In Russia’s most concentrated bombardment since it intervened in Syria’s war in September 2015, rebel-held eastern Aleppo is being reduced to rubble, driving its heavily outnumbered defenders underground in a fight likely to determine the outcome of the savage and bewildering war.
The Damascus regime ground offensive, spearheaded by Hezbollah and other recently reinforced Iranian-backed Shia militias, now appears to be trying to split in two the sector of the city held by the rebels.
This is exposing the rebels to attacks on new fronts, in which they face being systematically overrun.
The Russians, supported by Iranian-backed Shia militias, are pulling out all the stops to obliterate eastern Aleppo to crush the diehard rebels besieged there.
In what appears to be the biggest battle of the war, the regime and the Russian and Iranian generals who now determine Syrian President Bashar Assad’s military strategy have resorted to a brutal tried and tested tactic: Besieging their enemies and pounding them into submission.
East Aleppo is undoubtedly the most ferocious of these operations. But UN officials say that more than 1.25 million Syrians across the country are trapped in similar “starve and surrender” offensives.
An estimated 275,000 people, exhausted and weak from severe food shortages, are trapped in east Aleppo. The UN says 100,000 of them are children.
The current escalation began on November 15th, when a recently strengthened Russian naval task force in the eastern Mediterranean unleashed its most concentrated attacks on eastern Aleppo, with volleys of Kalibr cruise missiles and air strikes by Sukhoi Su-33 fighters operating off Russia’s only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuztensov.
These were the Russians’ first-ever combat strikes by their infant naval air wing. They were backed up on November 17th by Tupolev Tu-95s of Russia’s strategic bomber force, which flew an 11,000km mission from northern Russia to launch cruise missiles on the besieged city.
Heavily outnumbered and outgunned by Iranian and Hezbollah forces, the rebels have long had the odds stacked against them. Short of food and ammunition, they face constant Russian air and missile strikes and regime shelling that have reduced large sections of their sector to rubble.
All hospitals in the sector have been systematically targeted, destroyed or put out of action. The rebels have no surface-to-air missiles to combat the air raids, so, like the Islamic State (ISIS), they have adopted tunnel warfare.
For months, the rebels have been digging a network of tunnels that include medical centres and have burrowed under regime positions and blown them up.
Conquering the last of the rebels, who have held eastern Aleppo since mid-2012, would dramatically change the situation on the ground as Moscow presses for a meeting in Damascus in the coming weeks with the opposition’s political leaders.
The Russians intend this to replace the moribund UN peace process centred on Geneva, cutting out the Security Council and the Americans at a stroke. Russia, Iran and Turkey, Syria’s northern neighbour, are expanding their military intervention, emboldened by the political uncertainty in Washington while they wait and see what US policy will be under President-elect Donald Trump.
A regime victory in eastern Aleppo would be a major triumph for Assad and his foreign backers, Russia and Iran.
Russia is in Syria to restore Moscow’s influence in the Middle East as part of President Vladimir Putin’s quest to revive the country’s global power status. Iran has invested heavily in Syria, financially and ideologically, to keep Assad in power as part of its strategic, and accelerating, drive to expand its influence across the region.
Iran’s constantly expanding proxy forces, modelled on Hezbollah, have been a major factor in ensuring Assad’s survival, but for Tehran these battle-hardened Shia militias from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan represent its growing power projection capabilities in the Gulf, the Levant and eastwards into Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The situation in Aleppo has been nothing less than the shaping of a Shia jihad against Sunnis in Syria, largely masked by the brutal rise of ISIS, that is intended to alter by force the geopolitical landscape of the region in the years ahead.
The intensification of Russian, Iranian and regime military operations threatens to collide with Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria in August.
This was ostensibly aimed at preventing the emergence of a Kurdish state on Turkey’s southern border, but it also underlined the growing ambitions of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to restore the power Turkey lost in the break-up of its Ottoman Empire after the first world war.
With Turkey and its rebel allies, with US connivance, pushing south against ISIS and the Kurds in Operation Euphrates Shield launched in August, northern Aleppo province has become “one of the most crucial theatres of the Syrian civil war”, the US-based global security consultancy Stratfor observed.
“The rebel advance is not only hurting the Islamic State and hamstringing the Kurds, but it is also impeding US efforts to seize Raqqa and loyalists’ attempts to retake Aleppo city. “Perhaps most important though, Operation Euphrates Shield carries the risk of starting a brawl with Turkey and the United States on one side and Russia and Iran on the other — a fight whose consequences would reach well beyond Syria’s borders,” Stratfor concluded.
This article by Ed Blanche was originally published by The Arab Weekly