Over the course of the last week, following the collapse of the Kerry – Lavrov agreement and the ceasefire, and with the Syrian army closing in on the Jihadis trapped in eastern Aleppo, the reality of pending defeat in Aleppo has finally struck home with the Western powers.
The result is a round of frantic diplomatic and media activity to try to embarrass the Russians to bring the Syrian army’s offensive in Aleppo to a stop.
The reason for this activity is the further advance of the Syrian army in Aleppo since the breakdown of the ceasefire.
Having defeated and driven back the Jabhat Al-Nusra led Jihadi offensive against the south west of Aleppo by the first week of September, the Syrian army since the collapse of the ceasefire has consolidated its control of the Castello road by capturing the now deserted area of the Handarat Palestinian refugee camp. It is also, following intense artillery shelling and bombing, advancing from the area of the Aleppo citadel and from the Ramousseh district into the Jihadi controlled areas of eastern Aleppo, apparently in order to consolidate its control of the suburbs of south western Aleppo and – possibly – so as to cut Jihadi controlled eastern Aleppo in half.
Reports from Aleppo speak of the Syrian military and its allies concentrating substantial forces near or in the city to support the offensive. The Russian marines are still at the Castello road, and there are reports that up to 8,000 Iranian commanded Iraqi Shia militia have also arrived in the city. The main strike force however remains the Syrian army.
It appears that the Russian aerial strike force at Khmeimim air base has also been reinforced. A video released on Saturday 24th September 2016 by Russian Ruptly TV supposedly shows Syrian troops advancing against Jihadi fighters in Lattakia province following the collapse of the ceasefire. The video shows SU25 aircraft providing ground support. Russia deployed SU25 aircraft to Khmeimim air base in September last year. However they were all withdrawn in March. It seems they are now back.
The key point to understand, and which explains all the furious rhetoric of the last few days, is that the Western powers cannot stop the Syrian offensive against the Jihadis trapped in Aleppo.
At a US Senate hearing on Thursday 22nd September 2016 US General Dunford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained why. Pressed by Mississippi Republican Senator Roger Wicker to say if the US could take “decisive action” by imposing a no-fly zone – something which Wicker said he had discussed with the Democrats and which might have bipartisan support – Dunford replied
“For now, for us to control all the airspace in Syria would require us to go to war with Syria and Russia. That’s a pretty fundamental decision that certainly I’m not going to make.”
Dunford’s comment provoked an intervention by Republican Senator John McCain, a perennial war hawk and interventionist who constantly presses for US military action at any and every opportunity and especially so in any conflict involving Russia. McCain tried to get Dunford to say that a no-fly zone was not the same as “total control of the Syrian airspace”, which would require war with Russia and Syria.
The reality, as both McCain and Dunford know, is that the US has never imposed a no-fly zone over a country over which it did not have “total control of the airspace”. It is inconceivable the US would try to impose a no-fly zone over Syria if it did not have “total control of the airspace”. Dunford’s admission that “total control of the airspace” cannot be achieved in Syria without going to war with Russia for all practical purposes rules the whole idea of a no-fly zone over Syria out.
Unable to impose a no-fly zone, there is nothing in practical terms that the US can do to change the course of the fighting in Aleppo.
It is this US awareness of its own impotence as its Jihadi proteges in Aleppo face total defeat which accounts for all the angry rhetoric and cranking up of atrocity stories we have been seeing over the last week. These have now culminated in some typically furious denunciations of Russia by US ambassador Samantha Power on Sunday’s 25th September 2016 at the UN Security Council, over the course of which she actually accused Russia of “barbarism”.
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, in an unguarded comment for which he is probably already being taken to task, slipped the truth out during a television interview on Sunday 25th September 2016
“If you say to me the West is too impotent, I would have to agree. I would have to agree that, since we took those decisions in 2013, when those red lines were crossed, we have not really had a viable military response, or any kinetic response to what is going on. I don’t think there is any real appetite for such a thing.”
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Johnson then went on to say that the only thing the West could do in this situation is to try to embarrass the Russians into calling a stop. He explained this by saying that “the one thing the Russians respond to is adverse global public opinion”.
