Syria, Russia push to take East Aleppo pocket as airstrikes kill 66, wound 200

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Only a week after seeming to agree to a ceasefire, Russia and the Syrian regime in Damascus appear to have decided to throw caution to the winds and simply wipe out the pocket of rebel resistance in East Aleppo.

If the regime has all of Aleppo, all of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Latakia, then it has Syria. Poor, rural, thinly populated provinces such as Idlib (held by al-Qaeda and its allies) and Raqqa & Deir al-Zor (held by Daesh/ISIL) just don’t count. They can make trouble from the margins, sort of the way FARK in Colombia did for decades, but they can’t win.

The military blog Sic Semper Tyrranis is convinced that the Syrian Arab Army and the Russian Aerospace forces can win the war outright. If they mean by winning what I just said– taking and holding all the major urban population centers– then yes. If they mean taking back control over the whole country, then no. Damascus just doesn’t have the troops to take back the rural Sunni areas, and nor can it prevent them from attacking regime forces. Moreover, it is unlikely that Damascus will ever really get control back of the Kurdish regions of the northeast, where the YPG is backed by the Pentagon– and that is 10 percent of Syria’s population and an important agricultural area.

So the regime can have 70% of Syria population-wise, perhaps, though in a fragile way that leaves much of the population open to violence. (Colombia in the days of high FARK activity was among the more violent societies in the world).

Still, taking back all of Aleppo and seeing Daesh strangled to the east by the Kurds and by a newly effective Turkish barricade would be an enormous victory for Damascus.

Unfortunately, precisely because the Syrian Arab Army is woefully understaffed, the methods the regime is using against East Aleppo are extremely brutal.

The Syrian Arab Army took the strategic Palestinian refugee camp, Handarat, near East Aleppo, late last week, but al-Qaeda and its allies say they have recovered it. Some of the bombing was in support of the Syrian army’s attempt to make that advance.

Damascus has put the civilian population under a siege for the last 20 days, and no supplies have come in for weeks. Food staples are running low and so are essential medicines, for the 200,000 to 300,000 who live in East Aleppo. This weekend, the Syrian Air Force intensively bombed civilian neighborhoods, allegedly joined by Russian Aerospace fighter-jets. (That’s what Moscow now calls their air force, and since they can get to space but the US no longer can, I guess they have dibs on it.)

On Sunday, the bombardment of East Aleppo by jets and helicopter gunships is said to have killed 66 persons and wounded some 200. While the Arab press says all of these were women and children, I presume some were guerrillas targeted for elimination by Damascus and Moscow, and that the rest were what the military calls collateral damage– i.e. innocent bystanders savagely murdered from the sky. The neighborhoods targeted were al-Halak, Bustan al-Basha, al-Ard al-Hamra’, Tariq al-Bab, al-Muyassar, al-Mashhad, al-Salihin, al-Qatarji, and al-Ansari.

Arab sources say that since the ceasefire collapsed on Sept. 19, 378 are dead and 1407 wounded.

The siege and the air campaign are surely softening up measures. At some point the Syrian army, supported by Hizbullah and by a new wave of Iraqi Shiite volunteers, will have to invade East Aleppo and take territory. From what we are seeing, it will be a horrible thing, with tens of thousands of new refugees created and a large civilian death toll.

But it will also make the regime unstoppable. Three and a half years ago, the rebels thought they could take Homs and cut Damascus off from resupply by cutting the road to the key Mediterranean port of Latakia. Hizbullah intervened and the rebels were defeated in Homs. Then two years ago, the al-Qaeda-led forces swept into Idlib and thought they might be able to just take the port of Latakia, after which they could starve out the southern capital of Damascus. But last fall Russia intervened and pushed them out of Latakia province, and built up the Tartous base outside Latakia, making the point that Moscow won’t let it fall. So the Salafi forces are bottled up in Idlib and have not prospect of breaking out or challenging the regime in any serious way. Now the FSA may be about to lose East Aleppo. The rebel position in the north is being eroded. And as we speak there is no plausible way for it to overthrow the Syrian government in any time scale that matters.

What is likely is that the rebels can keep enough rural territory to prove a thorn in the regime’s side for years to come, and peace is still distant. And even if the regime really could win, remember that it has killed tens of thousands and is not forgiving. The bloodshed won’t stop soon.


Related video:

Euronews: “Syrian government planes bombard Aleppo as diplomacy degenerates”

Posted in Featured,Syria | 15 Responses | Print |

15 Responses

  1. Interesting discussion at ESHANI2’s twitter feed re the politics of estimating numbers in East Aleppo. Rebels claim 275k, Damascus says 60k.
    Aid is distributed on the basis of lists provided by local offices- armed groups are in charge. Requirements are over-estimated, and xs aid packages sold on the black market- a handy source of revenue to pay fighters.

  2. One can make numerous criticisms of the conduct of the Syrian government before and during this civil war.

    But there is very little western criticism of the ‘rebels’, who are substantially sponsored by foreigners, and many of whom are not Syrian.

    At this point, after five years of war, it would be reasonable to urge the rebels to accept defeat, stop the killing, and end their brutal proselytizing.

    But the guilty secret and unspoken assumption among opposition supporters is that the critical mass of the rebels are barbarians who are impervious to reason and who see themselves on a mission from God.

    War is always horrible. But if a war can ever be justified, it is a war against takfiris, salafis, Wahhabis, al-Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, or whatever they currently call themselves.

