What happens if the battle for Aleppo is lost?



by Rolf Holmboe

August 19, 2016

It is painfully apparent that the Syrian regime and its allies — Russia and Shia rulers in Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah — are aggressively pursuing a military strategy aimed at reaching a tipping point in the war. The battle for Aleppo is at the heart of this strategy.

A victory in Aleppo could afford the regime allies the strategic possibility of isolating and succesively defeating the remainder of the ISIS rebel bastions in the North. Once the rebels are cleared from the North, the regime could concentrate all forces to defeat the rebels in the South. The result could be a Sunni exodus to Turkey and Jordan — and to Europe — of massive proportions.

But what happens if Aleppo does not fall? Russia and Iran would face the stark choice between Vietnam-like military escalation — with no end in sight — or drawing a line and removing Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in order to make a political solution possible.

Either way, the battle for Aleppo could be the game-changer.

In the beginning of August, United Nations Special Envoy Staffan di Mistura invited the Syrian government to a third round of peace talks at the end of the month. As always, the formal answer of Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs Walid Mouallem was positive, if ambiguous, pledging to “participate in the talks, once they are held.”

He had reasons to be ambiguous. Already in June, regime allied forces started operations to close the only free rebel access and supply route into Aleppo, and by 28 July the encirclement was complete. This was accomplished only through an unprecedented concentration of elite forces from all of the regime allies, supported by a massive Russian bombing offensive.

But on August 6, the rebels broke through regime lines and established a corridor south of Aleppo, breaking the siege — at least for the time being.

The maximum engagement of forces from Russia and Iran exposes the fact that their lip service about peace talks was a ruse to placate the West. Assad even said it outright: In a July interview he asserted that a military victory was possible “within months,” praising Russia for tipping the balance in his favour.

The concentration of forces on Aleppo is is the most concerted and massive effort displayed so far by regime allies to achieve a military solution in the war. Still, there’s no sign that the coalition will be able to effectively lay a siege, or that such a siege would lead to a defeat of the rebels in Aleppo. Judging from the dogged rebel resistance over the last four years in Daraya, south of Damascus, defeating the rebels may not be that easy.

If the regime allies cannot win an outright victory in the Battle for Aleppo within a certain time frame, Russia and Iran could conclude that underpinning the Assad regime comes at too high a cost. So the battle for Aleppo could produce new opportunities for a political solution to the Syria war.

In the absence of political will in the West to stop the appaling atrocities in Syria, this could be an avenue to explore. How could the West present elements of a peace deal that would encompass (to some extent) the interests of Russia and Iran in the region, and by default Iran’s link to Hezbollah? For some, this would be a sour apple to bite — but at some point it will become necessary to change the dynamic from a military to a political one.

The best option at this point could be to build a solution on the Lebanon power-sharing model that ended the 15-year Lebanese civil war in 1990. The benefits of this model are that it includes all the sectarian groups in one cooperative political framework, while tying their regional sponsors into the deal, too.

It is a crude model but, for all its faults, it works. It could work in Syria, too.

Image credit: Al Jazeera

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