News media reports are circulating that Russian President Vladimir Putin has for the moment refused the Russian military’s request to resume bombing in Aleppo.
These reports are based upon reported comments made by Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov in answer to journalists’ questions.
Peskov’s comments are not completely clear and leave considerable scope for ambiguity. For that reason I will first republish his comments as the official Russian news agency TASS is reporting them:
“Considering that terrorists have announced the planned intensification of combat actions and also that they have really switched partially to active offensive operations, the Russian president proceeds from the fact that in case of emergency the Russian side reserves the right to use all available forces and resources to counter the terrorist groupings’ provocative actions and provide due support to the armed forces of the Syrian Arab Republic. The Russian president believes that it would be inexpedient at the moment to resume airstrikes against Aleppo. The president believes that it would be possible to extend the ongoing humanitarian pause for the withdrawal of wounded people and militants wishing to leave the city as well as most importantly to give our American partners a chance to implement earlier assumed obligations and made promises on separating the so-called moderate opposition from terrorist groups.”
TASS then reports Peskov saying that Russia reserves the right to help the Syrian military:
“……using all means and at a proper level considering recent statements made by militants on their intentions to step up military actions……decisions regarding further (Russia’s) actions will depend on the unfolding developments.”
In certain very surprising comments, Peskov then explained the different roles in decision making of the President and of the General Staff:
“The General Staff will certainly be in charge of operational command but as for the setting of strategic tasks and the adoption of strategic decisions, they will certainly be set and made by the (Supreme) Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Armed Forces (ie. Putin the President)”
To which all one can say is: did anyone ever question this?
Peskov then went on to say:
“The top priority task, from the point of view of the president, is evacuation of the wounded and safe exit for the militants who wish to leave the city.”
Peskov then confirmed that though Russia is keeping the US military informed of its actions, it is not engaged in discussion with the US government on the subject of Aleppo at a political level, and that there are no ongoing plans for direct contacts to discuss Syria between Obama and Putin. He then pointedly reminded journalists that the bombing pause only affects Aleppo.
“The humanitarian pause is in force only around Aleppo.”
This is – intentionally – a very complicated statement, a fact which points to a furious row within the Russian government.
Unpacking it, it seems that Putin has rather grudgingly given the General Staff a general permission to resume bombing in Aleppo if the Syrian military gets into trouble and needs urgent help, but has “asked” it not to do so for the moment (“it would be inexpedient at the moment to resume airstrikes against Aleppo”). His “request” (which is of course an order) does not however prevent the Russian air force bombing Jihadi forces provided they are some distance from the city.
What is Putin up to and what explains this surprising decision?
The big event in Aleppo on 28th October 2016 was the Al-Qaeda led Jihadi counter-offensive intended to break the siege of the Jihadi controlled eastern districts of the city.
The Russian military is reporting that it has failed to make much headway, and this seems to be confirmed by reports from the city. If so Putin may be calculating that air support from the Russian air force for the moment simply isn’t needed, though he is trying to cover his position by giving the Russian military the option to intervene immediately if the situation changes.
Whilst that makes a kind of sense, it still begs many questions.
Having resisted Western pressure to call off the bombing in Aleppo for several weeks, it is difficult to believe Putin has now buckled, especially as nothing has happened that would obviously cause him to change his approach, and especially as there is no indication that this latest move has been coordinated with or welcomed by the West. Besides Putin’s comments at Valdai show that though he has been stung by Western criticism of the Russian bombing of Aleppo, his response is one of cold anger and defiance, not retreat.
Peskov’s comments suggest Putin may still be hoping that he can somehow negotiate (with the Turks?) the withdrawal of the Jihadis from eastern Aleppo – the objective of his diplomatic strategy since the early summer. Possibly he hopes the eventual defeat of the Jihadi counter-offensive will suffice to persuade the Jihadis’ backers (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the US etc) to pull them out.
If Putin really does think this, then he is probably the last person left on earth who does so. However he would not be the first or the last statesman to cling to a diplomatic strategy in which a huge amount of time and effort has been invested beyond the point where it has ceased to be viable.
Regardless, this episode clearly shows one thing: the persistent Western claim that Putin is a dictator and an autocrat and that he is Russia’s hardliner is a myth.
On the contrary it is clear that Putin is now coming under intense pressure from the Russian military to call off the bombing halt in Aleppo, and that the military feel sufficiently strongly about this to go public, to the point where they made public a “request” to Putin to allow them to resume bombing in a way that clearly showed that this is what they want to do.
The fact that Putin is resisting the military’s public request is a clear sign that he did not prompt it, and that the request was not welcome to him, and was made to him by the military as a form of pressure.
What that of course shows is that the military is becoming increasingly impatient with Putin’s Aleppo strategy, which they obviously interpret as foot-dragging, and that they are no longer bothering to conceal the fact.
This is not the first time the military has made known its displeasure with some of Putin’s diplomatic moves. The delay in the visit of General Gerasimov – the Russian Chief of General Staff – to Turkey in September was almost certainly intended to signal the Russian military’s unhappiness with the way Putin had allowed Erdogan to steal a march on them by launching Operation Euphrates Shield.
Though Putin obviously feels able for the moment to resist the military’s pressure, the extraordinary complexity of Peskov’s statement – with its strange insistence that Putin is in charge (“strategic tasks and the adoption of strategic decisions will certainly be set and made by the (Supreme) Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Armed Forces”) – shows how strong the pressure on him is. It is doubtful he can go on resisting it for much further.
What that means is that barring some completely unexpected development, Russian bombing in Aleppo will resume soon.