    • I;’m sorry, but your post is just an apology for war crimes by the Assad government. The nature of the opposition was not always that of the extremists, nor did it begin that way. The war began because of massacres of civilians peacefully protesting and gained momentum because of defections of some significant portions of the Syrian Army. In the early days there were not just individual defections, but even defections by groups of soldiers. It was the absolutely brutal response and subsequent actions of the Syrian regime which created the chaos that provided the opportunity for the extremists to move in and then take over the rebel movement. Your post is about as credible as saying that the rise of ISIS had nothing to do with the US invasion and occupation of Iraq.

    • U.S. interests would have been far better served had we not become involved in Syria at all. Instead of bold, empty talk of “Assad has to go,” we should have told the rebel groups not to expect any assistance from the U.S.

      Assad may be an SOB, but we managed our interests in the Near East for 45 years without much interference from either the old man, Hafez, or his son Bashar. They have run a secular, authoritarian state, which in my opinion is far more in our interest than would be a hostile religion-based authoritarian state, which any successor government is likely to be.

  3. This is one case where I hate to be proven correct, but there were not likely to be any decent outcomes when Assad survived the first year or two. As I predicted when Russia announced its coming air support, this would guarantee that the regime would become victorious and the US would have to come to grips with that victory and why we should never have gotten involved at all in Syria. This is a wonderful example of a pyrrhic victory, however. Assad has pounded most of his country into rubble, created millions of refugees, engendered lasting resentment, earned the enmity of most of the world, and left his country in economic as well as physical ruins, all so he could stay in power. It will probably take at least a generation before
    Syria can return to a condition similar to that that existed prior to the war. When it comes to awfulness, he has made his father look like a piker.

  4. Todenhöfer: Interview With Al-Nusra Commander “The Americans stand on our side”

    This interview by Jürgen Todenhöfer was first published in German on September 26 2016 by the Kölner Stadtanzeiger, the major newspaper in the Cologne region. (The interview was copied and translated to English by Bernhard for educational and academic purposes.)

    Interview with al-Nusra commander “The Americans stand on our side”

    By Jürgen Todenhöfer

    link to

    • The Todenhofer interview is an “Absolute Taboo” topic in the US and UK MSM — crickets.

  5. Any resolution will require taking care of legitimate needs (and non-negotiable demands) of the opposition. If Iraq and Syria and Saudi Arabia ceded a small territory at the border with Saudi Arabia, surrounded by UN DMZs, and both Syria and Iraq conceded greater rights and autonomy to Sunnis to remove support from the radicals, the rebels might go to their own little Islamic state and gradually demilitarize under the necessity of running a state. Perhaps the US and Russia should be discussing such alternatives.

  6. What appears to be developing is what Assad has said he seeks, to regain sufficient control and calm to pursue a diplomatic resolution to Syria’s underlying political problems. This is not the same as restoration of the status quo ante and there seems to me no reason to suppose it could not accommodate Kurdish aspirations to some acceptable degree. Obviously the regime needed and continues to need the support of its allies since a nation of its size cannot be expected to possess military elements adequate to face the kind of foreign backed interference that has been thrown against it. What is distressing Is the opaque and even ambiguous role the US appears to be playing in relation to this purpose, insisting there is no military solution while actively engaged in seeking just that, a role uncomfortably like that voiced against Israeli behaviour in Palestine, the human rights record of Bahrain, etc., and then there’s Susan Power hyperventilating like she’s just found a parking ticket on her broom. These are embarrassing to outside observers and undermine respect for US involvement. If, as Dr Cole suggests, Assad may be close to achieving his purpose then so much the better since that should bring in sight an end to all this suffering, the restoration of security, and the return of those Syrian refugees whose presence is surely much needed for any lasting diplomatic resolution.

    • The Syrian regime has vehemently and violently rejected a federal solution for the Kurds; what coolaid are you drinking?

      • I may have misunderstood but I interpreted the analysis to imply the regime is making significant progress towards what Assad has expressed as the first stage of his overall purpose. That is to clear the place of armed groups and establish a degree of order sufficient to permit the country to function thus creating conditions for the start, and, I hope, successful conclusion of the political settlement process and internal determination of the political future by the Syrian people. (Putin’s words). One can only speculate what that future might look like and whether or not it will even include Assad, but for this or that group to lay out preconditions for stage two when stage one remains incomplete can hardly be helpful, particularly when Assad has said quite openly that it is up to the Syrians whether he has a place in their future. I most assuredly do not think he can do no wrong if that is what is meant by drinking coolaid.

  7. Prof Cole, how does the assault on Aleppo compare to the last Israeli attack on Gaza, or the US attacks on Ramadi and Fallujah?

    • If you mean the aerial bombardment of Aleppo that has been going on since Friday or so, it is not as bad as any of the others yet, but it hasn’t been going on as long. If you mean al-Assad’s mad bombers in general, by now I figure they’ve killed tens of thousands, so worse than Gaza by a long shot and on the Iraq War/ Occupation scale.

  8. It seems that the US is operating at cross purposes.
    State works out a complex ceasefire with the Russians and surely buy-in from the Syrian government.
    State still hoping that moderates among the contras will run like hell, leaving the less moderates to suffer attacks eventually by America too.
    Suddenly the american air-force attacks and destroys a Syrian Arab Army garrison at Deir ez-Zor (coincidentally permitting ISIS to pursue an attack and seize the fort).
    And promptly sinks the ceasefire.
    Today the CIA is promising shoulder fired anti aircraft to… well, whomever they vett.
    So much for coherence.

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