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Aleppo and the Afghanization of the Syrian Civil War

Intense and ferocious Russian-Syrian air raids, violating repeatedly all rules of war, destroyed complete sections of east and south Aleppo in preparation for the tough battle ahead between the opposition and the rag-tag army Lebanese, Iraqi and Afghani Shia militias supported by the embattled and tired Syrian army.

Taking Aleppo is Russia’s response to the shooting down of the ceasefire deal. Putin’s offer was: my way or the highway. And the Russian President’s way was a Washington-Moscow cooperation to achieve, in a silk glove, what Russians wanted and were trying to get through their usual crude methods from the start. As for Putin’s highway, we see it clearly now in Aleppo.

Was it wrong to shoot down the ceasefire, regardless of who really caused its failure? It is a tough question. But we tend to believe that, ultimately, we were going to reach the same point anyway, silk glove or no silk glove. The opposition did not believe the ceasefire will work and did not want to give its enemies the gift of dividing its own ranks in return for nothing. The regime did not want to drop its objective of getting back all of “meaningful Syria” if not all of Syria.

The Russians wanted all along to keep Assad in power and found it convenient to sell this objective as a war against ISIL or as a preemptive and far away fight that otherwise they would have to face on their own territories. Though Russians are not necessarily fond of the Syrian dictator, he was the only alternative in a specter of unattractive alternatives, from a democratic pro-West regime to an Islamist one.

Essentially, the diplomatic approach was doomed from the start. There is very little in common ground between Assad and most of his opponents. The idea of pressuring the two sides to push them into a compromise appeared from the start a ridiculous approach. Those who should pressure the warring sides have very little means to do so in any effective way.

This situation made it impossible to construct a joint coherent approach. And on top, Russia believes that all Islamists should be terminated. The rational of this belief is beyond the scope of this space. In a practical context, however, the issue becomes: Is it doable? Is it possible to bomb a group of people into divorcing their ideological identity? Is it achievable to separate by force a militant theory from its actual manifestation: the people who believe in it? On a deeper note the question turns out to be: Is the spread of this ideology a reflection of actual conditions on the ground? Or is it just an arbitrary choice of people picking their ideological merchandise from an imaginary market exposing all kinds of ideas available for sale?  

Now, we see the rag-tag Shia militia approaching slowly the East of Aleppo. Under siege, starved and bombed from the air mercilessly, Aleppo is indeed a modern time Stalingrad. However, no one is helping or have even the intention to help. It is evident that the opposition now is moving actively to open all war fronts in order to reduce the pressure on Aleppo. There is a very good chance that the battle of Aleppo will ironically become a turning point in the course of the fight.

The US approved larger deliveries of arms and ammos to the opposition, potentially by Arab countries who warned from the start that the diplomatic approach does not possess the necessary condition to work, and that those conditions should be provided first.

In Aleppo itself, the rag-tag Shia militia army targets Al Sukeri, Sheikh Sa’id and Al Amerya quarters of the old city. The direct objective is to secure the Ramousa-Amerya Road in order to encircle the remaining part of east Aleppo. But it is not going to be easy. Pressure on other fronts force the regime to allocate more of its scarce fighting manpower far from Aleppo. Regime’s positions in and around Hama are seriously threatened. Even around Aleppo, the opposition is making progress under a rain of bombs.

The general idea is to engage Assad forces and its allies by the opposition in a way that expands territorial gains of opposition forces while Assad is trying to capture Aleppo. The minimum is gaining further territories. The maximum is turning around the course of the conflict. If the high end of the opposition hopes is indeed achieved, the irony will be that Aleppo was the trigger of the Assad’s defeat. When he was focusing on the part, he was losing the whole.  

