A look at Proposals and Options for the USG and Russia, as the Battle for East Aleppo Intensifies

A review of the two opposing UN Security Council Draft Resolutions on Syria debated on October 8, 2016 to show how far apart the USG and Russia are in terms of Stated proposals to end the bloodshed in rebel held East and (to a lesser degree) in Government held West Aleppo; what the key sticking points are; Actual intent of both parties; and what happens next.

October 12, 2016

Introduction

As the Syrian Government aims to recapture East Aleppo from Al-Nusra and allied rebel forces with ground troops backed by air bombardment by both its air forces and the Russians, the growing  civilian death toll caused primarily by the air campaign on a dense urban E Aleppo, and secondarily by rebel mortars attacks on Government held West Aleppo, with increasing rhetoric about the US Government need to intervene in some military way and/or punish Russia, it is useful to look at the current stated proposals to end the violence by the Russians, the USG and the UN Special Envoy to Syria, Stefan De Mistura before considering actual intent and motives and what happens next.

A few caveats:

1. Stated proposals does not mean actual intent.  One can make informed speculation about actual intent later.

2. The Current Stated proposal may differ from that of just a few weeks ago.  These will be pointed out where applicable.

3. Proposals another side might find agreeable may be stated within documents that has other non-starter proposals, simply for negotiating or PR purposes knowing that the chances of the overall document being agreed to are nil.

Sources for Stated Proposals

Just over the past two weeks, there have been a multitude of interviews, press conferences given by various Leaders, their Foreign Ministers, their representatives in daily/weekly briefings, as well as representatives of rebel forces in Western, Russian, Arab news outlets.

However the clearest proposals for ending the violence in E Aleppo, not for rhetorics alone but having a written document or clear statement one can critique are:

1. The French-Spanish Western (in reality USG) led proposal UNSC Draft Resolution S/2016/846 vetoed by the Russians (with China abstaining) on October 8, 2016.

2. The Russian led  UNSC Draft Resolution S/2016/847 and vetoed by a USG led bloc (but supported by China) on October 8, 2016.

3. The UN Special Envoy’s De-escalation offer made in a press statement on October 6, 2016 in Geneva.

The term USG Draft Resolution will be used to refer to the S/2016/846.

Where the USG and Russian Stated Positions Agree

There is much verbiage on agreement of preserving the territorial integrity of Syria; declaring ISIS, Nusra and AQ derived groups, terrorists who must be stopped; the need to cut funding to these terrorist groups; the need to stop indiscriminate bombing on all sides (including barrel and tunnel bombs); the need to ensure humanitarian access to all areas without delay; the need to punish violations of humanitarian laws on all sides.

The language used in both UNSC Draft Resolutions on many of these points is identical.

(A reminder again about Caveat 3 above, that stated positions may not reflect how serious either actually is about adherence to some or any of these proposals).

Key Disagreements

The USG Draft Resolution called for:

Demands that all parties immediately end all aerial bombardments of and military flights over Aleppo city; (Ed: ie a No Fly Zone (NFZ) )

The Russian Draft Resolution (emphasis added):

Demands all parties to comply with United Nations requests for humanitarian access by observing the cessation of hostilities as described in resolution 2268 (2016) and the Agreement of 9 September, 2016 

Included in the Russian Draft Resolution is agreements from the USG-Russian CoH agreement (that itself is included as an attachment).

Stresses the urgent need to achieve and verify separating moderate opposition forces from “Jabhat Al-Nusra” as a key priority

and

pullback from Castello Road (Ed: a DMZ) and establishing checkpoints on that road, and to facilitate evacuation of urgent medical cases and also to use for humanitarian and medical purposes the Suleiman al Halabi corridor between Eastern and Western Aleppo

and

Immediate restart of political negotiatons without preconditions of all parties with the Special Envoy as specified in prior resolutions (2254).

and

Welcomes the initiative of the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General on Syria of 6 October 2016 on normalizing the situation in Aleppo and requests the Secretary-General to present to the Security Council a detailed plan for its implementation in cooperation with interested parties for the purpose of the endorsement by the Security Council;

The De Mistura Initiative given in a press briefing on October 6, 2016 was (paraphrasing)

al-Nusra in E Aleppo should leave E Aleppo to safe haven of their choice with arms. (De Mistura personally agreed to accompany them, i.e. the old concept of being a willing hostage)

and

Following this agreement, Syria/Russia must stop air campaign.

and

Local administration within E Aleppo should stay intact and not capitulate to the Syrian Government forces with international UN presence, pouring in humanitarian aid.

