Obama Gives Free Rein to Assad and Putin

In the past eight days alone, over 1,000 people were killed in Aleppo as Russian aircraft bombarded the city. Russia and the Assad regime’s fresh offensive on the country’s former economic center signals its intent to maximize gains in Syria before the next US presidential elections and its belief that victory is within reach.

On Monday, US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power slammed Russia for “barbarism’ in Syria as government forces, backed by Moscow, indiscriminately pummeled rebel-held Aleppo. Yet Power’s latest statement does not change how US President Barack Obama continues to give free rein to both Russia and the Syrian regime to continue their scorched-earth policy in Aleppo.

For the past four years, Aleppo has been the scene of violence pitting pro-regime forces against Syrian rebels. Syria’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Jaafari, declared this week that Damascus would “fully restore control over Aleppo.” Bashar al-Assad knows he cannot claim to be Syria’s leader without capturing what was the country’s most populous city and economic heartland. Russia has backed Assad ambitions by increasing its sorties over Aleppo. According to IHS Janes Terrorism and Insurgency Center, Russia and regime forces conducted a confirmed 2,506 air strikes in Syria from the beginning of this year until September 27. Of those 2,506, 1,015 (40.5%)  were in Aleppo province, mainly targeting Aleppo city, and resulted in at least 1,937 fatalities. After taking the rebel held parts of Aleppo city, the regime, with full backing from Iran and Russia, could also attempt a push toward the southwest and northwest rural areas currently controlled by the opposition. Fragmenting rebel territory would allow regime forces to go after each pocket individually.

The loss of Aleppo would also be a major psychological blow for the Syrian rebellion and would strengthen Assad’s position as the only believable interlocutor in the current conflict. Politically, it would mean that Assad’s fall was far from imminent, and, make the opposition ponder the viability of continuing to fight with no clear path to victory.

Assad and Russia’s gamble on Aleppo stems from their conviction that the Obama administration’s speeches are merely talk, and there is no evidence to prove otherwise. Never in the Syrian war have words carried so little value and been followed by so little action.  Aleppo has turned into an open air military experiment. Last week, pro-regime forces, and possibly Russia, targeted a 31 truck convoy carrying aid into Syria. Air strikes destroyed the 18-truck convoy and killed 12 volunteers who had been part of the humanitarian mission conducted by the United Nations and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. The attack was followed by an escalation of attacks on Aleppo with activists posting pictures of scorched buildings hit by incendiary bombs. Russia has resorted to thermite or phosphorus warheads burning at temperatures up to 1,000 Celsius, similar to the infamous napalm used in the Vietnam War. It has also used thermobaric explosives or vacuum bombs that are second only to nuclear weapons in their destructive capability. The Assad regime continues to use makeshift barrel bombs that have killed more than 3,000 civilians in Aleppo in 2014. This translates in eight deaths every day in one city alone.

Russia and Assad both know that under Obama’s watch they can carry on bombing without risking more than finger waving from the United States. The Syrian president has trampled over the American president’s red lines by using chemical weapons against his own people. Despite a September 2013 resolution requiring the UN Security Council to impose measures under Chapter 7 of the UN charter for “any use of chemical weapons by anyone in the Syrian Arab Republic,” a recent UN report highlighted that both the regime and Islamic State used chemical weapons over the period in 2014 and 2015.

Assad’s contempt for Obama was highlighted in his recent interview with the Associated Press. “American officials, they say something in the morning and they do the opposite in the evening. You cannot take them at their words, to be frank. We don’t listen to their statements, we don’t care about it,” said Assad confidently.

Obama’s Syria policy has not only earned criticism from Bashar al-Assad. On the domestic front, 51 State Department diplomats recently signed an internal memo sharply critical of the Obama administration’s policy in Syria, urging the United States to carry out military strikes against the government of President Assad to stop its persistent violations of cease-fires.

Obama’s, and more broadly the international community’s, hands-off approach has enabled Russian President Vladimir Putin to use Syria to achieve his own goals. He believes the removal of Assad by force perpetuates a dangerous precedent and fears an Islamist contagion that could spread to Russia and neighboring countries. Putin is thus less interested in “resetting” relations with the West through a cessation of hostilities deal than in ensuring its influence from Russia’s western borders to the Mediterranean through Ukraine and Syria.

The continuous bombing of Aleppo has buried the much touted US-Russian ceasefire, and along with it one of its core objectives: The establishment of a Joint Implementation Center to share intelligence and coordinate air strikes against ISIS and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly the Nusra Front) and dissociate mainstream rebels from Fateh al-Sham. The recent escalation only feeds the narrative that in the current context, cohesion between the rebels and hard-line Islamists remains necessary.

Fateh al-Sham is playing the long game. It has positioned itself at the vanguard of the public in opposition areas. In the battle for Aleppo, it fought and continues to fight alongside other rebel groups spanning from moderate to Islamist, including Free Syrian Army groups and Ahrar al-Sham. It boasts a large and successful fighting force of about 7,000, something the Syrian opposition is cannot afford to let go in the current military context favoring the Assad regime. Further cohesion could spell trouble for efforts to revive a ceasefire agreement, as well as other US efforts to arm Syrian opposition forces to defeat the Islamic State.

In his interview with the Associated Press, Assad said the five-and-a-half-year war in Syria would “drag on” for as long as the United States and its allies support militants he called “terrorists” in Syria. Assad is right, mutual backing of local players without either having the power to overcome the other and then establish a legitimate state will lead to never ending conflict. A solution is only possible if the United States and the international community at large seriously engages with Russia and backs its words with actions.

Mona Alami is a Nonresident Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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Image: Photo: People look at the sky fearing an airstrike in the rebel-held al-Myassar neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria, September 27, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail