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Why the battle for Aleppo is critical for confronting Iran

Moscow might show some flexibility in order to keep its seat at the table with the Obama administration

Raghida Dergham

Published: Updated:

Aleppo is at the crossroads which may very well determine Syria’s future. The battle for Aleppo has become fateful for both the regime and the opposition and has become a key geopolitical and military consideration for regional and international players. Regardless of whether the key players, led by Russia and the US, agree on a ceasefire, the axis comprising Russia, Iran, Damascus, and Hezbollah is determined to settle the battle militarily in its favor through the gateway of Aleppo.

Moscow might show some flexibility in order to keep its seat at the table with the Obama administration. Moscow may want to obtain either further strategic concessions in return for not embarrassing Washington in Syria or to dampen any US-Turkish-Gulf Arab bid for providing serious military assistance to the moderate Syrian opposition.

Moscow and Iran are working out ways and waiting for the right time to dismantle Syrian opposition in full accord with the Obama administration and its Secretary of State John Kerry. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is seeking to impose fait accompli on many levels of the Syrian tragedy, beginning with the conditions to include Aleppo in the geography of the ceasefire and not ending with the nature of transition in Syria.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is preoccupied with the strategic fronts, and their “meaningful” interlinkages, with his eye constantly trained on the US where the “non-foe” Barack Obama will be replaced soon by either the “non-friend” Hillary Clinton or the “neither-foe-nor-friend” Donald Trump.

During this regional and international reconfiguration, the escalation in Aleppo and the lack of progress in Yemeni negotiations in Kuwait is perhaps not a coincidence, not to mention the eruption of the terrifying chaos in Iraq that has prompted Washington to reaffirm its support for Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

The protests staged by supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq were soon contained after he reportedly visited Iran and the slogans chanted by “infiltrators” against Iran were shunned before they stormed the Green Zone and the parliament building. Perhaps Sadr’s message was: “Remember me”.

The sequence of events forced Washington to reiterate its support for Abadi while Tehran warned against any tampering with the formula it helped cement for ruling Iraq, especially since it is preoccupied with the bid of shaping a similar formula for power in Damascus.

Indeed, these two Arab capitals are essential to Iran’s regional ambitions, which Washington does not oppose. Washington effectively sanctions Iranian policy in Iraq and Syria, through its deafening silence. This continued to be the case following Tehran’s declaration that an Iranian army battalion is fighting alongside the regime in Damascus and over Iran’s militia being commanded by the US-designated Qassim Soleimani.

Washington has made the war on ISIS its top priority there, and has endorsed the bid by the regime and its allies to reduce the Syrian question to one of the war on terror

Raghida Dergham

In Iraq, at the level of responses to Sadr’s revolution, the Gulf countries’ appear to be in line with US reactions in support of Abadi against chaos and the storming of parliament.

But things are completely different in Syria, where Iran is fully confident of its victory, not only in the battle of Aleppo, but in the battle for Syria, in an explicit partnership with Russia and an implicit one with the US. To be sure, Washington has made the war on ISIS its top priority there, and has endorsed the bid by the regime and its allies to reduce the Syrian question to one of the war on terror.

Gulf countries led by Saudi Arabia has an opportunity to take a firm decision regarding the fateful battle for Aleppo. Some believe it is too late to properly rehabilitate the moderate opposition militarily to overturn the military balance of power on the ground. Others insist that arming the opposition with anti-aircraft missiles to shoot down regime planes – rather than Russian planes which fly on higher altitudes than the range of the missiles – would change the equation on the ground and prevent the pro-Assad alliance from securing their achievements.

Opposition demise?

The proponents of this view insist on not waiting for American blessing or veto, and cite Chinese missiles stored in warehouses ready for export as soon as the political decision is made. They say that any reluctance will lead to the total demise of the Syrian opposition, militarily, morally, and politically, if Aleppo falls into the regime’s hands. They suggest that any defeat for the opposition in Aleppo will lead to a Saudi defeat in Yemen. These voices include Saudi and Gulf voices that believe Syria, not Yemen, will decide the fate of Saudi-Iranian relations.