Commentary

The first thing to note is that the Russians are in essence trying to get the CoH agreement hammered out over months and announced with the USG on September 9, as an approved UN Security Council Resolution.  They had repeatedly called for this to happen even before the CoH fell apart, but the USG insisted on keeping this secret and not table it in the UNSC.

Indeed the Russians included 5 pages (in the English version) of the CoH agreement as an addendum to the main 3 page resolution.

The second thing to note is that the USG in its 4 page resolution has completely ignored the CoH agreement of September 9.  This is literally not mentioned at all, and all the language in the Draft Resolution is fall back to its old position of all parties must stop fighting, with the single key addition of calling for an immediate end to the air campaign.

And while the Russian Draft Resolution shows specific interest in the De Mistura proposal for de-escalation and requests the UN Security General to follow up on it, the USG one does not mention it at all (just language about being appreciative of the Envoy’s role.)

Note on Tone and Additional Differences

The Russian Draft Resolution talks of showing “appreciation the efforts undertaken by the Russian Federation and the United States of America as co-chairs of the International Syria Support Group”.

The USG one has no such flowerly language but instead inserts into otherwise identical language in both Draft Resolutions that “violations and abuses committed in Syria shall not go unpunished”, the phrase “that may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.” (Emphasis added).

There’s also a para added (missing entirely from the Russian resolution)

Expresses its intent to take further measures under the Charter of the United Nations in the event of non-compliance with this resolution by any party to the Syrian domestic conflict;

Analysis

The first thing to note is the obvious: these resolutions are all designed to fail having provisos that the other parties will fundamentally find unacceptable.

Russians are not going to agree to a NFZ, least of all because of their desire to avoid another Libyan scenario where they bitterly complain of being duped into assurances that it was not for regime change and abstained from a UNSC Resolution that authorized a No Fly Zone.

USG are not going to agree on committing to separate Nusra from the rebels in a UNSC document which they agreed to do but not been able to achieve in many months, either because they can’t or won’t. They could not even achieve having Castello Road a DMZ.  And this despite a CoH agreement calling for both these actions.

Indeed the USG is not even backing the De Mistura initiative which would put pressure on rebels to distance themselves with Nusra.

The trigger points of each initiative and the offer in return are different:

Russia: FIRST commit to separate out Nusra & Rebels and establish DMZ within a timeframe.  Will pause for only that time. THEN, Russia will commit to extending pause. (ie the CoH agreement).

De Mistura:  FIRST Nusra should commit to leave to a safe haven. THEN Russia should commit to stop. (Russia claims to be interested in exploring this in more detail)

US: FIRST Russia/Syria should stop Aerial Bombing.  THEN..well we’ll see.

The diplomatic situation thus is clearly worse than before.  The USG has in effect torn up the CoH agreement it had signed, terms of which the Pentagon publicly objected to, and the rebels rejected and which the Russians had publicly questioned USG seriousness and commitment towards.

The Russians claim that stopping the bombing without any agreement of what next, means Nusra would simply allow them to regroup and get stronger with aid from the Saudi Arabia and Qatar (which, as the Wikileaks emails have shown, the USG knew were supplying even ISIS, let alone “other radical groups”).  This re-grouping is precisely what happened after the Russians de-escalated following the February 2016 CoH.  And Nusra and the rebels are already attacking W Aleppo with mortars and missiles, and their stated aim is not just capturing W Aleppo but going all the way to Damascus. (Unlike say the Kurds who seek autonomy).

So What Happens Next?

This gets into the realm of informed speculation based not just on public interviews of their officials but what’s happening on the ground.

There is wide agreement across all parties  that the Recapture – avoiding the emotional laden words Liberation or Fall – of E Aleppo by the Syrian Government would be a watershed that would strengthen Assad’s position immensely.

The mainstream US Establishment cannot let this happen for strategic and geopolitical reasons and seem leaning – some would say they never stopped – to fall back to supporting the rebels, either directly or by proxy, with arms knowing full well they will also get to Nusra and perhaps even ISIS with predictable blowback in the future.

But imposing a No-Fly Zone, that is often thrown around casually with little thought of implications, would not just be bombing a few runways.  It would require a full scale commitment and essentially a declaration of war versus not just Syria but Russia, a fact that the Pentagon has publicly acknowledged, the consequences of which no one can quite predict except to say virtually every party will be immeasurably worse than now.