Yet, the whole plan is based on a more realistic bigger picture: West of the Euphrates will go to Turkey-East of the Euphrates will go to the Kurds- Aleppo with the rest of the meaningful or useful Syria is given to the regime, Iran, Hezbollah and Assad. On September 26, Deputy Secretary Antony Blinken and special envoy Brett McGurk arrived in Ankara to discuss ways by which Turkey can have an input in the battles of Mosul and Raqqa. The main obstacle is the Ankara’s unbending policy of fighting the YPG wherever it encounters them. This makes a Turkish role from the west very problematic as it will require crossing the Euphrates to its east bank where the Kurdish militia, supported by the US, is active. Turkey’s coordination will likely be restricted to the Mosul battle in harmony with the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga.   

Is this the end of Syria’s opposition? Quite the contrary. In 2012, 2013, and 2014 there were many moments when people believed it is end of the Assad regime. They were not. The current situation will bring a period of progress for the opposition. The challenge will be how to measure things and direct them into the square where moving Assad, preserving what is left of Syria’s state structure and establishing a new social contract based on inclusiveness of all Syria’s ethnic and religious diversity is respected and represented.

Now, as we write this, there is an intensive fight is ragging on the fronts of north and east Hama, east of Damascus (the eastern Ghotta), south Idlib, Doma, east of Homs and the east of Syria. The battle to capture Aleppo, however, will not be easy. It will take a long time despite the unprecedented and relentless air bombardment using cluster and phosphorus munitions. Hama may soon see a U-Turn in the whole dynamics of Syria’s war. Briefly, there a serious possibility of Aleppo becoming a turning point, in favor of the opposition, in Syria’s warzone.  

But the central question remains: What if Aleppo falls in the hands of the Shia militias supported now by President Putin? What if Russia, Assad and Iran succeeded in securing “useful Syria” and establishing a sort of secure borders for such an entity?

The one prediction that emerges from this tragic assumption, besides partitioning Syria, is a long term insurgency. And the main problem with the scenario of Assad and his allies capturing Aleppo is that it opens the road to a general radicalization of all the Syrian opposition and large segments of the Sunni population. Think Afghanistan.

The focal circle of the Syrian revolution will be moved, pushed completely and fully by what is happening now, into the focal circle of Jihadism. It will increasingly be difficult to recognize any borders between both.

Putin will have to either double down and be dragged deeper into a real quagmire or wise up and pressure his partners in Syria to compromise. The road for a compromise should be left open at all times. No one wants to see the Afghanization of Syria, even the short sighted macho generals of the Russian army. All the other parties should not wish another Afghanistan in Syria.

Did Russia win Afghanistan? Well, it lost and everyone else did also.

Moscow is trying to send a message to the Pentagon: You did not like the Kerry-Lavrov deal? Here is the alternative. Russia’s generals believe that Assad was winning, and the deal will at least lock-in his gains. But Russia and its allies in Syria want first to secure “their Syria”-the densely inhabited west-then maybe talk about talks. Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah said that “Aleppo is a must” few months ago. But this whole logic is built on the shaky premises that lines between the two sides of Syria will be static and defendable. It is this bet that pushes Syria towards Afghanistan.

However, Lavrov’s argument in the Kremlin was based on the possibility that the war will drag on and that Russia will sink slowly in a real quagmire. Thus, in his view, locking-in the gains on a favorable note is better than the risk of unpredictable course in the future. The problem is that civil wars rarely recognize the term “lock-in gains”. In Syria, in particular, it is not even thinkable.

The question in Russia’s Ministry of Defense was: Is it possible to consolidate the gains on the ground, including the strategically important Aleppo, and keep them under a strong grip for an opened period of time? Could that be done at a minimum cost to Russia?

The Russian generals said yes. We say no. Time will tell who is right. .

The Russian generals seem to have forgotten that Mohammad Najibullah was dragged behind a truck then hanged in 1996. Is this what is waiting for Syria? The same old stupidity of the USSR is resurrected in Russia today. You cannot force your way to stabilizing a similar situation whoever your carpet-bombing is inhumane.

If Aleppo fells, the ghosts of Afghanistan will rush to every town in Syria. Bombs in towns, assassinations, riots, armed insurgencies and total chaos will be the norms. The “ISIL First” stupidity on the other side- that of Washington – will go in history as the most powerful recruiter for other ISILs.   

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