There are two ongoing situations dominating recent events in Syria. One is the month-long rebel advance north of the city of Hama, led by Jaysh al-Fatah (the partnership between Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat
al-Nusra Fatah al-Sham that captured Idlib province from Bashar al-Assad last summer), Jund al-Aqsa (a Nusra offshoot), and elements of the Free Syrian Army (the effort to get the FSA to divest itself of ties to extremist groups is going gangbusters, I see). That offensive captured two predominantly Alawite towns today and may be in a position to consolidate its gains despite a heavy response from Assad’s air force. The main impetus behind the offensive has been to force Assad to divert resources from the second situation, the conflict/crisis in Aleppo, and in that sense it’s not clear how effective it’s been despite its territorial gains.
So, yeah, about Aleppo. There’s only so many ways you can say “everything about this is a nightmare” before you’re just repeating yourself to less effect each time, but certainly this is where we’re at:
The UN’s chief humanitarian official said the people of Aleppo are facing a humanitarian catastrophe worse than anything witnessed so far in Syria’s brutal five-year war.
Stephen O’Brien made the remarks to the UN security council on Thursday as Russia rejected calls to halt its bombing campaign on eastern Aleppo, saying it might consider a 48-hour humanitarian “pause” instead.
“Let me be clear: east Aleppo this minute is not at the edge of the precipice,” O’Brien said. “It is well into its terrible descent into the pitiless and merciless abyss of a humanitarian catastrophe unlike any we have witnessed in Syria.
“Syria is bleeding. Its citizens are dying. We all hear their cry for help.”
Yesterday, government air and artillery strikes reportedly hit two hospitals and a bread line in eastern Aleppo, and, look, either the Syrian military is aiming for these sorts of targets or it truly has no idea what it’s firing at, and either of those possibilities is pretty terrible to contemplate. Both Russia and Syria consistently deny that they’re bombing hospitals, but they might get more support for their denials if Syria’s UN ambassador stopped laughing about it when asked:
There are reports that the Syrian army is gearing up to enter eastern Aleppo on the ground, but I can’t imagine the air campaign would slow down unless and until Assad’s forces have established full control over that part of the city, and there’s no telling what kind of human cost will have to be paid for that to happen.
Washington is on it, though. If Russia and Syria don’t stop blowing eastern Aleppo to smithereens, the Obama administration will strike back with a very sternly-worded letter that may well include sentences like “Wow, President Assad, not a good look” and “Russia, please…rethink this.”
I kid, of course. The actual response being considered by the administration is–wait for it–to stop talking to Moscow about Syria:
The United States threatened on Wednesday to halt talks with Russia on the war in Syria and scrap plans for joint military targeting of jihadists unless the Russian and Syrian militaries stopped bombing Aleppo.
The threat, conveyed via telephone by Secretary of State John Kerry to his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov, was the sharpest warning the Americans have made to the Russians over Syria since their Sept. 9 collaboration on a cease-fire collapsed last week.
But the Obama administration did not say what steps it would take if diplomatic efforts failed entirely or how it hoped to deter Russian and Syrian forces from their offensive against rebels in Aleppo, the divided northern Syria city that has become a focal point of the war.
There’s little to laugh about with respect to Syria right now, but I’m imagining a meeting of the UN Security Council where Samantha Power has to say things like “France, would you please tell Russia that we will no longer tolerate their war crimes in Aleppo?” and Russia has to respond with “China, kindly inform the United States that we think it should go suck an egg,” and it’s kind of funny to think about. But I’m still being unfair; the administration is reportedly considering a range of “tougher” responses, and the possibilities are
limitless incredibly limited:
Even administration advocates of a more muscular U.S. response said on Wednesday that it was not clear what, if anything, the president would do, and that his options “begin at tougher talk,” as one official put it.
Whoa, tougher talk? Hard to imagine Russia withstanding that kind of salvo. But there’s more!
The U.S. officials said the failure of diplomacy in Syria has left the Obama administration no choice but to consider alternatives, most of which involve some use of force and have been examined before but held in abeyance.
These include allowing Gulf allies to supply rebels with more sophisticated weaponry, something considered more likely despite Washington’s opposition to this until now. Another is a U.S. air strike on an Assad air base, viewed as less likely because of the potential for causing Russian casualties, the officials told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Conditions in Aleppo would probably have to get much worse for the US to consider a direct intentional attack on a Syrian facility where Russians might be stationed, and since it’s not clear that conditions in Aleppo could possibly get any worse, this seems like something that won’t happen. And anyway, a demonstration strike against a single Syrian facility would be purely demonstrative; it would take a sustained campaign against Assad to really turn the tide of the war against him, and there’s no way that’s happening. Giving the green light to more lethal weapons shipments to the rebels is a possibility (though, with anti-aircraft weaponry ruled out lest it fall into the hands of would-be terrorists, this seems unlikely to make much of an impact), as is the ubiquitous threat of targeted sanctions, which are punitive but not usually very effective at effecting policy changes.
A general on the Russian military’s general staff, Viktor Poznikhir, said yesterday that Moscow was ready to resume talks with the US on the Aleppo situation, and while this is probably the only option Washington can really take at this point, I wouldn’t blame the Obama administration for telling Moscow to fuck off. It hasn’t been American ordinance raining down on eastern Aleppo in the days since the ceasefire broke down, and it’s awfully convenient for Russia and Assad to seize any pretext to break the ceasefire, bomb the shit out of a bunch of civilian targets, and then graciously deign to resume talking. But what would really worry me is that, while he was declaring Russia’s willingness to start talking again, Poznikhir also essentially laid the groundwork for a major government chemical weapons attack on eastern Aleppo by preemptively blaming the rebels for it:
Like other Russian officials before him, he has blamed the rebels for the collapse of the truce, adding that an increasing number of Syrian opposition units have integrated with al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria. He also alleged that the militants are preparing to strike sections of Aleppo with chemical weapons to heap the blame on the government.
“It has become known to us that terrorist groups are preparing to strike Syrian army positions and residential quarters in the eastern part of Aleppo with projectiles loaded with toxic agents as a provocation, in order to put the blame on the government forces,” he said.
What Poznikhir said here does carry a whiff of provocation, but not from the rebels. This is something to watch out for in the next few days.