France Makes Diplomatic Moves as Eastern Aleppo Nears Collapse

During the second presidential debate on October 9, then-GOP nominee Donald Trump made a bold assessment on the war in Syria—one that officials within the US intelligence and diplomatic communities were reticent to make. The Assad regime, Trump argued, has all but defeated the Syrian opposition in East Aleppo after four years of brutal combat. “I think that [Aleppo] basically has fallen, okay?” Trump said at the time. “It basically has fallen.”

Syria scholars and analysts—not to mention Hillary Clinton’s campaign staffers—used Trump’s answer to argue that the GOP nominee was out of touch and ignorant on the battlefield dynamics in Syria. Indeed, at the time Trump made that claim, opposition units were still in control of eastern Aleppo, despite the heaviest regime and Russian air bombardment of the entire war.

A little less than two months later, however, Trump has been proven more right than wrong. The Syrian army first has taken several districts in east Aleppo, including Masakan Hanano, a military accomplishment that splits opposition-controlled territory in two and squeezes opposition fighters into a smaller boxes of territory.

Like the United States, the European Union’s policy on the Syrian conflict is straightforward and has not budged since the civil conflict erupted into a civil war in 2012. Unless representatives from the regime and the moderate opposition come to some kind of consensual arrangement that establishes a transitional government, leading to full and free democratic elections, the war will continue to rage, more of the country’s public infrastructure will be destroyed, and more civilians will lose their lives. Matthew Rycroft, the UK Ambassador to the United Nations, spoke for Western European powers as he headed into a closed Security Council meeting on the crisis this past Tuesday. “The only way Aleppo can be saved and the conflict in Syria can end,” Rycroft remarked “is if the regime and backers—by which I mean Russia and Iran above all—change their policy.”

What incentive Moscow and Damascus would have in heeding those recommendations was conveniently left out of Rycroft’s remarks. Indeed, the external circumstances that would convert a diplomatic resolution from dream to reality are about as far-fetched today as they have ever been. With pro-Assad forces cracking the opposition’s defensive lines in Aleppo’s eastern neighborhoods, Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin believe that their siege, starve, and bombard strategy is finally paying off in what was once Syria’s prized jewel. Combine the Syrian government’s gains on the ground with the fact that the incoming administration in Washington is far more suspicious of the moderate opposition than President Barack Obama ever was, and one quickly comes to the realization that getting political talks back on track is fantasy.

Given this context, France recently called for a meeting to be held in Paris of countries that support the opposition. This latest attempt to bring the warring parties together is a curious one. While the United States and European powers supporting the opposition state that the Syrian conflict cannot be won by either side militarily, it is difficult to see how any diplomatic discussions—let alone an agreement — would work in the present environment. Launching a new initiative at the same time that Assad’s army and pro-government militia forces are finally beginning to break into Aleppo defies common sense. In fact, there is no indication that the political representatives of the moderate opposition would even agree to come back to the table, knowing full well that they presently have far less power than months prior.

The efforts by French officials to keep dialogue alive, however, may be more about sending a message to President-elect Donald Trump that the Europeans do not particularly believe that collaborating with the Russians on counterterrorism is a good idea. Whereas Trump considers Moscow a potential ally and a country that Washington has foolishly and unnecessarily demonized, the European Union by an overwhelming margin continues to see Putin as a large part of the problem in Syria. Further, the refugee crisis and regional instability affect Europe more than they do the United States. Whether or not the Trump administration can chip away at this sentiment is anyone’s guess, but it will be almost impossible to contemplate if the Russian air force mimics in Idlib what it has done in Aleppo.

The French may also be delivering a strong rebuke to the UN Security Council that they are increasingly impatient with deliberations that seem to go nowhere.  On this score, French anger is understandable—the Assad regime and Russia’s protection of it has tied the Security Council into knots. The United Nations’ top body has been unable to pass any accountability measures on Assad for nearly six years, the most prominent being solely a referral of the Syria case to the International Criminal Court. France appears to have made the calculation that the Security Council is a moribund institution that simply cannot deal with the Syria issue in any significant way.

Russia seems to perceive some threat in France’s political moves, perhaps because it  views the new diplomatic track outside of the United Nations as a challenge to its firm grip on the Security Council. On November 29, Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s UN envoy, said that France was pushing for a UN Security Council meeting to “distract attention from what is going on in Mosul where the situation—in many respects, including humanitarian—is much more dramatic than in eastern Aleppo,” and that it was an attempt “to accuse the Syrian government and Russia of something, especially at the time when the Syrian authorities launch a counter-offensive in an attempt trying to regain control of some territories.” On November 24, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that France’s organizing of a meeting in Paris of countries opposed to Bashar al-Assad hinders the implementation of UN resolutions that call for intra-Syrian negotiations.

Unfortunately for the Syrian people, the probability of France’s diplomatic gambit finding an immediate solution to the bloodshed is zero. The chance of it generating any long-term momentum is not much better. The more territory that Assad’s forces take in East Aleppo, the less pressure Assad himself will feel to negotiate. No amount of prodding, crying, and pleading from the West will change this unfortunate reality.

Daniel R. DePetris is a Middle East analyst for Wikistrat Inc., and a researcher for the Southwest Initiative for the Study of Middle East Conflicts at the University of Arizona.

Image: Photo: Members of the United Nations Security Council vote on a draft resolution that demands an immediate end to air strikes and military flights over Syria's Aleppo city, at the U.N. Headquarters in New York, U.S., October 8, 2016. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz