Posts

Why Russia doesn’t want Aleppo to fall

Al-Monitor
Yury Barmin


War-torn Aleppo has come into the spotlight again this week with rebels’ breaking through a weekslong siege by Syrian forces in a matter of days.

The initial success of President Bashar al-Assad’s siege, which clearly emboldened him, could have led to the fall of the second-largest city in Syria and has become a significant victory for the pro-Damascus forces.

This would have had major repercussions not only on the ground but also would have driven the monthslong diplomatic process to a complete standstill. The retaking of Aleppo by the Syrian government would essentially mean that Assad no longer needs to sit at the negotiating table with the opposition unless the opposition acknowledges its defeat.

US Secretary of State John Kerry warned Russia that if its recent safe-passage humanitarian operation in Aleppo is a “ruse” and that the city is in fact going to be depopulated only to be seized, it will damage US-Russia cooperation in Syria. The opposition’s High Negotiations Committee echoed Kerry’s view, saying humanitarian corridors are a way to sugarcoat Moscow’s real intentions.

Despite the Assad government’s claiming that thousands of civilians fled the eastern part of the city using the safe passage, according to other accounts, the number is barely above 100. With 250,000 civilians trapped inside the city, it is virtually impossible to accommodate all residents in government-controlled areas on such short notice. Having lived alongside the rebels for four years, locals fear being persecuted by the Syrian authorities if they flee and fear being labeled traitors by the opposition at the same time.

Moscow, however, is perfectly aware that the fall of Aleppo would bode ill for the US- and Russia-led diplomatic process and that the vast majority of civilians would not voluntarily leave the city for the unknown with no guarantees of safety. According to some sources, Russian aircraft did not participate in the siege of Aleppo, which could mean that the Kremlin has a different plan for Aleppo and that its retaking is not in the cards at the moment.

In Russia’s calculation, a besieged Aleppo could be far more valuable than an Assad-controlled one, both strategically and diplomatically. As long as a zero-sum fight for the city continues, Moscow plays a key role in the negotiations. All other issues, including Assad’s future in Syria, are pushed to the back burner because Aleppo is perceived as a stronghold of the opposition and its fall would symbolize the victory of Damascus, or, according to some experts, the end of the opposition movement against Assad altogether.

The official rhetoric from Washington, Brussels and Moscow seems to center around the need to alleviate the hardships of civilians in Aleppo and reduce the fighting; this draws international attention away from other contentious issues. The spotlight on Aleppo and a sense of urgency in dealing with the crisis clearly work in Moscow’s favor because the Kremlin is again calling the shots in Syria.

Time may be running out to deal with the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Aleppo. According to the Syrian-American Medical Society, in the event of a successful siege, fuel for bakeries would run out within weeks, and energy for hospitals within three to four months. The fate of local residents, who are no less than prisoners in the besieged city, will become the strongest argument if a new round of negotiations on Aleppo is going to take place.

The situation around the city is one of the major reasons why the so-called cessation of hostilities failed in the first place. Decision-makers in Moscow understand that the Syrian forces cannot go on forever repelling rebel attempts to break the siege, which is why negotiating another cessation of hostilities in Aleppo on its own terms would be a better option for Moscow than taking control over the entire city, because the fall of Aleppo would rid Russia of the strongest lever it has had in Syria against the United States and the opposition.

Freezing the conflict in Aleppo in its current form is a tactic out of Russia’s traditional operational playbook. Frozen conflicts have been successfully instrumentalized by Moscow in the post-Soviet Union space and have proved their effectiveness when it comes to manipulating the political process. Long-term examples of this can be found in Moldova and the South Caucasus, and more recently in Ukraine.

The United State figures prominently in Russia’s Aleppo equation for two reasons. First, the Kremlin feels that it negotiates with the United States from a position of strength in Syria; senior US officials have said several times that the White House has armed Kerry with very few instruments to match Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s flexibility at the negotiating table. It is hugely important for Russian President Vladimir Putin to be speaking on par with the United States as well as be setting his own agenda, something that has rarely happened since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Second, the publicity advanced by the Russian media surrounding the Syria campaign makes it appear that Washington’s campaign to diplomatically isolate Moscow has failed. A meeting on Aleppo that may soon take place in Geneva, in Russia’s view, serves to do just that, presenting Moscow as a peacemaker helping settle another crisis.

The Slow Death of the Syria Cease-Fire Brings a Hybrid War With Russia Closer

World Post

Alastair Crooke


BEIRUT — Gradually, the mist of ambiguity and confusion hanging over Syria is lifting a little. The landscape is sharpening into focus. With this improved visibility, we can view a little more clearly the course of action being prepared by Iran, Russia and the Syrian government.

