It is now a year since Russia intervened in the Syrian war, adding air power to its diplomatic support for the Assad regime. During the first six months of their intervention, the Russians saved the regime’s survival. The next six months have been less successful, little more than marching on the spot, with few regime successes and some retreats, despite the huge cost to Russia.
The question of what Russia does next has been preoccupying the Kremlin. This puzzle goes some way to explaining an extraordinary reversal in Russian policy. Moscow spent weeks negotiating a ceasefire with the Americans, only to change tack and launch an all-out air war on the city of Aleppo using incendiaries and bunker bombs, widely condemned as a war crime.
In August the defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, said the United States and Russia were in “a very active phase” of talks on how to start “fighting together to bring peace”. But on Sunday, Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador at the United Nations, said that bringing about peace “is almost an impossible task now” due to the “hundreds of armed groups” in Syria.
These armed groups did not appear overnight. The talking heads on television confess to being at a loss to explain what Russia’s strategy is, or frankly say that none exists.
In fact, the mystery is less thick than it seems. From a geopolitical perspective things are going Russia’s way. Vladimir Putin’s goals are quite clear: he wants to support an ally – Russia has only one in the Middle East, while the United States has bases in just about every country in the region; he wants to show that Russia cannot be ignored in its broader neighbourhood; he wants Syria as a secular bastion against Islamist extremism, not an outpost of the cutthroats; and he cannot resist taking advantage of Washington’s confusion in an election year.
This is a particularly good time for Mr Putin to press his advantage now that Donald Trump, the Republican presidential contender, has broken the Washington consensus by declaring himself an admirer of the Russian leader and seeing no harm in his annexing Crimea from Ukraine.
So far so good for the Kremlin. The problem is that the Syrian army has no fight left in it. Soldiers are scared to advance, unless the Russian planes have blasted a path in front of them. A devastating picture of the Syrian army and security services is presented by Mikhail Khodarenok, a retired Russian army colonel who writes for the Gazeta website – by no means a dissident publication.
The officer class is so corrupt that soldiers go to war unequipped to fight while the many-headed security services are an extortion racket bleeding the whole country white.
The war is unwinnable: it would be best to dismiss the whole army and start again, or at least have a full-fledged system of coordination between the Syrian army and the Russian top brass to provide some energy and focus to the campaign.
It seems that Russia had decided in August that carpet bombing was the way to forward when it started flying Tu-22 heavy bombers from Iran. (The runway at Russia’s airbase near Lattakia in western Syria is too short for such aircraft.)
The fate of the Chechen capital Grozny is no doubt still fresh in the mind of Mr Putin. It had to be flattened to save it from the hands of the Chechen separatists. The city has been rebuilt at huge expense and a former independence fighter who is profusely loyal to Mr Putin now presides over it. Aleppo is a far grander target, but the principle remains: there is no attacking force with the stomach to take the city house by house, so Russian bombers have to bring it down around the rebels’ ears.
While this plan was taking shape, however, the government was happy to negotiate with John Kerry, the US secretary of state, on a “cessation of hostilities” that would lead to the former Cold War rivals creating an unprecedented joint operations centre to target the rebels. This painstakingly constructed diplomatic edifice was actually a sand castle, unable to withstand the lack of trust between the US and Russian militaries, and the deep misgivings of the rebels.
As it happened, during the seven-day ceasefire the US-led coalition bombed Syrian army soldiers, killing 62 of them, apparently mistaking them for ISIL fighters (who were excluded from the ceasefire). While this might have been a mistake – the Americans have a history of attacking the wrong targets – the Russians and the Syrian regime saw it as a provocation, and the ceasefire collapsed.
Since then the Russians have stepped up the bombing to unprecedented levels, leaving the 250,000 people of eastern Aleppo practically deprived of medical care. The plan is presumably to force the civilians to flee, but they have not done so for the past five years, wary of being kidnapped for ransom by the mukhabarat, the intelligence services, and dying in a dungeon if the money is not paid.
For western leaders, the carnage only serves to highlight their embarrassing weakness. It will be a stain on their honour for years to come.
The Russian military will be hoping that the Syrian army, and its Iranian, Hizbollah, Iraqi and Afghan auxiliaries, can somehow take control of eastern Aleppo, which would mark a turning point in the war.
The western part of Syria, the populated heartland, would then be mainly under the control of the regime (or actually regime-allied predatory armed bands), leaving the east to ISIL, the Kurdish militia and the rump of the rebel forces that the Kremlin would hope to convince the West were just a bunch of terrorists to be exterminated. That would be a victory of sorts for Moscow. Will things turn out that way? So far, Syria has been the graveyard of all plans.
Alan Philps is a commentator on global affairs
On Twitter @aphilps