Obama, who is an intellectual, knows the choices for the USG: Bad and Worse.  He clearly does not want to start a war, especially before a new President is announced on November 8 evening. 

But the USG does have potent weapons: diplomatic, economic, information, legal warfare. 

Diplomatically the USG controls a large bloc of countries, specifically most of Europe who will march to the USG drum even when it’s against their individual interests.  The EU – showcasing 27 (-1) nations – can form an impressive bloc to put pressure on Russia.

Economically, though sanctions against Russia have been extended as far as possible without significant blowback to the USG (though not to the EU which reluctantly follows the USG dictats on the matter despite the pain it feels), some more can be found to put immediate pressure.

The USG controls the best information warfare machinery to propagate these views – a fact commented on by Ben Rhodes, the Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications, who once boasted of creating an Echo Chamber to advocate for the Iranian deal, by enlisting like-minded policy groups and journalists to say “things that validated what we had given them to say.”

Apart from “friendly journalists”, they have the advantage that many Western journalists either have or choose to have extremely poor or selective memories of who did what when. (This fact is shown by recent astonishing “Fact Checks” that the statement that “Assad is fighting ISIS” is False by AP (later amended after ridicule, to Mostly True) and “Mostly Misleading” by the New York Times, mentioning just Deir-Ez Zor ignoring the huge victory over ISIS in Palmyra in March 2016 and on-going battle lines at several places).

The Russians meanwhile have all but stated that they don’t regard the USG as serious, doubt they’re united (ie the White House, State and Pentagon being on the same page), credible partners, who either have no leverage against the rebels and KSA/Qatar or choose not to exercise it, and who play PR games with long hammered out agreements they never intend to keep. They have via their friendly outlets, initimated that the attack on the Aid convoy whch would have little strategic value, was a false flag attacks to blame them.

Hence Russia will press on supporting the Syrian Government battle in E Aleppo without respite aiming for a critical point where the rebels capitulate.


Conclusion

The USG and Russia are as far apart on Aleppo as the beginning of the year. (One can also argue there is a great deal of disagreement on Options within the US Establishment.) 

As can be seen from the Draft Resolution it backed, USG has in effect torn up the terms of the CoH it had previously agreed to with Russia, refusing to consider making it a public UNSC resolution, or even trying anymore to comply with key provisions that the Russians demand in exchange for their compliance: the separation of rebels the USG is backing from Nusra (which even USG agrees is exempt from the CoH) and an DMZ around the key Castello Road necessary for supplies to both W Aleppo with a UN estimated 1.6 million people and E Aleppo with a UN estimated 275,000. The USG instead has fully retreated to the position it has held earlier: Russia and Syria must stop before any negotiations, with no guarantees that these will happen.

Meanwhile Russia continues to back full compliance for the terms of the CoH as can be seen by its efforts to introduce it as part of its UNSC Draft Resolution. These terms have been the Russian position from the beginning of the campaign a year ago.

Thus Russia will continue to support the Syrian Government’s military actions to recapture E Aleppo.  They will accelerate their campaign and push for reconciliation in other areas of Syria, working closer with Turkey who has its own distinct priorities to that of the USG.

A key date for the US is the night of November 8, 2016, when the new President of the United States is announced.  While Clinton will almost certainly win – barring an astonishing collapse – clear steps by the US cannot be taken till that happens. Even if Obama then becomes a lame duck, he can huddle with Clinton to review options.  In 2004, the openly planned for months Second Battle of Fallujah one of the most brutal and destructive urban combat the US military had engaged in decades, was prosecuted 5 days after the sitting President’s victory was announced.

Assuming a Clinton presidency, even she as a hawk will be tempered by starting an overt war the first day when she takes over in late January.  However putting pressure via escalations in other areas of Syria, covert actions to “take out” key personnel while maintaining deniability, “accidental bombings”, false flags, or in the case of Russia in other arenas including economic sanctions, non-political actions are all options that have either been tabled or carried out by past US Presidents.  While it’s debatable they will achieve anything to stop E Aleppo from being recaptured, they will be excuses for such actions from the extreme hawks supporting Clinton.

For the rebels in E Aleppo, the key is holding out till something significantly changes as a result of USG actions to halt the Syrian/Russian advance.  However, once cracks start appearing in the so far united Rebel front – such as a break with Nusra, or a loss of a critical amount of men or materiel, rapid capitulation may quickly follow.

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