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Syria: U.S. thinks twice, returns to diplomacy with Russia

As the trap closes on Jihadis in Aleppo the US again turns to diplomacy as it desperately seeks to avoid a debacle.

Latest news from Aleppo confirms significant advances by the Syrian military in the Jihadi controlled eastern area of the city.

On a map these advances may not particularly large or significant.  However in urban warfare, where advances are usually tracked a building at a time, they are very rapid indeed, and suggest that the position of the Jihadis in eastern Aleppo is weakening much faster than anyone had expected.

The explanation for this is that the Jihadis in Aleppo can no longer obtain supplies and reinforcements by way of the Castello road.  The result is that they cannot replace their losses, whilst the Syrian military and its Shia militia, Hezbollah and Kurdish militia allies can.

Whilst on the subject of the Syrian military’s Shia militia allies, I must take strong issue with the Guardian headline describing them: ‘Sectarian fighters mass for battle to capture east Aleppo’. 

This headline is frankly propaganda. Whilst the militia in question are indeed Shia, the true sectarians in Syria – as the Guardian of course knows – are the various militant Wahhabi/Salafist/Takfiri Jihadist groups such as ISIS and Jabhat Al-Nusra – the latter the main defenders in eastern Aleppo – which are waging war against Syria’s determinedly secular and non-sectarian government.

Perhaps because the defences in eastern Aleppo are collapsing so quickly, a further frantic round of diplomacy is now underway.

As I have discussed previously, claims the US has pulled out of all talks with Russia over Syria are simply untrue. The Russians have confirmed that Kerry and Lavrov talk with each other over the telephone about Syria every day.

Meanwhile the French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault has flown to Moscow where he seems to be trying to win the Russians over to another ceasefire plan for Aleppo, which would involve a cessation of bombing in the city and a resumption of humanitarian supplies there.

The plan appears in essence to be identical to the 9th September 2016 Kerry-Lavrov agreement in that its key provision is the withdrawal of Jihadi fighters from eastern Aleppo leading to its effective surrender to the Syrian government.

That this is indeed the central idea of the French plan – which almost certainly is being inspired by the US – has been essentially confirmed by Staffan de Mistura, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s special envoy to Syria. 

De Mistura has repeatedly been used by Kerry and the US State Department as a stalking horse for their plans – to which he can be relied upon to give a humanitarian gloss – and it is notable that he is now publicly calling for Jabhat Al-Nusra’s fighters to quit Aleppo.  Indeed he is even offering to accompany them as they retreat in order to guarantee their safety

“If you did decide to leave, in dignity with your weapons, to Idlib or anywhere you wanted to go, I personally am ready, physically ready, to accompany you.  I can’t guarantee more than my own personality and body.”

The Kerry-Lavrov agreement collapsed because the US failed to act on its promise to separate the Syrian fighters it supports from Jabhat Al-Nusra, whilst the fighters in Syria – egged on by their foreign sponsors and the hardliners in Washington – also refused to do so. 

Despite de Mistura’s claim that Jabhat Al-Nusra fighters account for no more than 900 out of the 8,000 Jihadi fighters in eastern Aleppo, independent reports confirm that Jabhat Al-Nusra is in reality the dominant force there. 

Indeed at the time of the Jihadi offensive against south west Aleppo in late July and August, all the Jihadi fighters inside and outside Aleppo had united under Jabhat Al-Nusra’s leadership and were taking orders from its so-called “operations room”.

De Mistura’s proposal, and the French plan that probably underpins it, therefore look essentially like an attempt by the realists in Washington to revive their previous plan to save the Jihadis in eastern Aleppo and to preserve them as a coherent force by withdrawing them intact from the city, where they have become trapped and are now facing defeat and ultimate annihilation.

Whether the realists can succeed where because of the opposition from the hardliners in Washington and elsewhere they have previously failed is another matter.  Possibly the prospect of imminent defeat may have concentrated a few minds and won some of the hardliners round, but only time will tell whether this is so.

There is of course also the question of whether the plan has now run out of time. 

There must be a question whether the Russians – with their faith in Kerry badly shaken not just by the collapse of the Kerry-Lavrov agreement but by the vituperative campaign the US subsequently launched against them, blaming them falsely for the collapse of the ceasefire – will be prepared to revisit a plan that has previously failed. 

It is incidentally almost certainly because Russian trust and confidence in Kerry and the US has hit rock bottom over everything concerning Syria that the US is now having to work through de Mistura and the French rather than directly with the Russians.

Regardless, the return to diplomacy, however faltering, suggests that some of the wilder plans for covert air and missile strikes being floated by the hardliners in the State Department and the Pentagon have for the moment at least been put to one side, though given the character of some of the people in Washington it is impossible ever to be completely confident of this.

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Alexander Mercouris
Editor-in-Chief atThe Duran.

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