Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is only growing more defiant as negotiators prepare to descend on Geneva for the third time to try to broker the terms of a political transition and end the five-year civil war.
The opposition’s central demand heading into the negotiations is that embattled Assad relinquish his hold on power and cease bombing rebel-held territory.
On the contrary, the regime will hold parliamentary elections on Wednesday and is evidently preparing a major new offensive to retake Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, from opposition forces.
As such, it appears that Russia’s attempt last month to force Assad into a corner — by announcing a partial withdrawal of advisers and warplanes — has backfired. Assad appears to have realised that Russia’s reputation as a leader in the Middle East depends, at least for now, on maintaining the status quo and keeping the regime intact.
Russia’s intervention in the war on Assad’s behalf in late September was followed by a regime offensive to recapture Aleppo from the rebels throughout the end of 2015. But that task was largely left unfinished by the time Russia decided to “withdraw” last month, even after pro-government forces won a major victory in January by breaking a rebel siege on two villages northwest of Aleppo that served as Turkey’s supply line to rebels there.
The fact that Putin ordered Russia to de-escalate at such a pivotal moment for Assad may have been part of a broader Russian strategy to maintain Moscow’s leverage at the forthcoming peace talks in Geneva — over Assad as much as over the US. But the embattled president now seems prepared to call Putin’s bluff.
Russia is “afraid if somebody else removes him or they remove him, the whole state will collapse,” Paul Salem, the vice president of policy and research at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, told The Wall Street Journal last weekend.
“They are hostage to his continued survival,” Salem added. “He [Assad] can withstand Russian displeasure and irritation. He feels under no compulsion to make major concessions.”
‘Some of the worst this war has seen’
Russia denied reports on Monday that it was planning any kind of joint operation with regime forces to retake Aleppo. Ultimately, however, “Moscow is unlikely to forgo its interests in Syria,” Charles Lister, a resident fellow at the Middle East Institute, wrote on Twitter.
It may force Russia to re-escalate its presence in the northeast to help Assad, Lister said.
Boris Zilberman, a Russia expert at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, told Business Insider that “if an offensive on Aleppo is in the works, there is no reason to believe that Russia could not add the man- and air-power to help conduct such an operation.”
It was clear, at least to me, that Russia was scaling down but maintaining the capabilities to keep the status quo and pivot to a higher-tempo operation.
The Russians have shown time and again complete and utter disregard for mass civilian casualties and collateral damage as part of their aerial operations. I expect that if Putin and Assad do as they say, those in Aleppo might yet experience some of the worst this war has seen.
Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian security affairs and professor of Global Affairs at New York University, told Business Insider that “if the Russians and Syrians do commit themselves to retaking Aleppo, they will prioritise military expediency over civilian safety.”
He added, however, that “there is no evidence that Russia would seek to be destructive for its own sake,” and that it remains unclear whether Russia will partake in a new offensive.
Even if Russia doesn’t participate in a “pitched battle” for Aleppo, however,
“helping the regime complete the isolation of the city is something else,” said Jeff White, a military analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“The Russians may take advantage of a crumbling CoH [cessation of hostilities] to do this, blaming everything on ‘Nusra’ and terrorists,” White told Business Insider in an email, referring to Jabhat al-Nusra, the Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria.
Russia already seems to be making that case: The Russian military said Monday that 8,000 al-Nusra militants were amassing around the city and preparing to cut off the main road from Aleppo to Syria’s capital, Damascus.
If true, that would mark a dramatic escalation of Nusra’s activities in southern Aleppo. And it would give Russia an excuse to help the regime isolate the city from the rebels while maintaining — at least on paper — the “cessation of hostilities” (CoH) agreement, to which Nusra is not a party.
“If Russia is signalling an offensive against Nusra, you can be sure other rebel groups will be targeted,” Nadav Pollak, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute, tweeted on Monday.
Zilberman, of the FDD, added that the threat of an impending offensive also gives both Assad and Putin valuable leverage over the US at Geneva, where a new round of peace talks is set to begin on Friday.
Lister, of the Middle East Institute, noted that while Assad “is playing games with Geneva, Russia, and the UN, Putin is ultimately unlikely to abandon Assad and thus lose [Russia’s] influence in Syria.”
To that extent, Putin remains a “hostage” of the regime — even if it means getting sucked back into the war at its most brutal, and critical, stage.
“If Russia joins a major regime offensive on Aleppo, there’ll be little going back,” Lister wrote. “The city will be besieged, and only death and destruction will result.”