Saturday 17 August 2019

Putin can claim victory in Aleppo, but the battle for the new Syria looms

'For Mr Putin, the fall of Aleppo is the latest in a string of military successes notched up over almost three years of constant warfare' Photo: Reuters
'For Mr Putin, the fall of Aleppo is the latest in a string of military successes notched up over almost three years of constant warfare' Photo: Reuters

Roland Oliphant

The battle of Aleppo may officially have been won by Bashar al-Assad's Syrian Arab Army, but it was Moscow, not Damascus, that announced the end of the fight.

And it was Vladimir Putin who 'Forbes' magazine named as the most powerful individual on the planet for the third year running recently.

For Mr Putin, the fall of Aleppo is the latest in a string of military successes notched up over almost three years of constant warfare - and the latest vindication of a new era of Russian military adventurism.

Russia has effectively been at war since February 2014, when heavily armed troops in unmarked uniforms fanned out across Crimea. There was little fighting, and in little more than a fortnight Mr Putin declared the peninsular had been "reunified" with Russia.

Over the following year, Russia covertly fuelled a separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine and twice sent massed conventional forces across the border to inflict bloody and humiliating defeats on the Ukrainian military.

By February 2015, Mr Putin was able to force the Ukrainian government and its Western backers to accept a peace agreement, Minsk II, largely favourable to Russia and its separatist allies.

Six months later the Kremlin charged into the Syrian civil war - even as war of attrition continues in eastern Ukraine.

What are they fighting for?

Russia's Syrian adventure is not a re-run of Ukraine, but it follows a similar pattern.

Like in Ukraine, Moscow's intervention in Syria has drawn angry condemnation, but little - if any - actual challenge from Western governments.

And like in Ukraine, the Kremlin is hoping to use its military muscle as a means to achieve political and diplomatic ends.

For months, Russian foreign policy experts have said openly that victory in Aleppo is a prerequisite for Moscow's central war aim - guaranteeing the survival of the Assad regime and enforcing a favourable political settlement to end the war.

In other words, inflicting a defeat on the rebels so catastrophic that they and their Western and Middle Eastern backers accept peace largely on Moscow's and Damascus's terms.

So Russia just won?

Not quite. The problem with this plan is that Russia and its Iranian and Syrian allies do not necessarily agree on what that settlement should look like.

Experts in Moscow say one likely outcome could be a de-facto partition of the country with Mr Assad - or a successor acceptable to Moscow - retaining control of the heavily populated northern and eastern segments of the country.

Some even say - whisper it quietly - that Moscow might accept Mr Assad's departure as a price for such a settlement.

But Mr Assad says he doesn't want to go anywhere. And he also says he wants to re-establish control over every inch of Syrian territory, a goal viewed in Moscow as both unrealistic and probably unnecessary.

Then there is Iran and its Shia militia allies, who have provided a large proportion of the ground troops that made the assault on Aleppo possible, but whose religious agenda diverges greatly from Russia's secular goal of "stability" and a friendly government.

As one influential foreign policy thinker in Moscow puts it, Russia's plan to force a favourable peace depends on "everyone realising that the war is unwinnable".

In other words, the fall of Aleppo does not necessarily mean the end of this horrific war.

Has Mr Putin ever lost a war?

Since Mr Putin came to power 17 years ago, the Russian military has won wars in Chechnya, Georgia, and - at least partially - Ukraine.

But despite near complete victory in Aleppo, this has also exposed the limits of Russia's expeditionary military might.

The shock recapture of Palmyra by Isil is probably the biggest and most embarrassing single reverse the Russian military has suffered since Mr Putin sent it off to war in 2014.

It is a humiliation that generals in Moscow and Damascus will quickly seek to reverse. But doing so may require commitments of yet more troops, money, and time - things Moscow cannot afford indefinitely.

Do Russians know they are at war?

Officially, Russia's intervention in Syria is still strictly confined to air support for the regime, although the Kremlin also acknowledges that special forces units also operate there.

But there are probably more Russian ground forces in Syria than the Kremlin cares to admit - and their numbers may be growing.

Fearful of a backlash against mission creep, the Russian government has done its best to keep the true size of the deployment under wraps, and continually reassures its public that there will be no re-run of the Soviet Union's disastrous entanglement in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, officials continue to publicly deny that Mr Putin's other war ever even happened - even though it never really ended.

Despite the Minsk ceasefire agreements, Ukrainian and separatist soldiers still die every week in clashes in eastern Ukraine.

There's no reason to believe that Russia is considering pulling his support for either east Ukraine's rebels or Bashar Assad's government.

As long as they are successful, Mr Putin's wars are likely to continue. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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