Russia is emerging from an internal debate over whether the U.S. is truly interested in an entente or only in bloodying Russia’s nose. And what do we see? Skepticism. Russia is skeptical that NATO’s new missile shield in Poland and Romania, plus military exercises right up near its border, are purely defensive actions.

Iran, meanwhile, is studying the entrails of the nuclear agreement. As one well-informed commentator put it to me, Iran is “coldly lethal” at the gloating in the U.S. at having “put one over” Iran. Because, while Iran has duly taken actions that preclude it from weaponizing its nuclear program, it will not now gain the financial normalization that it had expected under the agreement.

It’s not a question of slow implementation — I’ve heard directly from banks in Europe that they’ve been visited by U.S. Treasury officials and warned in clear terms that any substantive trade cooperation with Iran is closed off. Iran is not being integrated into the financial system. U.S. sanctions remain in place, the Europeans have been told, and the U.S. will implement fines against those who contravene these sanctions. Financial institutions are fearful, particularly given the size of the fines that have been imposed — almost $9 billion for the French bank BNP a year ago.

In principle, sanctions have been lifted. But in practice, even though its sales of crude are reaching pre-sanctions levels, Iran has found that, financially, it remains substantially hobbled. America apparently achieved a double success: It circumscribed Iran’s nuclear program, and the U.S. Treasury has hollowed out the nuclear agreement’s financial quid pro quo, thus limiting Iran’s potential financial empowerment, which America’s Gulf allies so feared.

Some Iranian leaders feel cheated; some are livid. Others simply opine that the U.S. should never have been trusted in the first place.

And Damascus? It never believed that the recent cease-fire would be a genuine cessation of hostilities, and many ordinary Syrians now concur with their government, seeing it as just another American ruse. They are urging their government to get on with it — to liberate Aleppo. “Just do it” is the message for the Syrian government that I’ve heard on the streets. A sense of the West being deceitful is exacerbated by reports of American, German, French and possibly Belgian special forces establishing themselves in northern Syria.

All this infringement of Syrian sovereignty does not really seem temporary but rather the opposite: there are shades of Afghanistan, with all the “temporary” NATO bases. In any case, it is no exaggeration to say that skepticism about Western motives is in the air — especially after Ashton Carter, the U.S. defense secretary, raised the possibility of NATO entering the fray.

As Pat Lang, a former U.S. defense intelligence officer, wrote last week:

The Russians evidently thought they could make an honest deal with [U.S. Secretary of State John] Kerry [and President] Obama. Well, they were wrong. The U.S. supported jihadis associated with [Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda’s Syria wing] … merely ‘pocketed’ the truce as an opportunity to re-fit, re-supply and re-position forces. The U.S. must have been complicit in this ruse. Perhaps the Russians have learned from this experience.

Lang goes on to note that during the “truce,” “the Turks, presumably with the agreement of the U.S., brought 6,000 men north out of [Syria via the] Turkish border … They trucked them around, and brought them through Hatay Province in Turkey to be sent back into Aleppo Province and to the city of Aleppo itself.” Reports in Russian media indicate that Nusra jihadists, who have continued to shell Syrian government forces during the “truce,” are being commanded directly by Turkish military advisers. And meanwhile, the U.S. supplied the opposition with about 3,000 tons of weapons during the cease-fire, according to I.H.S. Jane’s, a security research firm.

In brief, the cease-fire has failed. It was not observed. The U.S. made no real effortto separate the moderates from Nusra around Aleppo (as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has affirmed). Instead, the U.S. reportedly sought Nusra’s exemption from any Russian or Syrian attack. It reminds one of that old joke: “Oh Lord, preserve me from sin — but not just yet!” Or in other words, “preserve us from these dreadful jihadist terrorists, but not just yet, for Nusra is too useful a tool to lose.”

The cease-fire did not hasten any political solution, and Russia’s allies — Iran and Hezbollah — have already paid and will continue to pay a heavy price in terms of casualties for halting their momentum toward Aleppo. The opposition now has renewed vigor — and weapons.

It is hard to see the cease-fire holding value for Moscow much longer. The original Russian intention was to try to compel American cooperation, firstly in the war against jihadism and, more generally, to compel the U.S. and Europe to acknowledge that their own security interests intersect directly with those of Moscow and that this intersection plainly calls for partnership rather than confrontation.

The present situation in Syria neither facilitates this bigger objective nor the secondary one of defeating radical jihadism. Rather, it has led to calls in Russia for a less conciliatory approach to the U.S. and for the Kremlin to acknowledge that far from preparing for partnership, NATO is gearing up for a hybrid war against Russia.

