When Russia’s offensive in Syria began last year, I argued that Putin’s strategy would focus on “securing a contiguous area of Assad-regime control in western Syria, reaching from the north to the south.” Just over a year later, the Russian leader is on the verge of a far greater victory.
Supported by the Russian military, Syrian-regime forces are close to seizing the entirety of Aleppo. It would be a huge defeat for the arrayed rebel forces opposing Assad’s regime. If Assad secures Aleppo, his Russia-Iran axis will corral the opposition into western Syria’s Idlib Province. The rebels will be surrounded on three sides. Syria’s northwest border with Turkey will be their only external supply lifeline. But even that can’t be taken for granted. While he was once a fervent supporter of the rebels, Turkey’s president is now supplicant to Russia.
Still, it’s not coincidental that Russia and Iran have waited until now for their final push on Aleppo: Putin believes that this moment offers maximum potential to further his grand strategy.
The military dynamics in Aleppo today favor the Russians like never before. Deliberately and systematically slaughtering Aleppo’s civilian population, the axis has demoralized the rebels. But more than that, Putin, by constantly manipulating the West, has bought the axis space and time to prepare for this final push. As I explained prior to September’s Aleppo cease-fire, Russia has never been interested in a durable cease-fire. Putin’s pretenses to the contrary were designed only to delay new European and American support for the rebels. In addition, Putin clearly senses that Obama has given up. Obama wants rid of Syria and is happy to hand it over to his successor. Putin therefore feels empowered to do his worse while Obama remains in office.
It’s right to criticize Trump for his Putin delusions, but Russia’s looming success testifies to President Obama’s catastrophic foreign-policy failures.
But Putin is also pushing now because he is unsure of the future. President-elect Trump appears sympathetic toward Putin, but the KGB colonel is wary. As Trump learns more about what Russia is actually doing in Syria — for example, not targeting ISIS — Trump could question a Russian détente. Putin also knows that America’s Sunni-Arab allies will push Trump to take a tougher approach against Assad’s slaughter of Syrian Sunnis. This gives Putin another rationale to crush Aleppo now rather than later.
And that, Putin probably hopes, will help him in another regard — by altering the broader international politics of the Syrian civil war. After all, as much as Putin is riding high on the Syrian battlefield, he’s suffering Western sanctions for his Ukraine-Syria policies. Thanks partly to those sanctions, Russia’s economy remains mired in recession. Russia depends heavily on oil exports for its foreign-capital generation; with oil prices still low, the Russian economy is weak.
Yet Russia sees economic hope on the horizon, because Trump isn’t the only up-and-coming Western leader saying nice things about Russia. Following yesterday’s conservative primary, François Fillon is now the front-runner in the race to become France’s next president. And, like the far-right candidate he’ll probably face, Fillon wants stronger economic and political ties between France and Russia. Like Putin, Fillon wants to end the sanctions. Since Angela Merkel’s Germany has bent under Russian pressure, and since the U.K. voted for Brexit, and because Britain loves the Russian money flooding into the British financial system, Putin believes he can now undercut the Western coalition from within. While finishing Aleppo, Putin probably hopes that, come January 20, 2017, the images of bloodied Syrians will be an afterthought in Western minds.
#related#Ultimately, though it’s right to criticize Trump for his Putin delusions, Russia’s looming success testifies to President Obama’s catastrophic foreign-policy failures. It need not have been this way. Even now, the U.S. retains significant means short of military force with which to restrain Putin’s axis. Unfortunately, no one in the White House or around the world believes we will use those measures.
And so, in the ruins of U.S. credibility, Putin retains the bloody initiative.