by Alexander Mercouris
The Syrian army’s counterattack in south-west Aleppo continues to gain force, with reports that its has now fully recaptured the Ramousseh neighbourhood, seized by the Jihadis in early August.
This enables the government once more to send supplies to Aleppo through the main road to its south-west. As discussed previously, the government has always been in a position to send supplies to Aleppo either via the recently captured Castello road or through other routes. However the road in the city’s south-west was its main supply route to the city, reopened during the Syrian army’s offensives at the beginning of the year, and it is now open again.
The latest advances of the Syrian army in south-west Aleppo mean that the Jihadis have now effectively lost all the gains they made during their offensive in late July and early August. The only result of the offensive was to cause the Jihadis extremely heavy casualties.
Some have questioned why the Jihadis launched a conventional attack on south-west Aleppo whose outcome was always doubtful and which was certain to lead to heavy losses rather than stick to the insurgency tactics which have served them so well in the past?
The short answer is because the offensive against south-west Aleppo was insisted upon by the Jihadis’ foreign sponsors for whom maintaining a Jihadi “rebel” presence in eastern Aleppo is an overriding political priority.
Briefly, if the Syrian government can show that it is firmly in control of what are by far Syria’s two biggest and most important cities – Damascus and Aleppo – as well as the area between these cities which forms the populous spine of the country, which includes the key province of Latakia and the two central cities of Hama and Homs, then it is extremely difficult to argue convincingly that it is not the actual as well as the legitimate government of Syria.
However great is the military importance of the other areas of Syria the Jihadis control – and the importance of the ‘safe zone’ the Turkish military is currently busy creating for the Jihadis in north-east Syria should not be underestimated – in political and economic terms these areas are peripheral. No force which is confined to these areas can plausibly claim to be the government of Syria.
The importance the US government attaches to the city of Aleppo is shown by the proposal it made to the Russians at the G20 summit in Hangzhou. The Washington Post has revealed that it not only required the Syrian army to withdraw completely from the area of the Castello road, which it seized back in July, but it also insisted on a total ceasefire in south-west Aleppo.
Here is how the Washington Post describes it
“In a letter sent last weekend, Michael Ratney, the State Department’s liaison to the opposition, spelled out the proposed cease-fire steps. The proposal calls initially for a “complete cessation of military operations by the regime and its affiliated forces and opposition forces on the Ramusa road” in southwest Aleppo, and entry by U.N. aid convoys.
Second, checkpoints are to be set up on Castello Road, the main northern entryway to the city that government forces seized from the rebels last month. The government is then to withdraw all of its vehicles and heavy weapons to more than a mile away from Castello Road, which will be declared a “demilitarized zone.” Similar withdrawals and checkpoints are then to be established in the south.
“If the cease-fire extends to 7 days and the checkpoints are set up and all forces are withdrawn,” the letter said, “then the U.S. and Russia will work on stopping the regime planes from flying and will work together to weaken al-Qaeda in Syria.””
When the plan was drawn up and presented to the Russians last week the Jihadis were still in control of the Ramousseh district and the area known as the ‘Aleppo artillery base’. A ceasefire in south west Aleppo at that time would have left these in Jihadi control, consolidating the gains the Jihadis had made in their offensive against government position in south west Aleppo at the beginning of August.
It would also have meant that whilst the Jihadis would have had unimpeded access to the area they control in eastern Aleppo, the government’s supply routes to Aleppo either via the roads leading from Aleppo’s south west or by way of the Castello road would have been immediately vulnerable to attack if the ceasefire broke down.
The US in fact clearly crafted its ceasefire plan on the basis of the gains the Jihadis made during their offensive against south west Aleppo in early August. That fits in with the theory previously floated by the Moon of Alabama and others (see here and here), that the US was heavily involved in planning and preparing the Jihadi offensive, as it in fact all but admitted back in April.
If the truth be said the US ‘ceasefire plan’ looks suspiciously like a device to facilitate an eventual Jihadi takeover of the whole of Aleppo when the ceasefire eventually broke down, as it would have been bound to do. If so, then it is a further example of the way the US constantly tries to achieve via the negotiations table what its proxies fail to achieve on the battlefield.
The defeat of the Jihadi offensive in south west Aleppo explains the US government’s anger with the Russians, set out in such detail in the article in the Washington Post. The US is apparently angrily complaining that during the talks in Hangzhou the Russians ‘backtracked’ on certain things which had been previously agreed.
What actually seems to have happened is that the Russians simply pointed out that with the Syrian army’s recapture of the grounds of the so-called ‘Aleppo military academy’ in the last few days the whole premise upon which the US’s ceasefire plan is based has collapsed. If so then it would not be surprising if they told the US rework its plan. This the US petulantly refuses to do, calling the Russian advice ‘backsliding’.
The Washington Post article all but makes clear that the Syrian opposition’s ‘peace plan’ was intended to be coordinated with the US ceasefire plan, which the US was hoping to get the Russians to agree to, and which it was expecting to announce on Sunday.
With the government’s hold on Aleppo rendered increasingly shaky and vulnerable in case of an ending of the ceasefire, had the US ceasefire plan been accepted by the Russians and put into effect the US would have been in a strong position to insist thereafter on implementation of the Syrian opposition’s ‘peace plan’, which is essentially simply the old US demand for regime change packaged in a slightly different way. The government’s victories in south west Aleppo have now put paid to that
As for the Russians, the bait they were offered was a junior place in a US led coalition against Al-Qaeda (presumably that means Jabhat Al-Nusra), just as they were previously offered by Kerry during his visit to Moscow a few weeks ago a junior place in the US led coalition against ISIS in return for agreeing to have President Assad go. Not surprisingly, the Russians rejected it.
The Russians are still saying that there is some mileage in the negotiations with the US. Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov gamely pretended on 8th September 2016 that the negotiations are still going somewhere
“It is true that the point at issue is some agreement, some document… that has not been finalized yet, because there have remained some unsettled issues. The work is in progress….It goes without saying that all this (an agreement on Syria) may be discussed only in the form of compromises, and it is for the achievement of that compromise that the work is being conducted. A compromise is still to be achieved on a insignificant number of outstanding issues.”
Despite the fire and thunder in the Washington Post article about Kerry not meeting again with Lavrov unless the Russians cave in to every US demand, it is in fact the case that the two foreign ministers spoke again by telephone to each other and agreed to meet on the sidelines of the peace conference in Geneva convened on 8th and 9th September 2016 to discuss ways of achieving peace in Syria. Whether that will be a substantive meeting is another matter.
The fundamental problem – as the Russians must by now surely understand – is that the US is not interested in the sort of “compromises” Peskov is talking about.
As its ceasefire plan shows, the US remains committed to regime change in Syria, and it sees its negotiations with the Russians as nothing more than a means to that objective. The US’s angry response to the collapse of its latest plan to achieve that shows how committed to this objective it still is.
Unless and until that changes it is impossible to see how the US and the Russians can broker peace in Syria, in view of which the war seems set to continue.