It is also hard to see the cease-fire holding any continuing value for Tehran either. While the Iran nuclear agreement seemed to hold out the promise of bringing Iran back into the global financial system, such expectations seem now to be withering on the vine. As a result, Iran is likely to feel released from self-imposed limitations of their engagement in Syria and in other parts of the Middle East. Damascus, meanwhile, only very reluctantly agreed to leave its citizens in Aleppo in some semi-frozen limbo. Iran and Hezbollah were equally dubious.

All this suggests renewed military escalation this summer. Russian President Vladimir Putin will probably not wish to act before the European summit at the end of June. And neither would he wish Russia to figure largely as an issue in the U.S. presidential election. Yet he cannot ignore the pressures from those within Russia who insist that America is planning a hybrid war for which Russia is unprepared.

The Russia commentator Eric Zuesse encapsulated some of these concerns, writing that “actions speak louder than words.” Earlier this month, he notes, the U.S. refused to discuss with Russia its missile defense program:

Russia’s concern is that, if the ‘Ballistic Missile Defense’ or ‘Anti Ballistic Missile’ system, that the U.S. is now just starting to install on and near Russia’s borders, works, then the U.S. will be able to launch a surprise nuclear attack against Russia, and this system, which has been in development for decades and is technically called the ‘Aegis Ashore Missile Defense System,’ will annihilate the missiles that Russia launches in retaliation, which will then leave the Russian population with no retaliation at all.

Zuesse goes on to argue that the U.S. seems to be pursuing a new nuclear strategy, one that was put forward in 2006 in a Foreign Affairsarticle headlined “The Rise of Nuclear Primacy,” and scrapping the earlier policy of “mutually assured destruction.” The new strategy, Zuesse writes, argues “for a much bolder U.S. strategic policy against Russia, based upon what it argued was America’s technological superiority against Russia’s weaponry — and a possibly limited time-window in which to take advantage of it — before Russia catches up and the opportunity to do so is gone.”

So, what is going on here? Does the U.S. administration not see that pulling Russia into a debilitating Syrian quagmire by playing clever with a cease-fire that allows the insurgency to get the wind back in its sails is almost certain to lead to Russia and Iran increasing their military engagement? There is talk both in Russia and Iran of the need for a military surge to try to break the back of the conflict. Does the U.S. see that ultimately such a strategy might further entangle it — just as much as Russia and Iran — in the conflict? Does it understand Saudi Arabia’s intent to double down in Syria and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s political interest in continuing the Syrian crisis? Does it judge these very real dangers accurately?

No, I think not: the political calculus is different. More likely, the explanation relates to the presidential election campaign in the U.S. The Democratic Party, in brief, is striving to steal the Republican Party’s clothes. The latter holds the mantle of being credited as the safer pair of hands of the two, as far as America’s security is concerned. This has been a longstanding potential weakness for the Democrats, only too readily exploited by its electoral opponents. Now, perhaps the opportunity is there to steal this mantle from the Republicans.

All this hawkishness — the American shrug of the shoulders at making Iran feel cheated over the nuclear agreement; at Russia, Iran and Damascus seething that the Syria cease-fire was no more than a clever trap to halt their military momentum; at the psychological impact of NATO exercising on Russia’s borders; at the possible consequences to Obama’s refusal to discuss the ballistic defense system — all this is more likely about showing Democrat toughness and savvy in contrast to Donald Trump.

In short, the Democrats see the opportunity to cast themselves as tough and reliable and to transform foreign policy into an asset rather than their Achilles’ heel.

But if all this bullheadedness is nothing more than the Democratic Party espying an apparent weakness in the Trump campaign, is this foreign policy posturing meaningful? The answer is that it is not meaningless; it carries grave risks. Ostensibly this posture may appear clever in a domestic campaigning context, where Russia is widely viewed in a negative light. But externally, if the Syrian cease-fire comes to be viewed as nothing more than a cynical ploy by the U.S. to drag Russia deeper into the Syrian quagmire in order to cut Putin down to size, then what will likely follow is escalation. Hot months ahead in Syria. Russia will gradually reenter the conflict, and Iran and Iraq will likely increase their involvement as well.

Firefighters try to extinguish a fire after airstrikes in Idlib, Syria on June 12. (Abdurrahman Sayid/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

There are those in the U.S., Turkey and the Gulf who would welcome such a heightened crisis, hoping that it would become so compellingly serious that no incoming U.S. president, of either hue, could avoid the call to do something upon taking office. In this way, the U.S. could find itself dragged into the maw of another unwinnable Middle Eastern war.

We should try to understand the wider dangers better, too. Baiting Russia, under the problematic rubric of countering Russian “aggression,” is very much in fashion now. But in Russia, there is an influential and substantial faction that has come to believe that the West is planning a devastating hybrid military and economic war against it. If this is not so, why is the West so intent on pushing Russia tight up into a corner? Simply to teach it deference? Psychologists warn us against such strategies, and Russia finally is reconfiguring its army (and more hesitantly, its economy) precisely to fight for its corner.

