traced to the recent activities of foreign forces, such as Russia and Iran.

Russia

On the 30th of September, Russia began taking up a more direct role in the Syrian conflict through aircrafts and missiles. The Russian officials claim that the mission is to target ISIS and other terrorist groups. However, this claim seems suspicious and not strongly supported by the real actions on the ground. As many speculate, Russia is using ISIS as an excuse to boast pro-Assad forces and weaken pro-West or less harmful rebels.

As another important event, last week, President Putin hosted President Assad in Moscow. It was the first travel of Assad abroad after the initiation of the Civil war. This further illustrates the closeness of the two governments. Moreover, it signals that there are some big decisions being made that need a high level of talks between the leaders of the two countries.

Iran

Iran has also increased its presence in Syria. Despite official denies of presence in the conflict, the frequent news of killed Iranian forces in Syria proves the seriousness of Iran’s involvement. Some sources estimate that, at the moment, more than 2000 Iranian troops are involved in the war of Aleppo. This is probably above the other pro-Iran forces that are fighting alongside Syrian army, such as Hezbollah forces and other militias.

Iran and Russia share the same concern about Syria. Both countries fear that if the power vacuum continues in Syria, terrorists and extremists will flood their own borders. Some of the active groups in Syria have close ties to Chechenia rebels. These forces may then try to take a more active role in the conflict with the Russian government. On the side of Iran, there has been several recent bombings and terrorist activities at both eastern and western borders of Iran. Although Iranian media, which is under extreme scrutiny by the government, has tried to present the issues as trivial and the only report on one of the incidents, other local sources and opposition media have estimated the problem to have a wider scale.

Russia and Iran also share similar interests in Syria. They both want to curtail the influence of the western power, especially the US. They both prefer Assad to stay in power to better secure their other interests. Russia, similar to Iran, is planning to use Syria’s soil to pass a gas pipeline to Europe. This pipeline and its passage through Syria is one of the important factors that has involved Qatar in the Syrian conflict. You can read more about the importance of this issue in the following article: Putin’s Gas Attack.

As a result they are, at the moment, working very closely in the Aleppo offensive. Some sources claim that Iran has accepted the costs of Russian air strikes. These sources link the recent strikes to General Qasem Soleimani’s visit to Russia in July. General Soleimani is the commander of Qods corps, Iran’s elite revolutionary guard forces, which usually conducts operations outside of Iran. Soleimani is reportedly engaged closely in the recent offensive.

A possible outcome

If pro-Assad forces succeed to win Aleppo, it gives them a control over the most important parts of Syria. This, in turn, provides this side of the battle with an upper hand in the talks and helps pro-Assad forces to obtain more from the negotiations.

Furthermore, Russia will come out of the situation as a big winner. While the western powers and their Arab allies failed to help the situation of people, Putin’s decisiveness has actually changed the battle. This will further reinforce the idea of many people in the region who don’t the U.S. is up for any good. (How to Work With Russia in Syria)

A win in this battle also boasts the position of Iran in the power conflict in the Middle East. The win will make Iran a superior to Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia, which have been supporting various groups in their fight against Assad.

Immediate consequences

The recent offensive has exacerbated the situation for the regular people. Sources report an increase of tens of thousands in the number of internally displaced persons (IDP) and refugees fleeing Aleppo.

Experts estimate that it takes about 30 years to get Syria back to its pre-Civil war situation. Every day of battle worsens this situation and the recent rise in the level of tensions won’t help, either. Thus, a stronger pressure must be exerted on the world leaders to find and enforce a practical solution for the crisis as soon as possible.

photo courtesy: BBC (after Institute for the Study of War)

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