Thursday, February 25, 2016

Why Moscow Holds the Cards in Syria

From Julien Barnes-Dacey and Jeremy Shapiro, at Politico:
It’s time to drop pretenses of U.S. forces or safe zones and persuade the rebels to accept Russia’s terms. Otherwise a new slaughter will start in Aleppo.

Can the shaky cease-fire announced this week avert a fresh disaster about to happen in Syria? The siege of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. That will be the key test for the pact, which is to go into effect on Feb. 27. For weeks now, Aleppans have felt a sense of impending doom. Recently, Syrian government forces with the support of Russian air power cut off the last remaining major supply route to rebels in Aleppo, setting the stage for a siege. Fearing the prospect of bombardment and starvation, tens of thousands of Syrians have already fled toward Turkey and the hope of safety. With Ankara refusing to let most of them into the country, a humanitarian crisis is already brewing on the border. Many thousands more are fleeing to other parts of Syria, including to regime-held areas. A not-small percentage of them will end up on the road to Europe this spring and summer.

Ironically, the talks are not even any longer about bringing relief to Aleppo. It was the Assad regime’s advance on the city in early February that pushed international negotiations forward. But the talks are less likely to have any meaningful impact there than in other parts of Syria because fighting has dramatically intensified in and around Aleppo even as negotiations have progressed. And the Russians have made it clear that even if a cessation of hostilities comes into effect, Aleppo and the neighboring province of Idlib will be excluded from the arrangement due to the direct presence of Jabhat al-Nusra, Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.

The fact that President Vladimir Putin came out so quickly in support of the agreement, making a special address on Russian television yesterday, at least holds out the prospect of a new commitment from Moscow. This is presumably based on the military gains Putin’s forces have helped Assad secure over recent months. And the Russian leader has reason to be confident he can control events on the ground: The presence of al-Nusra, in particular, gives Russia an excuse to keep fighting in Aleppo and even to target rebel fighters that the West would prefer to support. Washington knows it is impossible to craft a cease-fire that would still allow attacks on the Islamic State—which President Barack Obama wants—but rule out efforts against al-Nusra, which is a terrorist organization by any definition.

Many still see the ultimate answer in the use of U.S. military force or a no-fly or safe zone to save the people of Aleppo and to push back the Russian-supported regime advance. Such voices are demanding that Washington find a way to reopen supply routes into the city and increase the flow of high-end weapons to the rebels.

But just as constant in these refrains is the lack of a broader strategy in which to place the use of U.S. force. Beyond the fact that these measures would risk a direct U.S.-Russian clash and the possible outbreak of a wider conflict, it is doubtful whether safe zones would actually improve protection for civilians. Without an accompanying ground force able to secure the zones, fighting will continue. Al-Nusra and ISIL are likely to partly fill any vacuum. Pushing the regime back from northern Aleppo may change the identity of those who suffer, but it will hardly reduce the problem overall...
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