Bashar al-Assad’s forces, bolstered by Russian and Iranian support, have made major advances towards the rebel-held city of Aleppo, as CNN reports:
In the space of a few weeks, the Syrian battlefield has been transformed, the balance of forces pulverized and the prospects for peace talks — already dark — virtually extinguished. Another tide of displaced civilians converge on the Turkish border, trapped by the advance of regime forces.
Last week, the regime of Bashar al-Assad, supported by Iranian and Lebanese Shia militia, severed the main road from Aleppo to the Turkish border, a narrow corridor through which the rebels and NGOs alike moved supplies. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports that several villages in the area were hit by airstrikes on Sunday.
A defining battle for Aleppo, Syria’s largest city before the war, seems imminent. Regime forces and their allies on the ground, supported by Russian bombers in the air, are tightening the noose around the eastern half of the city, still held by a coalition of rebel groups. It’s estimated some 320,000 people still live, or subsist, there — under continual bombardment.
A decisive battle or long siege for Aleppo, the devastated country’s economic center, looks set to change the balance of power in Syria and exacerbate the already-dire refugee crisis. If the regime takes Aleppo, the backbone of the non-ISIS opposition to Assad will be broken. Barring a large-scale intervention by one of the players, this will make the chances of Assad’s regime being overthrown basically nil. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United States look on with trepidation, as without the ‘moderate’ rebels, the only remaining check to Iranian ambitions will be ISIS.
The timing of Assad’s offensive also points to the farcical nature of the U.N. mediated peace talks that the Obama administration has staked its hopes on. Just as Russian diplomats were supposed to be negotiating a political solution in Geneva, Russian generals were targeting airstrikes on Assad’s political opponents. Assad and Putin appear to be betting on Western and Arab timidity as they consolidate his power. Even the ongoing flood of refugees benefits Assad, as Sunnis and other ethnic and religious minorities flee his territory and minimize possible sources of dissent in the war-torn wasteland he hopes to once again rule. If he can eliminate the Syrian opposition and make the Syrian war a choice between ISIS and himself, the devil we know might be here to stay.
Kerry has apparently been on the phone with Lavrov as many as five times a day, frantically trying to negotiate a “common approach” to Syria. Somehow, the subject of a Russia-backed Assad offensive that would crush the rebels and collapse the peace talks never quite came up. Maybe the answer is to have six, seven, or eight calls with Lavrov a day? Clearly, for some in the administration, the problem is still that we aren’t negotiating enough with Russia.