Fighting to win

No, this won’t be about the American elections. It’s about Syria.

The Russians and the Iranians are doubling down in Aleppo, where the insurgent part of town is virtually surrounded, civilians are under daily bombardment, and too brief humanitarian pauses are routinely flaunted. The breach opposition forces have made in the siege is mostly unusable, as it is constantly under fire. The Russians are now flying their bombers from Iranian territory, in order to shorten the transit time and increase the ops  tempo.

Why would they do this?

They have good reasons. If they ever did, Tehran and Moscow no longer have any hope that a successor regime in Syria would treat their interests respectfully. So many Syrians have now suffered from their intervention that they can count only on autocracy, of Assad or someone like him. They may not share Assad’s objective of retaking control of every inch of Syria, but they want him to win in Aleppo because they think that will ensure his survival in power.

Assad understands this and will drag his allies as deep into the hole he has dug for himself as possible. Yesterday and today he attacked Kurdish forces in northern Syria, if not for the first time still for the first time in a long time. There had been a de facto truce between the regime and the Kurds, who have gotten some support from the Russians (as well as the Americans). It looks as if Assad has decided to put the Russians on the spot, knowing that they don’t dare abandon him for the sake of the Kurds.

Assad is even looking strong enough for the Chinese to pitch some military assistance in his direction. They don’t really have a dog in this fight, but they presumably want to come out on the winning side. If that is an autocracy, all the better.

Meanwhile, the Americans are sticking to their game plan, which requires them to focus exclusively on defeating the Islamic State (ISIS): the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have taken the strategically important northern town of Manbij from ISIS and are heading towards Jarablus, on the border where the Euphrates crosses from Turkey into Syria. Washington has supposedly promised that the Kurds will withdraw from the Manbij “pocket” once the fighting is over, leaving Arabs in charge to prevent the Kurds from controlling the entire northern border of Syria and thus to please the Turks. We’ll see if that intention holds.

The big losers in all this are non-extremist Syrians, particularly those who live in opposition-controlled areas. Their cause at this point seems lost, which I suppose is why the White House persists in its indifference. Only resounding defeat of ISIS will play well in the American election campaign. Obama is also fighting to win, but in a different war from the one Putin and Assad are pursuing.

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