–Ambassador Talmiz Ahmad, Adviser, West Asia & North Africa, Ananta Centre
& Former Indian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman & UAE
The vicious assault on Aleppo by Syrian government forces, backed by Russian air attacks, dominated the news from Syria, as commentators struggled with words to describe the carnage: terms used were “killing zone”, “giant kill box”, “enduring savagery”, “slaughterhouse” and “living hell”. There were UN reports that nearly 400 persons had been killed, including 100 children, since the attacks began on 23 September, and that hospital facilities seem to have been deliberately targeted in a city which still had 250,000 people, including 100,000 children, living with acute shortages of food and medical supplies.
During this period, US-Russian ties deteriorated to the point where the US stopped engaging with Russia on Syria, and Secretary of State John Kerry said that the Syrian government and Russian actions should be investigated for possible war crimes, as they had a “targeted strategy to terrorise civilians” and to kill anyone who came in the way of their military objectives. France has assumed responsibility for pursuing the war crimes case at the International Criminal Court.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov repeatedly reminded his American colleague that the US had failed to separate the “moderates” from the terrorists, knowing full well that the Al Qaeda affiliated Jabhat Nusra, in its new incarnation of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, is counted by the Saudis among the “moderates”!
President Putin also withdrew from the landmark arms control agreement with the US which requires each side to dispose of 34 tonnes of plutonium, leading newspaper commentators to ask whether the world was now seeing a new Cold War. Later, on 9 October, the Russian Foreign Minister complained of the “aggressive Russophobia that now lies at the heart of US policy towards Russia”.
Through this period, there were also regular reports that Russia was boosting its fire-power in Syria with new weaponry, including the S-300 air defence missile system, which is possibly aimed at deterring US attacks on Syrian government forces. The Russian spokesperson in Moscow warned the US against attempting any attacks on the Syrian army, saying that it would “lead to terrible, tectonic consequences”, not only in Syria, but in the region as a whole.
The UN envoy for Syria, Steffan de Mistura, dramatically stepped into the picture by announcing that he was willing to enter Aleppo and escort the departure of the 1000-odd Jabhat Nusra fighters in the city, so that the fighting and killing could end, and the city could be saved from total destruction. While Russia welcomed the offer, the jihadi group showed no interest in this grand gesture.
As the Syrian government made slow progress in taking parts of Aleppo, observers noted that while Aleppo would eventually fall to the government, the fighting in Syria would continue, with Assad continuing to head “a shrunken, broken and fragmented country”, which would also generate the world’s worst refugee crisis since the Second World War.
This sense of despair seems to have been reflected in Kerry’s discussion with a group of opposition figures in New York, where he expressed doubts about the ability of any group to unseat Assad, voiced frustration at his inability to swing the Obama administration in favour of more robust military intervention in Syria, and strongly urged the group to participate in elections with President Assad and become part of the transition process, thus contributing to the political solution.
Developments in Syria affirm that Russia is totally uncompromising in its determination to maintain the Assad regime in power and preserve the political status quo, and is willing to use robust military force and all its political resources, going far beyond anything the US can offer. Hence, not surprisingly, the only political idea on the table is the Russian offer of a transitional arrangement with Assad in position, followed by elections in which Assad will participate.
For Kerry to promote this to the expectant Syrian rebels, who are seeking a US involvement on their side that matches the Russian commitment to Assad, suggests that the Obama administration has reached the limit of its commitment to them. However, the deep divide between the US and Russia, due to the differing interests of their regional partners, prevents them from pursuing a joint diplomatic effort to bring peace to the country.