By Iran Review
By Afifeh Abedi*
Americans and Russians keep saying that they are close to a new agreement on the situation in Syria, particularly with regard to the Syrian city of Aleppo. Many analysts believe that the battle for Aleppo is so important that it can determine the fate of the entire Syrian crisis, but it would be a very complicated battle too. On the one hand, all involved groups will certainly try to make the battle end in their benefit at a time that Syria and its allies have made a serious decision to end this battle in their own favor. On the other hand, the US-led coalition and Syria’s opposition groups are trying to prevent further advances by the Syrian army and its allied forces and improve their positions. In the meantime, the United States and Russia make no effort to hide consultations they have had behind the scenes and openly talk about a possible agreement on Syria, especially with regard to operations in Aleppo.
The important point is that Moscow’s negotiations with Washington on Aleppo come at a time that many observers believe that Russia has a determining power in Aleppo. Therefore, the question is why Russia avoids taking a decisive action in this city to achieve victory and instead, prefers to reach an agreement with the United States over joint operations?
Why Russia avoids unilateral engagement in Aleppo?
The battle of Aleppo is the most difficult and heaviest battle in the course of the armed conflict, which has been raging on in Syria since 2011. The triumph of any party in the battle of Aleppo can potentially tilt the balance of powers toward the victorious side and give it the upper hand in political negotiations. This is why the Syrian army and its allied forces have launched extensive operations in south and southwest of the city. A few weeks ago, some analysts speculated that deployment of Russian warplanes to Iran’s Nojeh Air Base in the western city of Hamedan was aimed to pave the way for their participation in the battle of Aleppo. Such speculations came despite the fact that Russian officials denied air operations for Aleppo and have voluntarily offered a number of proposals for the establishment of cease-fire in this Syrian city to the United Nations and the American side. However, it seems that air strikes by Russian fighter jets around the Syrian cities of Aleppo, Dayr al-Zawr and Idlib are not totally unrelated to what is going on in the Aleppo war theater. These strikes can help tighten the noose around the city and solidify control over villages on its suburbs. Russia, however, has not appeared too serious in this regard.
Various reasons and hypotheses have been offered as to why Russia avoids playing a determining role in Aleppo and why it is more willing to carry out joint operations in cooperation with the United States:
1. Despite some allegations, Russia does not have a determining power in the battle of Aleppo: In view of the fact that victory in this battle is of strategic importance to both sides, they have brought all their might into the arena to emerge victorious in this battle. However, relative equality of their capabilities does not make way for any single side to claim all the victory for itself. In other words, proponents of this hypothesis maintain that Russia is willing to end the war in Aleppo, but the sum total of its military capabilities in the air and the capacities of the Syrian army and its allied forces on the ground is not such as to allow them to rapidly defeat their opponents.
2. Aleppo is not the main concern of Russians: Another hypothesis is that Aleppo is basically not the main concern of Russians. At present, Russia has good control over western parts of Syria, including Damascus, and even more importantly, the military base in the coastal city of Tartus. Therefore, Moscow sees no reason why it should get involved in the costly and heavy battle for Aleppo. In addition, due to presence of civilians in the city, unilateral intervention in Aleppo could increase civilian casualties and this would not be desirable for Russians in view of its international reverberations.
In fact, the existing complicated conditions have increased the necessity of cooperation with the United States for Russians. Russians believe that an agreement on the military operations in Aleppo between their country and the United States could lead to better organization of civilians and facilitate targeting of terrorist groups. This issue, however, depends more on the two sides’ agreement on the demarcation between terrorist and moderate opposition groups. Another important issue, perhaps, is who should dominate Aleppo once it is purged of terrorists; should it be the Syrian government or one of the Syrian opposition groups?
General assessment of Russia’s considerations
On the whole, Russia’s behavior shows that Moscow is not willing to get more involved in the battle of Aleppo and most probably, this approach has its roots in certain considerations, which can be enumerated as follows:
- Since Russia has been trying from the beginning of its military presence in Syria to maintain good relations with all negotiating parties, serious and unilateral engagement in the battle of Aleppo would mean some sort of score settlement with the opposite side whose final outcome would be a shift from the negotiating table to the war theater.
- It seems that in view of the costs that Russia would incur if it decides to win the war unilaterally, Moscow is trying to shuttle between the military option and negotiations in order to increase its options in the Syria war theater.
- At the same time, joint operations by the United States and Russia would mean realization of one more goal for Russians on the ground in Syria, which is forcing the United States to cooperate with Russia for the resolution of international issues in which case, Moscow would look like an equal power to Washington. Of course, past experience has shown the Russians that the end to Syria war would only mean the opening of a new front in rivalries between the United States and their country. Meanwhile, there are still many challenges to be overcome before conditions for the realization of Russia’s ideal scenario, which is joint operations with the United States in Aleppo, could be provided.
* Afifeh Abedi
Researcher of Eurasia Studies at The Center for Strategic Research (CSR), Tehran