Winning In Aleppo? At What Cost?

Russian aggression in Syria requires fresh thinking from those opposed to an Assad future

Sam Eastoe

Despite being the largest city in a violently ruptured Syria, Aleppo escaped the onset of the Syrian Civil War by approximately 16 months, until rebel fighters swarmed into the city in July 2012. Since that day, the city and its hinterlands have seen nothing of peace as Assad’s government, the Free Syrian Army, and other militant groups wrestle for control of its population and resources.

In June 2016, in an effort to settle the future of Aleppo decisively, the Syrian Army launched a major campaign to the north, seeking to cut supply lines to rebels ensconced in the city. Between this offensive and subsequent counter-offensives, the peculiarities of battle conspired to leave eastern Aleppo held by a mixture of rebel forces (including al Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham) but completely surrounded by government-held territory. Thus Assad’s allies tightened a strangulating siege around the residents of eastern Aleppo.

The allies on the ground largely consist of Iranian and Hizb’ullah militias, but more importantly Assad has the backing of Russia, which has contributed extensive support and resources to maintaining the Syrian Army’s beleaguered troops in the wider conflict.  In particular, Russia is supporting and delivering a high frequency bombing campaign of the encircled area, with the intent to degrade the rebels’ operational capability and allow for Assad’s forces to regain territory.

The Russian raids are ostensibly targeting Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and other militants in the area, but they have demonstrably destroyed civic infrastructure, such as hospitals and schools, and killed hundreds of aid workers and civilians over a matter of days. This brutal and indiscriminate bombing campaign across eastern Aleppo has prompted many to claim that the country is violating several principles of international humanitarian law governing the practice of armed conflict.

Specifically, the rules of International Humanitarian Law demand that warfare be conducted with a distinction between civilians and combatants, a prohibition on the infliction of unnecessary suffering and with a view to the principle of proportionality. While the latter two of these conditions are open to interpretation, there is strong evidence that Russia has given scant regard for them, if not deliberately contravened them. The mere existence of such a high proportion of civilian casualties is evidence enough to prove a disproportionate response to the threat, while the targeting of hospitals and schools is clear disregard for the separation of civilian and combative infrastructure.

Numerous spokesmen for national governments, including those of France, the UK and USA, have condemned the bombing campaign and called for Russia to face a tribunal for war crimes, while the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon has ‘ask[d] and urge[d]’ the security council to establish an inquiry into possible war crimes in Aleppo and to bring the matter to the International Criminal Court.

Despite international condemnation, Russia has refused to accept that its practices are contravening any principle of humanitarian warfare. Instead, it insists that the raids have been lawful and proportionate, and only targeted at militant extremists. It has gone so far as to use its veto powers as a permanent member of the UN Security Council to block a measure which would have led to immediate cessation of air strikes. It has rejected ceasefire agreements and pushed for greater latitude to target militant rebels across the country.

While Russia maintains that its violence is necessary to eradicate so-called Islamic State and like-minded extremists, some western observers have ulterior explanations for Russia’s barbarism. These hold that Putin knows that indiscriminate raids are more likely to push rebels and civilians into the arms of extremists, eroding their legitimacy and improving Assad’s claim to represent a moderate political solution.

With this in mind, there is little likelihood that Russia will respond to international calls for a drawback of hostilities with obeisance. The country is aware that it has numerous antagonists on the international stage and threats of becoming a “global pariah” hold little fear, particularly while it remains the 14th largest economy in the world. Russia also holds numerous international allies and friends, particularly in Asia and the former Soviet Union, meaning that further western condemnation is not biting. Finally, Russia has not ratified the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. This is significant, as it means that the highest court in the world for investigating and punishing war crimes, such as those said to be committed in Aleppo, has no jurisdiction over Russian officials or military activities.

Instead, the challenge now is for the international community to respond to Russian aggression with like-minded strategic nous. While West-backed pershmergas and airstrikes have degraded the territorial ambitions of Islamic State, the quagmire of the Syrian conflict is no closer to being solved, and there is a real danger that Russia will cement Assad into whatever political settlement may be proffered. The key objective, then, for those intent on subjugating Russia’s plans, is to identify a more favourable political leader and put all resources behind him. At the moment, the West is spreading its eggs across a number of competing groups and factions, in the hope that they will have a chair when the music stops. Instead it should be ploughing its considerable resources into a preferred option. This is a high-risk strategy, but it seems to be working for Russia.

“The views expressed in this articles are those of author’s alone and do not reflect that of IISA”