Evidence is mounting that the Russians are cranking up to resume large scale bombing in and around the Syrian city of Aleppo.
The background is an agreement which was concluded by the US and the Russians in February. This called for a “cessation of hostilities” between the various Syrian factions in return for which Russia’s bombing campaign in Syria was to be scaled down.
The “cessation of hostilities” was not a ceasefire and was not intended to be. This was because the two biggest groups fighting the Syrian government – Daesh (“the Islamic State”, also sometimes called ISIS) and Al-Qaeda’s local Syrian franchise – Jabhat Al-Nusra – were expressly excluded from it. The UN Security Council previously declared both organisations terrorist organisations and neither were parties to the “cessation of hostilities” agreement. In fact both denounced it.
A fundamental part of the “cessation of hostilities” agreement was that the US would persuade the various groups it supports in Syria – the so-called “moderates” who form the so-called “Free Syrian Army” – to separate their fighters from these two terrorist groups.
The reason the Russians are now cranking up to resume their bombing in and around Aleppo is because the separation of so-called “moderate fighters” from those of Daesh and Jabhat Al-Nusra in and around Aleppo has never happened. On the contrary the fighters of the various Syrian groups remain intermingled with each other and continue to fight alongside each other.
As for the US, there is little or no evidence that it has ever made any serious attempt to persuade the so-called “moderate fighters” it supports to separate themselves from Daesh or Jabhat Al-Nusra. On the contrary the whole weight of the US’s diplomatic activity over the last few weeks has been to dissuade the Russians from bombing Jabhat Al-Nusra from in and around Aleppo on the grounds that this might hit the so-called “moderate fighters”.
To understand how extraordinary that demand is, just consider that the US has never in all the air campaigns it has waged in the Middle East – whether against the Taliban in Afghanistan or in Iraq or in Libya or Syria – ever sought to distinguish between “militants” and “moderates”.
When the US bombed Afghanistan in 2001 in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks its stance was totally straightforward – it bombed the Taliban everywhere and anywhere it could without making any distinction between its supposed militant and moderate factions. It was left to anyone who wanted to avoid getting bombed to get out of the way. This despite the fact that such different factions within the Taliban – actually a loose coalition of different groups – are known to have existed, and despite the fact that Al-Qaeda (the nominal target of the whole campaign) and the Taliban were distinct organisations. The mere fact the Taliban and Al-Qaeda were physically connected with each other sufficed for the US to bomb them both.
The fact the US has been pressuring the Russians to desist from bombing Jabhat Al-Nusra – ie. Al-Qaeda in Syria – has been barely reported in the West or in the US. If the families of the victims of the 9/11 attacks – or indeed the US soldiers who fought against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Iraq and Afghanistan and their families – were ever to learn that in Syria the US is protecting Al-Qaeda they would surely feel betrayed.
A series of complaints and messages from Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov suggests that the Russians are now close to having enough. Lavrov has made clear that the Russians consider the US in breach of the “cessation of hostilities” agreement the Russians and the US concluded with each other in February.
The Russians also see what is in fact obvious, that Jabhat Al-Nusra make use of any cessation of the bombing to re-equip and redeploy and to launch new attacks against Syrian army positions. Moreover when they do so the US’s so-called “moderate fighters” enthusiastically cooperate with them. A short while ago fighters from Jabhat Al-Nusra in cooperation with fighters of one of the so-called “moderate” groups together stormed an Alawite village and jointly massacred 19 of its civilian inhabitants including children and old people.
Here it is necessary to say something about the true situation in Syria. This is that the so-called “moderate forces” the US and the Western media constantly talk about quite simply don’t exist.
The collapse of the government’s authority over much of Syria meant that various village militias set themselves up to fill the void in different parts of the country. Some of them have claimed to be affiliated with the “Free Syrian Army” in order to get access to Western supplies, and many of them get lumped together by the US as if they were a coherent united fighting force. These militias are however focused on their own districts and are not seriously involved in the war.
As our writer Afra’a Dagher – who is an actual Syrian journalist based in Syria – has written, those fighters who are actually rebels – that is those fighters who actually fight the Syrian army and who seek to overthrow the Syrian government – call themselves at various times by different names but in reality are simply one and the same people.
In order to attract fighters, arms supplies and donations from the Gulf and elsewhere, they say they are Daesh or – if they are fighting around Aleppo – Jabhat Al-Nusra, or by any of various other colourful names that jihadi extremist groups in Syria like to use when it suits them. When they want to prevent the Russian air force bombing them, or when they need to get diplomatic support from the US or from Turkey or the West, they pretend to be “moderates” and call themselves the “Free Syrian Army”.
As Russia’s President Putin himself said in his recent speech to the UN General Assembly, “these people are cruel but they are not dumb”.
Both the US and the Russians know all this perfectly well. Both have for different reasons engaged in the fiction that there are “moderate fighters” in Syria who can be distinguished from the armed jihadis. The US does this because its priority is the overthrow of the Syrian government, not the defeat of violent jihadism in Syria. The Russians do it because they have always sought a diplomatic solution to the Syrian conflict, which would involve the Syrian rebels’ keep supporters – Saudi Arabia and the US – which they see as the only way to secure an end to the war.
News of a major rebel offensive against Aleppo’s Kurdish districts over the last few days has however brought Russian patience to breaking point. Diplomatic engagement with the US having failed to prevent this offensive, the Russians are all but saying that bombing is about to resume.