Aleppo is key to the war in Syria


by Rolf Holmboe

The Hill  Times
October 26, 2016

OTTAWA—Last month, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah launched a large air and ground offensive to take the rebel-held eastern part of Aleppo. The preparations were underway for months, and it clearly shows that they are still committed to a military solution aimed at destroying the moderate rebels and pushing Sunnis out of regime-held areas.

How long can Canada and other Western governments afford to continue a policy of appeasement of this type of aggression? How long will we stand idly by and watch a new crop of authoritarian states grow up and with impunity bring methods of repression and warfare back to the pre-1945 era?

The only possible conclusion from the patterns of Russian and Syrian bombing is that it directly targets the basic infrastructure of civilian life and survival in blatant disregard of international law and humanitarian principles.

The Russian objective is to bomb the civilian population into submission by making life so untenable for them that they have no other option than to leave. Russian and Syrian aircraft—as a matter of strategy—target hospitals, marketplaces, food distribution centres, water-supply points, schools, and the civil relief service known as the White Helmets. Another part of the bombing is indiscriminate and aimed at setting whole neighborhoods ablaze to sow terror among the civilians. It is an extremely brutal method of ethnic cleansing.


Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion ramped up pressure on Russia and Assad in a special session of the UN General Assemly called for by Canada, among others, last week. He called on Russia to stop the bombing of Aleppo and allow in humanitarian aid.

But we should not mistake Russian President Vladimir Putin and Assad’s unilateral ceasefire last week as any consideration for the civilians trapped in Aleppo. It fits directly into their strategy: it was a possibility to get civilians and rebels to leave Aleppo, but it did not work. Dion also clearly stated that a short humanitarian ceasefire does not meet the requirement of a lasting end to bombings and a return to the negotiating table.

For Putin, the challenge is to manage diplomatic pressure from Canada and others until his side can achieve its goal. For this reason, Putin needed to take a little of the pressure off him just for a short while: the Russian announcement of the ceasefire coincided with the meeting in the General Assembly and with Putin’s visit to Berlin for a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande on Ukraine.

The only possible purpose of Putin’s hasty dispatch of the only Russian aircraft carrier towards the Mediterranean to join other naval vessels is to deter the United States from applying any military option against Assad. Putin only needs this military build-up if he intends to continue the onslaught on Aleppo.

If Aleppo falls, the moderate rebels will be isolated in scattered pockets. One by one, Assad and Putin would be able to eliminate them, just as they have done in so many other sieges, except for the ones bordering Turkey which they would probably have to leave, at least in the first instance, in order not to antogonize Turkey. Assad would control the main population centres and the economically viable part of Syria. In short, Assad will have won the war sufficiently to dictate a solution on his terms.

There is little doubt that the Russians want to achieve their war goals preferably by Nov. 8, to present the U.S. after the election with a fait accompli, and dictate a new settlement in Syria in the form of full accommodation for Assad.

Needless to say, such a strategy can never lead to real peace and can never be a sustainable outcome. It may end one phase of the war, but the underlying causes would not be solved and it would lead to a much longer and more costly conflict. The regional conflict between Sunnis and Shia would escalate. The massive refugee problem—the ethnic cleansing of the majority Sunni population from regime-held areas—would become more or less permanent. Europe could potentially end up with four to five million Syrian refugees.

The time has come for Canada and other Western governments to fundamentally re-think the whole approach to the war in Syria. The cost and consequences for Syrians, for the region, for the West, and indeed globally are simply too high to continue relegating this war to a secondary policy priority level.

The focus has got to be on denying Assad, Russia, and Iran a victory in Aleppo and then on making any strategy of a military solution unviable for them. This can be done without intervening directly on the ground, but there is an urgent need for building a credible threat to Assad and to engage Turkey in a concerted effort at applying real pressure on the Russians.

If Aleppo does not fall to Assad, Russia will be faced with the stark choice of further and open-ended military escalation or changing its strategy towards a real political solution. That should be our strategic aim.

Rolf Holmboe is a research fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and a former Danish ambassador to Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan (2012-2015). Image: Flickr photograph courtesy of Garry Knight

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