Following the Syrian army’s encirclement of the jihadi rebels in eastern Aleppo a predictable outcry has begun in the West in which the Syrian government and Russia are being accused of aiming to starve Aleppo into submission. The Syrian-Russian plan for setting up humanitarian corridors of the city is being derided, and there are mounting calls for the siege to be lifted.
As a general rule Western governments and the Western media tend not to make such calls when the besiegers are Western militaries or are aligned with the West. They did not for example demand an immediate stop of the shelling and sieges of population centres and cities in eastern Ukraine by the Ukrainian army during the conflict there. Nor did they make similar demands during the Iraqi military’s recent US-backed siege of the Daesh controlled Iraqi city of Ramadi.
In passing I should say that there is some dispute about the number of people in the rebel controlled area of eastern Aleppo. Most reports say the number is 300,000. However the Guardian’s Martin Chulov – a journalist who tends to be sympathetic to the rebels – puts the number much lower, at about 40,000.
It is however important not to become distracted by questions of double-standards or precise numbers important though they are. Unquestionably there are people in the encircled area of eastern Aleppo who are in urgent need of help. Everything humanly possible should be done to help them, and the military operation should be conducted in a way that minimises loss of civilian life. Historical experience shows that proper military tactics can make that possible without compromising the ultimate success of the military operation, and as I have said previously I am sure that that is what will be done.
The focus on the humanitarian consequences of the siege however distracts from the far more important question of why there is a siege of eastern Aleppo at all.
In February the US and Russia agreed a joint ceasefire plan which was confirmed in a succession of resolutions by the UN Security Council. This called for a cessation of hostilities in Syria which excluded known terrorist groups such as Daesh and Jabhat Al-Nusra. It also called for rebel groups in Syria to dissociate themselves and separate themselves from UN declared terrorist groups like Jabhat Al-Nusra, and for negotiations in Geneva to be held between all the Syrian parties to achieve a political settlement.
Since February this process has been deadlocked. The rebel groups in and around Aleppo refused to dissociate themselves or separate themselves from Jabhat Al-Nusra. Jabhat Al-Nusra for its part, with the support of the other rebel groups, exploited the cessation of hostilities and the pullout in March of part of the Russian aerial strike force to launch a series of counter-offensives against the Syrian army in and around Aleppo. The negotiations in Geneva went nowhere, with the Syrian rebels and their Western and Arab backers continuing to insist on the removal of President Assad as a pre-condition for a peace settlement.
Since neither the Syrian rebels nor their Western or Arab backers proved willing or able to implement the agreements made in February, the Syrians and their Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah backers resumed the offensive they interrupted in February. Since that is what the Russians warned would happen if the February agreement was not honoured it is difficult to understand why this should have come as a surprise. After all the warning was repeated on 17th March 2016 by no less a person than Putin himself:
“If necessary, of course, Russia will be able to enhance its group in the region in a matter of hours to a size required for a specific situation and to use all the options available. We would not want to do that. Military escalation is not our choice. Therefore, we still count on the common sense of both sides, on the adherence by both the Syrian authorities and the opposition to a peaceful process.”
Just as the Syrian offensive before the cessation of hostilities in February carried all before it because it had the backing of the Russian air force, of Hezbollah and of the Iranian army, so the Syrian offensive that was launched following the failure of the February agreement has similarly carried all before it and for the same reason – because it has the backing of the Russian air force, of Hezbollah and of the Iranian army. The result is that the rebels in Aleppo, who had secure supply lines to Turkey at the time the February cessation of hostilities agreement was agreed, have now seen those supply lines cut off and now find themselves encircled and trapped. Again given the balance of forces on the ground this was entirely predictable and it is difficult to understand why anyone should be surprised.
The reason the war in Syria has gone on for so long, and the reason why the rebels in Aleppo are now trapped and facing total defeat, is ultimately the same: the total intransigence of the Syrian opposition and of their Western and Arab backers. Though negotiated routes out of the war have repeatedly been offered to them (eg. the Arab League’s Peace Plan of 2011, the Kofi Annan plan of 2012, and this year’s February cessation of hostilities agreement) they have always in the end spurned them. Instead they have insisted on being given what they have never succeeded in achieving on the battlefield: President Assad’s removal from power and thus total victory. If they are now instead looking at total defeat then that is only because that is where their refusal to moderate their maximalist demands by even the slightest degree has led them.
In the Syrian war as in all else those who play for all or nothing risk ending up with nothing.