As another noted Russia commentator, John Helmer, noted on his blog on May 30, the new NATO missile installations in Eastern Europe “are hostile acts, just short of casus belli — a cause of war.” According to Reuters, Putin warned that Romania might soon “be in the cross hairs” — the new NATO missile installations there will force Russia “to carry out certain measures to ensure our security.”

“It will be the same case with Poland,” Putin added.

Did you hear that sound? That was the ratchet of war, which has just clicked up a slot or two.

Press the reset button on the refugee crisis

Preethi Nallu

Slogans were plentiful at last month’s humanitarian summit in Istanbul. There was hope too, that the meeting would serve as a compelling prelude to the UN conference on refugees and migrants scheduled for New York in September. But all the hosts could muster – after three years of consultations with about 27,000 people across 153 countries – were vague commitments towards intentionally broad “core” basic principles.

The imminent problem was clear to every participant. The current rate of movement of people across borders is a consequence of globalisation and the unequal distribution of wealth and stability. With about 80 per cent of the world’s population expected to live in conflict-prone areas over the next decade, global strife will continue to outpace the humanitarian systems in place to deal with them.

The consultations that led to the Istanbul summit – the result of 400 written submissions over several years – prescribe reform of the humanitarian sector and changes to international law to cope with the current crises. From addressing displacement induced by climate change to the intensifying wrath of conflicts that permeate boundaries of nation states, the approaches that were put in place after the Second World War are clearly in need of a major overhaul.

But it was hard not to feel the folly of sitting at the closing ceremony of the summit last month. As the historical gateway between Asia and Europe since the time of Byzantium, Istanbul was a fitting venue to address the rapid migration flows from different directions that have triggered today’s global refugee crisis. Turkey is home to the world’s largest refugee population, with more than 2.8 million Syrian men, women and children. Anywhere up to 500,000 Syrians live in Istanbul alone.

But the mounting accusations against Turkey of shooting at civilians fleeing attacks by the Syrian regime and ISIL, made the venue less comfortable. If Turkey’s plans to build “smart” shooting towers at its borders are implemented, it will have concocted a ruthless and dystopian approach to mitigating migration.

Efforts to control migration have proved unwieldy, expensive and ineffective, with few deportations from Greece and even fewer admissions into the EU under the one-in-one-out deal. Dismayed humanitarian workers report an uneasy impasse as refugees biding their time to embark on boats have gone into hiding for fear of being detained. Others choosing alternate routes, including women and children, have disappeared, becoming even easier prey for traffickers.

With Italy eclipsing Greece with the number of arrivals over April and May, a centrally organised response system – one that minimises deaths at sea, offers humane reception to those arriving on the shores of Europe and, better yet, options of applying for asylum without having to undertake dangerous crossings – warranted explicit acknowledgement at the summit.

The 130 bodies that washed up on the Libyan coast in the days following the summit and the more than 1,040 deaths over the last two weeks should put us all to shame. Yet the declarations coming from the summit’s panels were vague, non-committal and underwhelming.

Gathering governmental and non-governmental organisation on a common platform is not without its merits. But by failing to delineate clear roles and responsibilities and skirting the basic acknowledgement that the most powerful participants have the most influence, the summit failed to address the elephants in the room that have made themselves at home.

For the UN to deliver aid during conflict, states must adhere to international humanitarian laws. For aid to be effective, the UN must become more efficient with its on-ground operations.

Several organisations have monitored these failings, but almost none are explicitly discussed. Doing so would mean pointing to specific violations by states and assessing the failures of the UN. It is equally important to acknowledge that the failures of the UN-led humanitarian system are rooted in its subordinate role to the nation-states that are its primary patrons.

The off-the-record conversations in Istanbul between sectors and among people who would otherwise not meet could turn out to be a worthy investment, especially as the trajectory is now pointing towards the New York summit.

Making use of the conversations that emanated in Istanbul will require getting into finer details, from managing borders and establishing early warning systems to analysing successful cases of the integration of refugee populations through freedom of movement.

Change must take place at all levels of the international humanitarian system with improving emergency response as the first tenet of that transformation. The overhaul must be all encompassing: from the UN’s lack of accountability to the bureaucratic mazes of governments and the gaps between the visions emanating from the headquarters of humanitarian organisations and the realities on the ground.

With the Mediterranean crossings by migrants climbing towards an ever-higher apex, the timing of the summit and the lead up to New York is in fact propitious. But, how do we best harness this sense of urgency? The only way forward is to hit the reset button.