As the world holds its breath about what is to happen next in Aleppo, analysts wonder whether Russian President Vladimir Putin had bitten more than he can chew?
On and off, Russia has been bombing Aleppo for over a year in a textbook case of trying to break the enemy’s will to fight. In the textbook case, a point arrives when “the enemy” realizes that there is no point to stay in the game and looks for a way out. At that time you offer the the adversary an escape, just as Russia did in Aleppo with the latest 10-hour ceasefire during which anti-Assad rebels were invited to “flee to safety”.
Trouble is, the rebels not only didn’t take up the invitation but used the 10-hour intermission to launch three attacks on the western portion of the city still under Assad’s control.
“When do you think Aleppo will fall?” the BBC correspondent Owen Bennet-Jones asked Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallim last Wednesday. “God knows,” the he replied, adding “It may take a very long time.”
Muallim also made it clear that the Syrian government and its allies have no plans to engage ISIS, reviving speculation about a tacit understanding between the Assad regime and the “Caliphate “in Raqqa.
Asked whether Assad had any plans to attack Raqqa to double pressure on ISIS which is now under attack from Mosul, Muallim offered a categorical no.
The next priorities, he said, could be Hasakah and Idlib, areas mostly controlled by Kurds and non-ISIS Arab Sunni fighters.
Sifting through the Iranian and Russia media’s coverage of the Aleppo campaign it becomes clear that the two powers that back Assad no longer expect a quick victory.
“The Takfiris have seized the opportunity to attack,” reports the correspondent of Fars News Agency an outfit set up by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.in the government-controlled part of Aleppo. According to him ant-Assad rebels launch an average of five suicide attacks a day as “softener” for regular operations in which they use a range of modern weapons.
Last week, Moscow hosted a rushed meeting of Russian, Iranian and Syrian foreign ministers to discuss the stalemate in Aleppo. According to the Russian news agency Sputnik the ministers “studied various options” to ensure “ further progress” in Aleppo, a round-about way of saying the current strategy hasn’t worked.
Iran’s official news agency IRNA indicated that the focus has shifted from a quick victory in Aleppo to a “long term campaign against terrorism” and “means of stopping outside aid from reaching terrorists groups.”
According to Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maia Zakharova Moscow and Tehran work on plans “ to solve Syria’s humanitarian problems and pave the way for a political resolution of the conflict”, again indicating that hopes of a quick victory have been toned down.
Another sign that things in Aleppo were not going smoothly for Russia and Iran came when Tehran announced that a number of “advisers” in Syria had been relocated to more secure locations. This came after another Iran Baseej General Muhamad Atabeh was “martyred in action” in the war-torn Syrian city, tipping the number of senior Iranian officers killed in Syria over the 500 mark.
“The hope in Moscow and Tehran was to seize full control of Aleppo during the confusion of the American presidential election campaign,” says Iranian analyst Nasser Zamani. “That hope has vanished. “ Iran is trying to lower its profile so as not to be blamed for any future failure. That would force Putin to face a choice between intensifying the war and seeking a way out.”
Some analysts believe that Putin is contemplating a Grozny-style fate for Aleppo which would mean reducing the Syrian city to a heap of rubble as he did with the Chechnya capital a decade ago.
However, that option, known in Russian military terms as “the execution”, isn’t easy to exercise. Putin faces the classical dilemma posed in any asymmetric war.
He must seize territory, cleanse it of armed enemies and keep it. He could that in Chechnya because it represented a tiny piece of land surrounded by hostile territory and unable to receive supplies from the outside. The Grozny scenario also worked because Putin could assemble enough manpower to control the city after it had been reduced to rubble. None of these factors are present in Aleppo and Syria I general.
What seems certain is that Putin realizes that the Aleppo plan isn’t going to be as easy as he imagined.
Words of warning to that effect have also come from General Ismail Qa’ani, Gen. Qassem Soleimani’s number-two a Commander of the Quds (Jerusalem) Crops which is in charge of the Iranian role in the Syrian war.
“What is going in Syria is a war of life and death,” Qa’ani said in a statement published yesterday. “This war is set to cont9nue, although next year could be the year of destiny.”
In a thinly disguised criticism of the way Iran and Russia have managed this war, Qa’ani says:”This war is about our identity, it is our to be or not to be. Today in Syria we need commanders who could impose the will of the Islamic Republic on its enemies.”
According to the Iranian news-site Digarban Tehran’s strategy in Syria has attracted criticism from several commanders in the regular army, concerned about mounting Iranian losses.
It was in response to that criticism, Gen. Soleimani issued a brief statement inviting “dear sisters s and brothers” not to pay attention “to criticism of aspects of our policy in Syria.”
However, Soleimani has been ordered to stay out of Syria, at least for the time being and focus on the battle for Mosul where Tehran could hope for better results.
One thing is certain: both Putin and Iran’s “Supreme Guide” now wonder what to do next in a war that has proved much harder to win that they had imagined.