Others in the Gulf region and Saudi Arabia are pinning their hopes on Washington intervening to stop Moscow and Tehran’s march in Syria through Aleppo. They believe Washington is willing to arm the moderate Syrian opposition as soon as Russia’s policy is exposed in that it is seeking for the regime to capture the last major city outside its control, namely Aleppo. Indeed, it is in Aleppo that the opposition could be defeated leading to its surrender. These voices believe Washington would not allow it, because it does not want to lose influence over Gulf or Turkish decisions that will radically impact US-Russian relations.

Russia is saying to the US that it does not consider Bashar al-Assad to be an ally but that it only supports him to fight terrorism. Russia is wagering on this being the priority for the Obama administration while hinting that the relationship between Moscow and Damascus is not one of alliance like the relationship between Washington and Ankara. The purpose of this insinuation is that Moscow understands the limits of its influence on and commitment with, and Washington’s influence on and commitment with, Damascus and Ankara respectively.

It is trying to give reassurances that its escalation with Turkey has limits that the US can control thanks to the alliance it has with Ankara via NATO. Moscow is trying to escalate in accordance with rules based on non-direct involvement with Turkey to avoid a crisis with NATO, and is demanding Washington to control its ally in Ankara in return for Russia putting pressure on its “non-ally” in Damascus. From the Russian point view, it is logical to ask for the closure of Turkish-Syrian borders as part of the accord on de-escalation in Aleppo.

The other demand for Russia is to separate the opposition groups – such as Jaish al-Islam and Ahrah al-Sham – that describe themselves as moderate compared to the al-Nusra Front, which has been designated by the UN Security Council as terror groups. Sergei Lavrov called for forces that say they are moderate to withdraw from Nusra Front-dominated areas and break away completely with terrorists. He called for the closure of Turkish-Syrian borders, which he claimed was one of the most prominent channels of support for terrorism.

With this, Lavrov was asking Washington two things: First, to settle the battle out of Aleppo against “terrorism,” which would entail the suicide of the moderate opposition that would not be able to fight any battles after Aleppo. And second, to weaken the moderate rebels to the point of forcing their fighters to join the Syrian army not based on their own demands, but forcibly. This is what Moscow wants under the name of rebuilding state institutions.

Moscow’s plans

Moscow does not intend to reveal the details of its commitments with Bashar al-Assad or its plans to revive the Syrian regime with amendments that do not include Assad remaining in power. But it is clear from its positions that Moscow has buried the principles of the Geneva Communique based on establishing a transitional governing body with full executive powers. Most probably, the UN will not fight Moscow on this as long as Washington is not willing to do so.

Washington will not get itself implicated in Syria regardless of John Kerry’s threats of a so-called Plan B. That will remain on the shelf as long as Lavrov and Kerry are in accord. But perhaps ending the battle in Aleppo will be postponed until anger over attacks on hospitals and the refugee waves into Europe this causes settles down. Perhaps European capitals have communicated to Moscow that its escalation against Turkey does not suit their interests, and perhaps there will be de-escalation in light of US-Russian sponsorship of accords in Syria, which will not include Aleppo.

But these decisions of war and of military settlement are on hold. Aleppo is at a crossroads for Syria’s future and the road to it is full of tragedies. This is likely to remain the case for a while.

This article was first published in Al-Hayat on May. 06, 2016 and translated by Karim Traboulsi.
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Raghida Dergham is Columnist, Senior Diplomatic Correspondent, and New York Bureau Chief for the London-based Al Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is dean of the international media at the United Nations. Dergham is Founder and Executive Chairman of Beirut Institute, an indigenous, independent, inter-generational think tank for the Arab region with a global reach. An authority on strategic international relations, Dergham is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an Honorary Fellow at the Foreign Policy Association. She served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum, and is a member of the Development Advisory Committee of the IAP- the Global Network of Science Academies. She can be reached on Twitter @RaghidaDergham

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