rebels in northern Syria have come under an intense weeklong bombing
campaign by Russian warplanes.
insurgents, who also have been trying to hold on in the face of a
coordinated ground offensive by forces loyal to President Bashar
al-Assad, have sheltered in tunnels or taken cover in blast craters.
One young rebel fighter told VOA about his ordeal and why he and many
other fighters are withdrawing from the front.
almost a quarter of his young life, 20-year-old Ahmad has been a
other words he has been killing and maybe beheading people for
the last 5 years),
but the fight has gone out of him. After enduring 400 airstrikes in
four days in the villages of the northern countryside of Aleppo,
where a devastating Syrian government offensive has been pressed, he
withdrew from the frontline along with a hundred of his comrades.
said morale has dropped to rock bottom and militia commanders are
trying to boost the confidence of the fighters. There is talk of
forming a new Aleppo army, uniting the more moderate, less
religious-based militias aligned to the Western-backed Free Syrian
the warplanes paused their bombing runs, there were skirmishes with
combatants clashing just meters from each other.
first day, the fight, it is easy. After that the second days and the
third, it was very difficult. We lost a lot of people, a lot of
friends, a lot of fighters,” he said.
the fourth day? The Russian warplanes razed everything in a three
kilometer area. He told VOA that on the fourth day he was at the
front, in a chain of villages north of the city of Aleppo, there were
more than 400 airstrikes.
said the fighters and civilians alike hid in tunnels dug before the
offensive and in bomb craters. He said they could feel and hear the
percussion of blasts. And the heat as well.
one point he said they examined themselves quickly to make sure they
had not been hit. Everything was being thrown at them — missiles,
barrel bombs and sea mines, as well as vacuum and cluster bombs.
said they became expert at distinguishing from the impact what had
been fired at them.
short young man, with dark eyes and black hair, he hardly has the
need to shave yet. (2.
cute moderate terrorist, like a hero from a Hollywood movie).
He flicks a cigarette nervously as we talk. When I ask him why he
left on the fourth day, he goes quiet. There is a long pause.
said that he and about another 100 fighters from the militia Nour
al-Din al-Zenki withdrew not because of fear but because they felt
they had been betrayed, let down by everybody who claimed to be the
friends of Syria, meaning the U.S., the West and Gulf countries, as
well as their own commanders
has just really opened our eyes and the actual position of affairs
has been appeared).
said the commanders of the Free Syrian Army militias and the hardline
Islamist brigades, as well as al-Qaida’s affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra,
should have set their differences aside and unified. Now it may be
Disastrous Betrayal of the Syrian Rebels
the White House is handing victory to Bashar al-Assad, Russia, and
a difference a year makes in Syria. And the introduction of massive
February, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its Shiite
auxiliaries mounted a large-scale attempt to encircle Aleppo, the
northern city divided between regime and rebels since 2012 and
battered by the dictator’s barrel bombs. Islamist and non-Islamist
mainstream rebels — to the surprise of those who have derided their
performance, let alone their existence — repelled the offensive at
the time. What followed was a string of rebel advances across the
country, which weakened Assad so much that they triggered Moscow’s
direct intervention in September, in concert with an Iranian surge of
forces, to secure his survival.
a year. After a slow start — and despite wishful
Moscow could not sustain a meaningful military effort abroad — the
Russian campaign is finally delivering results for the Assad regime.
This week, Russian airpower allowed Assad and his allied paramilitary
forces to finally cut off the narrow, rebel-held “Azaz corridor”
that links the Turkish border to the city of Aleppo. The city’s
full encirclement is now a distinct possibility, with regime troops
and Shiite fighters moving from the south, the west, and the north.
Should the rebel-held parts of the city ultimately fall, it will be a
dramatic victory for Assad and the greatest setback to the rebellion
since the start of the uprising in 2011.
parallel, Russia has put Syria’s neighbors on notice of the
new rules of the game.Jordan was spooked into downgrading its help
for the Southern Front, the main non-Islamist alliance in the south
of the country, which has so far prevented extremist presence along
its border. Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian military aircraft
that crossed its airspace in November backfired: Moscow vengefully
directed its firepower on Turkey’s rebel friends across Idlib and
Aleppo provinces. Moscow also courted Syria’s Kurds, who found a
new partner to play off the United States in their complex relations
with Washington. And Russia has agreed to a temporary accommodation
of Israel’s interests in southern Syria.
