War-torn Aleppo has come into the spotlight again this week with rebels' breaking through a weekslong siege by Syrian forces in a matter of days.
The initial success of President Bashar al-Assad’s siege, which clearly emboldened him, could have led to the fall of the second-largest city in Syria and has become a significant victory for the pro-Damascus forces.
This would have had major repercussions not only on the ground but also would have driven the monthslong diplomatic process to a complete standstill. The retaking of Aleppo by the Syrian government would essentially mean that Assad no longer needs to sit at the negotiating table with the opposition unless the opposition acknowledges its defeat.
US Secretary of State John Kerry warned Russia that if its recent safe-passage humanitarian operation in Aleppo is a “ruse” and that the city is in fact going to be depopulated only to be seized, it will damage US-Russia cooperation in Syria. The opposition's High Negotiations Committee echoed Kerry's view, saying humanitarian corridors are a way to sugarcoat Moscow’s real intentions.
Despite the Assad government's claiming that thousands of civilians fled the eastern part of the city using the safe passage, according to other accounts, the number is barely above 100. With 250,000 civilians trapped inside the city, it is virtually impossible to accommodate all residents in government-controlled areas on such short notice. Having lived alongside the rebels for four years, locals fear being persecuted by the Syrian authorities if they flee and fear being labeled traitors by the opposition at the same time.
Moscow, however, is perfectly aware that the fall of Aleppo would bode ill for the US- and Russia-led diplomatic process and that the vast majority of civilians would not voluntarily leave the city for the unknown with no guarantees of safety. According to some sources, Russian aircraft did not participate in the siege of Aleppo, which could mean that the Kremlin has a different plan for Aleppo and that its retaking is not in the cards at the moment.
In Russia’s calculation, a besieged Aleppo could be far more valuable than an Assad-controlled one, both strategically and diplomatically. As long as a zero-sum fight for the city continues, Moscow plays a key role in the negotiations. All other issues, including Assad's future in Syria, are pushed to the back burner because Aleppo is perceived as a stronghold of the opposition and its fall would symbolize the victory of Damascus, or, according to some experts, the end of the opposition movement against Assad altogether.
The official rhetoric from Washington, Brussels and Moscow seems to center around the need to alleviate the hardships of civilians in Aleppo and reduce the fighting; this draws international attention away from other contentious issues. The spotlight on Aleppo and a sense of urgency in dealing with the crisis clearly work in Moscow’s favor because the Kremlin is again calling the shots in Syria.
Time may be running out to deal with the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Aleppo. According to the Syrian-American Medical Society, in the event of a successful siege, fuel for bakeries would run out within weeks, and energy for hospitals within three to four months. The fate of local residents, who are no less than prisoners in the besieged city, will become the strongest argument if a new round of negotiations on Aleppo is going to take place.
The situation around the city is one of the major reasons why the so-called cessation of hostilities failed in the first place. Decision-makers in Moscow understand that the Syrian forces cannot go on forever repelling rebel attempts to break the siege, which is why negotiating another cessation of hostilities in Aleppo on its own terms would be a better option for Moscow than taking control over the entire city, because the fall of Aleppo would rid Russia of the strongest lever it has had in Syria against the United States and the opposition.
Freezing the conflict in Aleppo in its current form is a tactic out of Russia’s traditional operational playbook. Frozen conflicts have been successfully instrumentalized by Moscow in the post-Soviet Union space and have proved their effectiveness when it comes to manipulating the political process. Long-term examples of this can be found in Moldova and the South Caucasus, and more recently in Ukraine.
The United State figures prominently in Russia’s Aleppo equation for two reasons. First, the Kremlin feels that it negotiates with the United States from a position of strength in Syria; senior US officials have said several times that the White House has armed Kerry with very few instruments to match Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s flexibility at the negotiating table. It is hugely important for Russian President Vladimir Putin to be speaking on par with the United States as well as be setting his own agenda, something that has rarely happened since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Second, the publicity advanced by the Russian media surrounding the Syria campaign makes it appear that Washington’s campaign to diplomatically isolate Moscow has failed. A meeting on Aleppo that may soon take place in Geneva, in Russia’s view, serves to do just that, presenting Moscow as a peacemaker helping settle another crisis.