The Syrian-Russian offensive against eastern Aleppo is aimed at striking a decisive blow against opponents engaged in a debilitating war of attrition against the Damascus government.
The regime’s determination to succeed can be gleaned by a quote from an unidentified Syrian military official to the news agency AP, in which he said operations in Aleppo would continue until “terrorists” are “wiped out”.
And the threat by the United States this week to cease co-operation with Russia unless the bombardment stops has had little effect, having been dismissed yesterday by Russia's deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov as constituting an "emotional breakdown".
While Ryabkov did offer a 48-hour humanitarian ceasefire around Aleppo, Russia and Syria could continue the grinding offensive until agreement is reached on a longer-term ceasefire and a political process.
The capitulation of eastern Aleppo would not only be a major victory for Damascus, but also defeat the rebel Free Syrian Army in its sole stronghold and drive al-Qaeda’s offshoot
Jabhat Fatah al-Sham
(formerly Jabhat al-Nusra) and affiliates from the ancient city, once Syria’s commercial hub.
After recapturing its eastern sectors, the government would have full control of Aleppo as well as Damascus, Homs, Hama, Latakia, the coast and much of the south – areas where 70 per cent of Syrians still in the country live.
Russia is supporting the offensive with heavy air strikes while Iran, Iraq and the Lebanese-based Hizbullah have reinforced the undermanned and overstretched Syrian army. Moscow's participation, however, is decisive.
The Syrian army announced the current offensive following the collapse – due to multiple violations by all sides – of a ceasefire agreed on September 9th by Moscow and Washington. While the Syrian army and US-backed "moderate" groups signed onto the ceasefire, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (Nusra) and Islamic State were excluded. They are branded "terrorist" groups by the UN and the international community and, therefore, are considered legitimate targets while ceasefires binding other parties are in force.
The Syrian and Russian governments appear to have reached the conclusion the ceasefire had been finished off by the September 17th attack by US-led coalition aircraft on a well-established Syrian army position at Deir al-Zor’s airport.
While Washington held the strikes were a "mistake", the Syrian army command said the incident "paved the way for Islamic State terrorists to attack the position and take control of it". Syrian troops had been deployed at the airport near Deir al-Zor city where a garrison and 100,000 civilians are besieged by Islamic State.
Russian defence ministry spokesman Maj-Gen Igor Konashenkov argued the US raid was a consequence of Washington's refusal to co-ordinate actions against Islamic State and Nusra with Moscow.
During September 2015, following the deployment of Russian war planes at an air base near Latakia in northern Syria, Russia's president Vladimir Putin stated, "We would welcome a common platform for collective action against the terrorists."
While the Obama administration has agreed to the establishment of a Jordan-based centre for co-ordination with Russia and formalised such co-operation as part of the failed ceasefire deal, hardliners at the Pentagon, still rooted in Cold War hostilities, have undermined co-ordination.
Gen Joseph Dunford, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, has said, "I do not believe it would be a good idea to share intelligence with the Russians," arguing co-ordination between the US and Russia would be extremely limited. Defence secretary Ashton Carter has also opposed co-operation and recently accused Russia of eroding "the principled international order" through its actions in Syria and elsewhere.
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov stated, "Apparently the military does not quite obey the commander-in-chief," President Barack Obama.
Sharply critical of the US failure to ensure insurgent allies cut ties with Nusra, Lavrov asked for proof that the US had a "sincere intention" of achieving this objective. Otherwise, US calls for a pause in Russian and Syrian air strikes as part of the ceasefire would strengthen "our suspicions that [these demands are] being done to take the heat off al-Nusra Front, " he said.
He remarked that previous short-term truces around Aleppo were “used to back up the jihadists, including al-Nusra Front fighters, with manpower, food and weapons supplies”.
Once Aleppo is secured, Russia, Syria and their ally Iran could reconsider a ceasefire or adopt a “military solution” involving the recapture of additional territory before the inauguration in January of a new US president. There is concern in Damascus and Moscow that the next administration could prove more aggressive towards the Syrian government than the Obama administration has done.
Conversations with Syrians in Damascus and elsewhere indicate the government and its allies could count on the support of war-weary citizens, most of whom want the conflict to end with state institutions intact. Having suffered five and a half years of conflict, Syrians do not want their secular country to become another terrorist-ridden Libya or a sectarian state like Iraq.