This explains all the current talk of war crimes, encompassing charges of (the unproved) Russian guilt for the attack on the relief convoy, complaints about the deliberate cutting off of Aleppo’s water supply, charges of the indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas of Aleppo, claims of the use of firebombs there etc. – all things which happen in Syria all the time, and which having been happening continuously there ever since the war started, but which are now being talked about as war crimes.
In the same interview Johnson put it this way
“They (the Russians – AM) are in the dock of the court of international opinion. They are guilty of making the war far more protracted and far more hideous, and yes, when it comes up, the bombing of civilian targets, we should be looking … to see if the targeting is done in the knowledge they are wholly innocent civilian targets, [because] that is a war crime.”
To Western dismay the Russians however show no sign of bending.
The key point about the events at the UN General Assembly last week was that Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov – despite coming under intense concerted pressure from the US and its allies – flatly ruled out any more unilateral ceasefires by the Syrian army.
Instead he made it crystal clear that a ceasefire could only happen if the Syrian opposition fighters genuinely committed themselves to it and separated themselves from Jabhat Al-Nusra, as the US promised in February and in the recent Kerry – Lavrov agreement that they would do.
At the UN Security Council meeting on Sunday 25th September 2016 Russia’s UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin said the same thing
“The American side de facto signed that it was unable to influence the groups it sponsors and to deliver on the deal as it promised. First of all, to separate those groups from terrorists and mark their positions on the ground accordingly.
The ceasefire can only be salvaged now on a collective basis. It’s not us that have to prove something to somebody unilaterally. We have to see proof that there is a genuine desire to separate US-allied rebel groups from the Al-Nusra Front, then destroy the Al-Nusra Front and bring the opposition into a political process. Otherwise our suspicions that this was only meant to shield the Al-Nusra Front would only grow stronger.”
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Two weeks ago I said that the likely motivation of the realists in Washington who supported the Kerry -Lavrov agreement was to save the Jihadis in Aleppo and preserve them as a coherent force by evacuating them from the city, where they had become trapped and where their position had become untenable. That was why – as I speculated on the strength of certain comments made by Russian military officials – it appeared that the Kerry – Lavrov agreement made provision for their withdrawal from Aleppo by way of the Castello road.
As it turns out the Kerry – Lavrov agreement did indeed provide for that. This has now been confirmed by the text of the part of the Kerry – Lavrov agreement the US has disclosed (through the bizarre device of a leak to the Associated Press). This is the specific provision in the text
“Any Syrians can leave Aleppo via Castello Road, including armed opposition forces with their weapons, with the understanding that no harm will come to them and they can choose their destination. Opposition forces leaving Aleppo with weapons must coordinate ahead of time with UN representatives as to the time they will be using Castello Road and the number of personnel and weapons and military equipment departing.”
(bold italics added)
The document the US has published is only one document of the five which together make up the Kerry – Lavrov agreement. The other documents no doubt go into much greater detail about the separation of the fighters the US supports from Jabhat Al-Nusra. It is likely that these documents specify which fighters were to leave Aleppo via the Castello road, and what would happen to those who remained.
In the event the intentions of the realists were defeated because the hardliners in Washington and the Jihadis on the ground in Syria rejected the Kerry – Lavrov agreement.
The result was that instead of separating themselves from Jabhat Al-Nusra – as the Kerry-Lavrov agreement required them to do – the Jihadi fighters have remained united with Jabhat Al-Nusra, and tried to exploit the ceasefire to carry out more attacks on the Syrian army.
Following the collapse of the ceasefire, and with the forcible imposition of a no-fly zone for all practical purposes ruled out, the US has found itself left with nothing other than US Secretary of State Kerry’s absurd proposal that Russia and Syria impose a no-fly zone on themselves. The moment the Russians rejected this proposal – as they were bound to do – the US’s bluff was effectively called.
It is this awareness on the part of the US that its bluff has been called, and that its impotence to effect militarily the course of the battle of Aleppo has been laid bare, which is behind the furious denunciations we are now hearing from the US and its allies, as they scramble desperately to try to get the Russians to call off the battle of Aleppo so as to save their Jihadi proteges in Aleppo from total defeat, and themselves from the humiliation of the public failure of their strategy.