Russia and the Ring Around Aleppo

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A picture taken on January 17, 2015, shows a heavily damaged street on the rebel-controlled side of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. AFP/Zein al-Rifai

By: Suhaib Anjarini

Published Tuesday, January 20, 2015

In early December, the ring around Aleppo was about to be closed and the siege on Nubl and al-Zahraa was nearly broken before a decision was taken to confine the battles to specific areas. Several indicators confirm that the issue is connected to political developments that usually arise right before major military achievements. Sources on the ground, however, stress that the Syrian army is capable of closing the ring at the right time.

All the talk about closing the “ring around Aleppo” has quieted down, after having dominated the Syrian scene for the past two months. This does not mean that the Syrian army and its allies have abandoned the idea of trying to encircle Aleppo, which, among other things, means completely isolating the eastern neighborhoods of the city that are now being controlled by armed groups. The Syrian army and its allies devised the plan about two years ago and it has been implemented in stages, punctuated by successive breakthroughs and periods of stalemate. The campaign has two objectives: completing the ring around Aleppo, and breaking the siege on the towns of Nubl and al-Zahraa.

The situation on the ground will dictate whether the two goals should be pursued simultaneously, or if one of them should be given priority. Last month’s developments suggested that accomplishing at least one of the two objectives was a mere matter of time. However, the battles in Handarat, Saifat and al-Mallah reverted into attack-and-retreat mode. So, what happened?

Follow the politics

Clearly, it’s impossible to separate between military and political developments in the Syrian conflict. This does not mean that all military developments are subject to political negotiations. However, major turning points on the ground have to chart a political path. Someone who closely follows the nitty gritty of everyday developments may not be able to place them in a clear overseeable framework, but a survey of the overlapping political and military scenes may provide some answers.

In the case of Aleppo, one should recall that both Paris and Ankara took issue with the progress that the army was making in November. At the time, France warned of the consequences of imposing a siege on Aleppo — the “moderate opposition’s stronghold.” “Moderate” is how the French classify groups dominant in Aleppo such as al-Nusra Front, the Army of Emigrants and Supporters, and Supporters of the Religion Front. Ankara, backed by France, brought talk of safe zones and a no-fly zone back to the forefront. This, however, did not prevent the Syrian army from going through with its plan.

Shortly thereafter, a Syrian diplomatic delegation visited Moscow, and Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Ankara. A trilateral meeting between the Syrian, Iranian and Iraqi foreign ministers was held on the sidelines of an international conference in Tehran, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad met with Russian deputy foreign minister and the Russian president’s envoy to the Middle East Mikhail Bogdanov. At the same time, Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi and the Turkish Foreign Minister Mawlood Jawish Oglu visited Tehran.

These developments enabled the Russians to push — with US consent — for political negotiations. It appears that what Paris and Ankara’s threats failed to achieve was accomplished by Damascus’ allies, specifically Moscow, thus postponing the completion of the military plan in Aleppo. A Syrian opposition source told Al-Akhbar that “Moscow asked Damascus to give its diplomatic efforts a chance which required slowing down the pace of military action in Aleppo, given the particular importance of the city to the Turks, especially since the opposition Syrian National Coalition had not made a final decision regarding the Moscow meetings.”

A senior military source in Aleppo told Al-Akhbar that “the Syrian army has all the prerequisites for military victory on the ground and has been steadily pressing ahead with the military plan in Aleppo since its inception. But, from the beginning, the plan was not a short-term campaign, rather it is being carried out in stages.” In typical reserved fashion, the source refused to delve into further details and refused to confirm or deny claims that delaying the completion of the military plan is informed by political motives. Instead he said: “We are military men and we view things in terms of tanks and planes and nothing else. We take orders from the leadership which holds both the military and political strings and takes the right decision at the right time while we are always ready to execute with success.”

What happened on the ground?

In the first week of December, Syrian forces were about to expand their operations towards Bashouki. Seizing control of Bashouki meant that Bayanoun would most probably fall, which would pave the way for lifting the siege off of Nubl and al-Zahraa. However, it appears that a decision was made to confine the battle within certain areas instead of expanding them. This amounts to freezing the geography of battles, not the battles themselves. In an expected reaction, armed militants launched several attacks on the fronts in Handarat and al-Bureij, on Nubl and al-Zahraa, and on al-Zahraa Association where the air force intelligence building is located. Despite these battles, the Syrian army and its allies remain in control as armed groups have repeatedly taken advantage of political conditions to restore military balance.

Aleppo-Moscow and Homs-Geneva

The overlapping political and military situation in Aleppo is reminiscent of the Homs-Geneva case. Around this time last year, the Geneva II negotiations were underway and Homs was very much part of that picture. As is well-known, Geneva II did not lead to any tangible results. Later on — in April to be precise — opposition militants left old Homs. History will not necessarily repeat itself, of course, but drawing a parallel between the two cases might be useful.

Moscow renewed its unwavering support for UN envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura’s efforts to adopt local reconciliation as a model for a “bottom-up” solution. Corresponding news reports said that the Russian Foreign Ministry stated yesterday that “Russia supports these efforts, especially in Aleppo, one of Syria’s largest cities.” The ministry added: “We believe that the experience gained as a result of the truce measures will be helpful, and the methods used to resolve difficult situations, in service of the public good of halting the violence, could be applied in Aleppo.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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