Fighting in the Syrian Civil War may be back on, as Russian and Syrian media report that the Assad regime, backed by Russian airpower, is gearing up for an assault on the city of Aleppo. The Wall Street Journal reports:
“We, together with our Russian partners, are readying ourselves for an operation to liberate Aleppo and blockade all illegal armed groups which have not signed up to or are violating a cease-fire,” said Syrian Prime Minister Wael al Halqi in a meeting with Russian parliamentarians, Russian news agency Tass reported.[..]
Clashes between rebels and pro-regime forces in the southern Aleppo countryside have been ongoing for a week.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said Nusra Front militants had accumulated forces around Aleppo and had increased their military operations against government troops and civilian quarters around the city.
Local antigovernment activists said rebels who had briefly seized new ground were forced to withdraw Sunday morning due to intensified Russian airstrikes.[..]
Opposition monitor the Syrian Network for Human Rights said it had documented at least 900 breaches to the cease-fire since it began Feb. 27, mostly by regime or pro-regime forces.
This is a big one: if the regime takes Aleppo, it could break the back of the non-ISIS resistance. Furthermore, it would likely be a humanitarian disaster for the estimated two million people left in that city; those who weren’t killed by the regime’s brutal tactics may well head for the nearby Turkish border, putting Turkey in an ugly bind. Turkey’s capacity to absorb refugees is already stretched to the max, but the humanitarian plight would be acute. And the EU would likely feel the follow-on affects—a fact that Moscow has surely considered.
Speaking of Moscow, for all the chat that has circulated (and continues to circulate) about divisions between Assad and the Kremlin, it appears Putin is prepared to back him when it counts. And (quelle suprise) it appears Russia also has sufficient forces in-country to do so, despite its supposed withdrawal last month. (Just another reason to read TAI Editor Adam Garfinkle, who saw both coming in his latest essay.)
Meanwhile, the United States will largely be on the sidelines—unless you count a plea transmitted to Iran to have Assad step down. That was… not well received:
Ali Akbar Velayati, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s top adviser on international affairs, said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had asked “Iran to help so that Bashar Assad leaves.
“We should ask them: “What does this have to do with you? Shouldn’t the Syrian people decide?'”
“From Iran’s point of view Bashar Assad and his government should remain as a legal government and legal president until the end of his term. And Bashar Assad shall be able to take part in a presidential election as any Syrian citizen. And their precondition that Bashar Assad should go is a red line for us.”
Is it just us, or does that word choice not seem accidental? Where’s all that good will when you need it, people in the West Wing and Foggy Bottom must be asking today…