Just when it appeared that Syrian rebels and their proxies had thrown in the towel, and that they had been persuaded to acquiesce in a political settlement to be negotiated in Geneva, there is a sudden spike in fighting in the northern city of Aleppo. Its 5.5 million population as against Damascus’ 4.5 million makes it the country’s most populous city.
Writings in the New York Times, other Western and Saudi publications have been talking of a “divided city of Aleppo”. This is ominous.
With Russian help, Syrian forces had won a morale boosting victory in Palmyra. In the third week of March, Russians had all but encircled Aleppo. Why did they spare Izaz, the main smuggling route to Turkey? That is the route through which most new arms and men on brand new vehicles have driven in to revive the mayhem in Aleppo.
Russian Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has been flourishing “proof” under Secretary of State John Kerry’s nose: “Look so much of this material is brand new and American in origin.”
In the Syrian whodunit, Americans have actually been admitting their mistakes with endearing docility. Remember Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter, his face distinctly in the lower mould, being grilled by a congressional committee, then by the media, for the clumsiness of US Special Operations in Syria? The “moderates” they were training left their weapons with the Al-Nusra Front and sought safe passage. Carter announced, on live cameras, that a $500 million training programme had been discontinued.
Asked by Thomas Friedman of The New York Times, why had he not used air strikes when the Islamic State first reared its head, President Obama was honest: that would have released pressure on Iraq’s Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. At that stage, the US-Saudi combine’s priority was to put an end to Maliki’s brazenly pro-Shia regime. In that project, the IS was an asset. Is it no longer an asset?
In the latest attacks in Iraq, the IS does not look like a diminished power despite the US, Britain and Israel having rung alarm bells across the world. Is this trio confronting the IS powerless?
Arab ambassadors, particularly those opposed to the Saudis, draw diagrams to prove that the IS, in its origins, was a US-backed project which may have grown out of US control. Just as Osama bin Laden did.
Syrian diplomats on the other hand are targeting Britain with fanciful stories. When British Parliament did not permit Prime Minister David Cameron to attack Assad’s forces in Syria, British intelligence thought of an alternative scheme: set up the propaganda machine for groups opposed to Assad. Intelligence intercepts, which authorities in Damascus decoded, are cited as evidence.
As one grapples with this confusion, emerges Christiane Amanpour of the CNN subjecting the hapless Ashton Carter to fierce interrogation. She put the fear of God in him. “Aleppo is another Srebrenica waiting to happen.”
Srebrenica became notorious for genocide. Serbian troops separated 8,373 men and boys from their womenfolk during the Bosnian war and, in July 1995, slaughtered them. They were buried in mass graves.
Carter did not rise to the bait. “The misery of Syria can only be ended by reaching a political solution.”
Why this resumption of fierce fighting in Aleppo?
With Russian help, Syrian forces had regained so much territory that the opposition had very few chips to play with at the bargaining table in Geneva. Turkish demand for a no-fly-zone along the stretch north of Aleppo and the Turkish border has not been conceded. The US would not like to dislodge Kurdish influence in that region. A divided Aleppo gives the Syrian opposition at least a toehold. Russians would be doing a cost-benefit analysis to see if they can allow that to happen.
The US and Russians had agreed to the original ceasefire primarily between the Syrian Army and groups who accept the ceasefire. The agreement did not provide scope for the Al-Nusra Front or IS to be protected. But the US is lumping Al-Nusra with the so called “moderate opposition”.
Roughly, what is going on is this: there are, say, rocket attacks which the Syrian Army compasses show are coming from Nusra-held enclaves. The army retaliates. The Western media screams murder – look, they are attacking civilians and moderate oppositions.
In other words, Al-Nusra is the miasmal mist behind which a so-called moderate opposition is being conceived and forged. What I suspect is being sought is a ceasefire along an imaginary line which will then divide Aleppo. The Syrian-Russian combine would like to impose on Aleppo a fait accompli favourable to them. Syria, I am afraid, will probably limp along a path of non-resolution until a new administration in Washington begins to take stock of the situation after November 7.
(A senior commentator on political and diplomatic affairs, Saeeq Naqvi can be reached on [email protected] The views expressed are personal.)