December 6, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: A Blow to Diplomacy for Aleppo

• On December 5, Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council resolution calling for an immediate halt to the fighting in Aleppo.

• As regime forces continue making significant gains in the last rebel stronghold in Syria, the chances of Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers pausing their advance is extremely limited.

• In exercising its veto, Russia stated any cessation of hostilities would only allow the rebels to recover and rearm.

• The Assad regime and Russia have announced that any rebels that do not leave the city will be treated as terrorists, with even heavier bombing likely to come.

On December 5, Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that demanded an immediate seven-day ceasefire across Aleppo. The inability of the Security Council to agree on a cessation of hostilities in Syria could lead to the imminent fall of the rebels’ largest urban stronghold. The failure to halt the fighting and bombardment will also deprive Aleppo of desperately needed humanitarian aid. 

Backed by Iranian and Hizballah forces on the ground and significant Russian air support, Assad regime forces have taken over 30 percent of the rebel-held parts of eastern Aleppo city. With its countless momentum shifts and ‘turning points’, the Syrian civil war has demonstrated time and again that momentum is not everything. Nonetheless, it appears that the regime will take the city within weeks, unless it decides not to. Assad and Russia will likely begin to intensify airstrikes that have already killed thousands and destroyed hospitals, aid stations, schools, and most of the city’s critical infrastructure.

The Assad regime and Russia have called for the evacuation of all civilians from eastern Aleppo, the current population of which is difficult to estimate given the recent number of people fleeing to the western parts of the city. Russia—which has always maintained it is fighting terrorists in Syria—has said that any rebels still in the city after an unspecified date will be considered terrorists; whatever alleged ‘restraint’ the Syrian and Russian air forces have shown to date will be reduced even further. The plight of civilians unable or unwilling to flee into government-controlled territories—the impetus for the latest Security Council emergency resolution—is now beyond UN influence, such as it ever was.

In its sixth veto of a UN Security Council resolution on Syria, Russia stated that a ceasefire would not just be counterproductive and help the rebels recover, but would interfere with needed talks between the U.S. and Russia on their own ceasefire plans. It is unclear how a temporary ceasefire would interfere with U.S.-Russian talks on a separate temporary ceasefire, but any distinction is lost on the immeasurable suffering of the citizens of Aleppo. In reality, Russia and the Assad regime are hoping to empty the city through mandatory evacuations, something the UN Security Council resolution did not call for.

There have been reports that the push to fully retake Aleppo has been timed with the the U.S. election in mind, with Russia and Syria hoping for a fait accompli in the lame duck weeks of the outgoing U.S. administration. While this certainly could be a factor, perhaps a greater factor is one of momentum and attrition taking an inexorable toll on a besieged rebel ground force with no air support. While the potential fall of Aleppo would certainly not end the Syrian civil war, it would change the dynamics of the conflict dramatically, with uncertain but significant regional repercussions.


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