Syria, and despite the polite wishes of Secretary of State John
Kerry, the overwhelming majority of Russian strikes have hit
non-Islamic State (IS) fighters. Indeed, Moscow and the Syrian regime
are content to see the United States bear the lion’s share of the
effort against the jihadi monster in the east, instead concentrating
on mowing through the mainstream rebellion in western Syria. Their
ultimate objective is to force the world to make an unconscionable
choice between Assad and IS.
regime is everywhere on the march. Early on, the rebels mounted a
vigorous resistance, but the much-touted increase in anti-tank
weaponry could only delay their losses as their weapons storages,
command posts and fall-back positions were being pounded. Around
Damascus, the unrelenting Russian pounding has bloodied rebel-held
neighborhoods; in December, the strikes killed Zahran
Alloush, the commander of the main Islamist militia there. In the
south, Russia has fully backed the regime’s offensive in the region
of Daraa, possibly debilitating the Southern Front. Rebel groups in
Hama and Homs provinces have faced a vicious pounding that has
largely neutralized them. Further north, a combination of Assad
troops, Iranian Shiite militias, and Russian firepower dislodged the
powerful Islamist rebel coalition Jaish Al-Fatah from Latakia
it is the gains around Aleppo that represent the direst threat to the
rebellion. One perverse consequence of cutting the Azaz corridor is
that it plays into the hands of the al Qaeda-affiliate Jabhat
Al-Nusra, since weapons supplies from Turkey would have to go through
Idlib, where the jihadist movement is powerful. Idlib may well become
the regime’s next target. The now-plausible rebel collapse in the
Aleppo region could also send thousands of fighters dejected by their
apparent abandonment into the arms of Nusra or IS.
encirclement of Aleppo would also create a humanitarian disaster of
such magnitude that it would eclipse the horrific sieges of Madaya
and other stricken regions that have received the world’s
(short-lived) attention. Tens of thousands of Aleppo residents are
already fleeing toward Kilis, the Turkish town that sits across the
border from Azaz. The humanitarian crisis, lest anyone still had any
doubt, is a deliberate regime and Russian strategy to clear important
areas of problematic residents — while paralyzing rebels,
neighboring countries, Western states, and the United Nations.
all along pursued a strategy of gradual escalation and
desensitization that, sadly, worked well. Syrians already compare the
international outcry and response to the IS’ siege of Kobane in
2014 to the world’s indifference to the current tragedy.
complicate the situation even more, the regime’s advances could
allow the Kurdish-dominated, American-favored Syrian Democratic
Forces (SDF) to conquer the area currently held by the Free Syrian
Army and Islamist militias between the Turkish border and the new
regime front line north of the Shiite towns of Nubl and Zahra. This
would pit the SDF against IS on two fronts: from the west, if the
Kurds of Afrin canton seize Tal Rifaat, Azaz and surrounding areas,
and from the east, where the YPG is toying with the idea of crossing
the Euphrates River. An IS defeat there would seal the border with
Turkey, meeting an important American objective.
prospect of further Kurdish expansion has already alarmed Turkey.
Over the summer, Ankara was hoping to establish a safe zone in this
very area. It pressured Jabhat al-Nusra to withdraw and anointed its
allies in Syria, including the prominent Islamist group Ahrar
al-Sham, as its enforcers. True to its record of calculated
dithering, President Barack Obama’s administration let the
Turkish proposal hang
until it could no longer be implemented. Turkey faces now an
agonizing dilemma: watch and do nothing as a storm gathers on its
border, or mount a direct intervention into Syria that would
inevitably inflame its own Kurdish problem and pit it against both IS
and an array of Assad-allied forces, including Russia.
