Syria: Noose tightens on Aleppo

Outright military victory over rebels and IS imposed on Assad’s terms will not work

 

The timing of the resumption of the offensive against besieged eastern Aleppo and other rebel-controlled areas of Syria is no accident. The raids outside Aleppo were by Russian Su-33 f jets from aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, and cruise missiles from Russian warship, Admiral Grigorovich, and on the city by Syrian helicopter-borne barrel bombs.

They have shattered a relative calm that had prevailed in the rebel-held areas for some three weeks and at least 20 have died in the last two days. As Syrian forces prepare a ground offensive, the UN says some 250,000 people remain trapped in Aleppo.

There is no consensus on how many of the 10,000 or so rebel fighters left in the east of the city are in groups linked to Al Qaeda/Islamic State. The UN says a few hundred, while rebels say it is lower, and the Syrian government and the Russians, justifying their offensive, claim it is far higher.

Meanwhile, Turkey-backed rebels are just two kilometres from the city of al Bab, the last urban stronghold of IS in the northern Aleppo countryside, and are expected to take it quickly despite some resistance.

The resumption of fighting in Aleppo comes just a day after President Putin had a first discussion with President-elect Donald Trump. According to Moscow, they agreed to cooperate on fighting “international terrorism and extremism”. That, in itself, represents no change in the US position which has been to encourage a joint approach to terrorism.

But its subtext is clearly seen by Putin as an implicit nod to resumed military action and as an openness to explore further Trump’s comments that he would try to work with Moscow and Assad to fight IS, and specifically that he would end all support for rebels.

The Obama administration has rightly condemned what it says is indiscriminate bombing by the Syrians and Russians. But, even before Trump assumes office, there is a new voice that matters more.

The prospect of a closer alignment of Russian and US positions was welcomed on Monday by UN special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, who said any solution had to involve both.

But in what is being read as a polite warning to Trump, he emphasised that outright military victory over rebels and IS imposed on Assad’s terms would not work. “Fighting is one thing, winning another. To defeat Islamic State, you have to have a political approach that also includes those who feel disenfranchised, the Sunnis.”

Failure to create an inclusive peace process, he argued, would simply recruit more to IS. And Syria could not expect support for reconstruction from the EU or others when the time came, unless a stable peace was firmly rooted in a lasting, inclusive settlement. As the bombs fall again on Aleppo’s beleaguered people, such talk, however, must seem desperately premature.