Aleppo push was always part of Assad’s strategy

Sharif Nashashibi unpacks the meaninglessness of the new "regime of calm" in Syria

Syrians at the site of airstrikes in the rebel-held neighbourhood of Bustan Al Qasr in Aleppo, Syria, 28 April 2016. Zouhir Al Shimale / EPA
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International revulsion is increasing over the current spike in bloodshed in Aleppo, which surely represents the final nail in the coffin of a “cessation of hostilities” that never actually managed to cease hostilities. However, the tragedy that is unfolding was entirely predictable to anyone who has been following the actions and statements of the Syrian regime, and those of its ally Russia, in recent months.

No interpretation is required – the regime has been very clear about its intentions. In February, president Bashar Al Assad vowed to retake the whole country. This was amid diplomatic efforts to secure the cessation of hostilities, which his forces have repeatedly violated since it was announced.

On April 10, Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations special envoy to Syria, arrived in Damascus for meetings with regime officials in the run-up to the resumption of peace talks in Geneva on April 13. That very day, prime minister Wael Al Halqi said regime troops were preparing a major offensive to retake Aleppo, and the opposition said the cessation of hostilities was close to collapse amid the renewed use of barrel bombs.

The following day, dozens of barrel bombs were said to have been dropped on civilian areas of the city. As such, the current escalation is simply the regime behaving true to its word, as well as its tactics.

There has been international outrage over last week’s airstrike that destroyed a hospital in Aleppo backed by Médecins Sans Frontières and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Patients and doctors were killed, including one of the last paediatricians remaining in the rebel-held part of the city.

However, this was certainly not an isolated incident or an accident. In March, Amnesty International wrote: “Russian and Syrian government forces appear to have deliberately and systematically targeted hospitals and other medical facilities over the last three months to pave the way for ground forces to advance on northern Aleppo.”

The upcoming attempt to capture the entire city is only made possible because, contrary to Moscow’s statement in March that it was withdrawing the bulk of its forces from Syria, they remain largely in place.

There is debate about whether the regime can retake Aleppo. The largest city in Syria is of great strategic, economic, military and symbolic importance to all the warring parties and the offensive will certainly be fiercely resisted.

Rebel reinforcements are likely to be called in from other parts of the country if necessary. However, even if the assault succeeds – a big if – the question is, can the regime maintain control of the whole of Aleppo?

It has become clear that the regime’s battlefield successes – particularly following the direct military intervention of Hizbollah and later Russia – are due to the forces of its foreign allies. Major offensives are typically planned and led by Iranian forces or Hizbollah, with Shiite militias participating as foot soldiers and Moscow providing air power.

Regime troops often play a supporting role, so they are unable to keep hold of captured territory without foreign military backing. What ground Mr Al Assad has gained since Russia’s direct military intervention last year – and it is not as much as he or his allies would have hoped for – does not signify the regime’s renewed strength but its continued endemic weakness.

Mr Al Assad acknowledged manpower shortages in his army last year, and they would have only worsened since. Indeed, the likelihood of the regime’s collapse led to Moscow coming to its rescue.

Meanwhile, Mr Al Assad’s “regime of calm” – announced on April 30 – is as nonsensical as it sounds, because it covers only regime strongholds, which it will obviously not attack. Some new fangled substitute name for a ceasefire, it is as absurd as ISIL declaring a ceasefire in its Syrian capital Raqqa. This is a public relations ploy by Mr Al Assad designed to continue his offensives under a fig leaf of restraint.

A fundamental reason why the Syrian conflict and humanitarian catastrophe continue is impunity. This is most starkly evidenced by a regime that confidently commits war crimes and crimes against humanity, violates ceasefires and negates peace talks by refusing to discuss a transition of ­power.

“Accountability … must form part of any political solution,” said UN investigators in February, upon releasing a report detailing regime conduct that “amounts to extermination as a crime against humanity”.

However, the regime – responsible for the vast majority of civilian deaths – is spared this accountability by Russia and China, which have vetoed UN Security Council attempts to refer the conflict to the International Criminal Court.

This despite such a referral covering atrocities committed by all sides. Opposition groups are pushing for such a move – the rejection by Mr Al Assad and his allies points to their awareness of the extent of the regime’s culpability. Much like American mediation efforts in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Russia cannot claim to be an honest broker in diplomacy over Syria while acting with impunity.

Sharif Nashashibi is a journalist and analyst on Arab affairs