and Saudi Arabia, the rebellion’s main supporters, are now bereft
of options.No amount of weaponry is likely to change the balance of
power. The introduction of anti-aircraft missiles was once a viable
response against Assad’s air force, but neither country —
suspecting that the United States is essentially quiescent to
Moscow’s approach — is willing to escalate against President
Vladimir Putin without cover.
this momentous change in battlefield dynamics is occurring just as
U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura yet again pushes a diplomatic track in
Geneva. But the developments on the ground threaten to derail the
dapper diplomat’s peace scheme. Fairly or not, de Mistura is
tainted by the fact that the United Nations is discredited in the
eyes of many Syrians for the problematic
its Damascus humanitarian arm with
Despite U.N. resolutions, international assistance still does not
reach those who need it most; in fact, aid has become yet another
instrument of Assad’s warfare. Neither Kerry nor de Mistura are
willing to seriously pressure Russia and Assad for fear of
jeopardizing the stillborn Geneva talks.
unfazed by this controversy, de Mistura’s top-down approach relies
this time on an apparent U.S.-Russian convergence. At the heart of
this exercise is Washington’s ever-lasting hope that Russian
frustration with Assad would somehow translate into a willingness to
push him out. However, whether Putin likes his Syrian counterpart has
always been immaterial. The Russian president certainly has
reservations about Assad, but judging by the conduct of his forces in
Chechnya and now in Syria, these are about performance– not
humanitarian principles or Assad’s legitimacy. For the time being,
Moscow understands that without Assad, there is no regime in Damascus
that can legitimize its intervention.
since 2011, the United States has hidden behind the hope of a Russian
shift and closed its eyes to Putin’s mischief to avoid the hard
choices on Syria. When the Russian onslaught started, U.S. officials
like Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinkenpredicted a
quagmire to justify Washington’s passivity. If Russia’s
intervention was doomed to failure, after all, the United States was
not on the hook to act.
however, has been not only been able to increase the tempo of its
military operations, but also to
mounting cost. And contrary to some pundits, whohailed the
Russian intervention as the best chance to check the expansion of IS,
Washington knows all too well that the result of the Russian campaign
is thestrengthening of
the jihadist group in central Syria in the short term. This is a
price Washington seems willing to pay for the sake of keeping the
Geneva process alive.
bankruptcy of U.S. policy goes deeper. The United States has
key points about
Assad’s future — concessions that Russia and the regime have been
quick to pocket, while giving nothing in return. In the lead-up to
and during the first days of the Geneva talks, it became clear that
the United States is putting a lot more pressure on the opposition
than it does on Russia, let alone Assad. Just as Russia escalates
politically and militarily, the Obama administration is cynically
de-escalating, and asking its allies to do so as well. This is
weakening rebel groups that rely on supply networks that the U.S.
oversees: In the south, the United States has demanded a decrease in
weapons deliveries to the Southern Front, while in the north, the
Turkey-based operations room is reportedly dormant.
result is a widespread and understandable feeling of betrayal in the
rebellion, whose U.S.-friendly elements are increasingly losing face
within opposition circles. This could have the ironic effect of
fragmenting the rebellion — after years of Western governments
bemoaning the divisions between these very same groups.
understandable for the United States to bank on a political process
and urge the Syrian opposition to join this dialogue in good faith.
But to do so while exposing the rebellion to the joint
Assad-Russia-Iran onslaught and without contingency planning is
simply nefarious. Washington seems oblivious to the simple truth that
diplomacy has a cost, as does its failure — probably because this
cost would carried by the rebellion, for which the United States has
little respect or care anyway, and would be inherited by Obama’s
conditions are in place for a disastrous collapse of the Geneva talks
— now delayed until late February — and a painful, bloody year in
Syria. All actors understand that Obama, who has resisted any serious
engagement in the country, is unlikely to change course now. And they
all assume, probably rightly, that he is more interested in the
appearance of a process than in spending any political capital over
it. As a result, all the parties with a stake in Syria’s future are
eyeing 2017, trying to position themselves for the new White House
occupant. This guarantees brinksmanship, escalation, and more misery.
2016 is shaping up as the year during which Assad will lock in
significant political and military gains.