Aleppo: A Chance to Save US Syria Policy

For years, the White House administration has focused its Syria policy on fighting terrorism, even as it reluctantly remains a main player in efforts to negotiate a settlement. To this end, the White House has offered to cooperate with the Russian military in Syria, to exchange information and set strategic goals to coordinate strikes on the Islamic State and the Nusra Front, which announced on July 28 that it had split from al-Qaeda and reformed as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (the Front for the Conquest of the Levant).

As little as week ago, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry had nearly reached an understanding on Syria. If they had reached an agreement, the international community might have seen the United States as endorsing Russia’s approach towards resolving the crisis. Lavrov seemed poised to become a modern-day successor to Sergey Sazonov, Russian Foreign Minister prior to World War I. Were it not for the Bolshevik Revolution, Sazonov would have worked with British diplomat Mark Sykes and French diplomat François Georges-Picot after World War I in the project to divide the Middle East. Lavrov’s sense of victory convinced him that altering the geopolitical arrangements that have governed the Middle East since European colonialism would be a simple affair.

The overall trend in recent months—that the United States is focused on terrorism and its regional allies are on the defensive—gave Russia the liberty to firmly rejected any agreement with regards to Syria that did not include Assad and protection of Russia’s interests in the region. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s is focused on getting his internal affairs under control after the coup attempt in Turkey and after NATO did not support him after the downing of the Russian plane. Adding to the complexity of the situation is the US support for the Kurdish groups in Syria, whom the Turkish state considers terrorists, a series of concessions on what he called ‘red lines’ with regards to Syria, Europe’s preoccupation with the refugee crisis and terrorist operations in Europe, as well as the economic crisis in the Gulf caused by the decline in oil prices.

Obama’s plan of working with the Russians may be a trap that he will fall into himself, as it would entrench the blockade the Syrian government forces have imposed on Aleppo and cause jihadist groups and refugees to flee towards Turkey. This plan is a gamble, however, with the aim of renewing the ‘truce’ between parties in the Syrian conflict, and returning to the negotiating table on political transition in the country. On the other hand, the mixing, integration, and coordination of Syrian opposition groups with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham provides an excuse for Assad to militarily intervene in those areas and attack opposition forces to strengthen his grip on power there. Because he lacks the personnel necessary to control areas with a Sunni majority, he would have to resort to relying on Hezbollah and Shiite militias for the task. If the Syrian government and these militias succeed, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and other armed groups, both Islamist and moderate, would all flee towards Turkey to protect their supply lines from there, which would cause the war to intensify in those regions and drive even more civilian migrants towards Europe.

The most recent battle for Aleppo seems in part to have helped rescue America’s position on Syria by putting Moscow in a conundrum it hopes will not be repeated. Aleppo is not Grozny, the capital of the Chechen Republic completely isolated from its surroundings, and which Russia treated as a domestic affair. Aleppo has become the capital of northern Syria and an important issue to Arab, Islamist, regional, and international parties. Opposition supporters, in particular Turkey and Saudi Arabia, poured weapons into northern Syria in recent months. Putin himself may not be as concerned with taking Aleppo since he does not need it to score political points in the international arena, but Iran and the regime feel taking Aleppo is necessary, and they are dragging Putin into the fight. The fact that Aleppo will not fall easily could encourage the remaining pragmatists in the Kremlin to warn Putin that the city could put him in open confrontation with a majority of Arabs and Islamists.

US domestic politics might encourage the current administration to take some action to spare Hillary Clinton from being tarred with Obama and Kerry’s failings in the eyes of the Republican Party in the current presidential race. Obama’s plan was driven less by experience, and more by both hope of ending the Syrian conflict through diplomatic means, which would have been a windfall for the Democratic party in the upcoming elections if it had worked. Instead, Obama recently said that half of his gray hair is the result of his Syria meetings, and many analysts say his policy has played into the hands of the regime and its backers. Even the February 26 cessation of hostilities in Syria helped Russia achieve substantial gains in the field and better positioned it in future negotiations.

Putin still believes in a policy of force to achieve his victory and that of his allies in Syria, and it seems he will not change this stance until Russians are convinced that engagement in Syria has become too costly. For the United States to make negotiations fruitful, it needs to make fighting in Syria costly for Putin, and negotiations the more appealing option. Ramping up support for vetted opposition factions that are fighting around Aleppo is the most straight-forward, and least costly, way of putting pressure on Putin. There are mixed reports coming out of how much the United States is supporting groups around Aleppo, with some reporting that US programs to arm the Syrian opposition reduced support to opposition factions, including anti-tank missiles, whereas other reports say that Aleppo groups received weapons normally reserved for the groups fighting the Islamic State in eastern Syria. The United States needs to move quickly, otherwise the Islamist groups who broke Aleppo’s siege, including Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, will improve their standing while United States continues to lose credibility.

Feras Hanoush is an activist from Raqqa, a former doctor with Médecins Sans Frontières in Syria, and a member of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently.

Image: PHOTO: United States President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin walk to the G8 Summit dinner following their bilateral meeting in Ireland on 17 June 2013. Pete Souza via Wikipedia.