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Russian-led hostilities in Syria intensify despite Munich ceasefire

19 February 2016


Under the wire: a child navigates the rubble in Aleppo, Syria, last week

Under the wire: a child navigates the rubble in Aleppo, Syria, last week

THE search for an internationally backed ceasefire in Syria has been buried under intensified fighting in and around the northern city of Aleppo, with the destruction of schools and hospitals, and an increasingly complex mix of political alliances with interests in the outcome of the hostilities.

For the few, small, remaining pockets of Christians in Aleppo, the future remains unclear. Most have already fled the city and the surrounding areas, after years of conflict. Those who have stayed remain largely loyal to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, and are still in state-controlled areas. They will be waiting anxiously to know the outcome of the current joint assault on rebel-held districts on the eastern side of Aleppo by Syrian government forces, backed by intense Russian air strikes.

The latest indications are that the rebels’ hold on the city is slipping, as government and Syrian Kurdish forces cut their supply-lines to Turkey. On the face of it, then, the re-establishment of government control over the whole of Aleppo should be positive news for most Christians there. The Catholic Apostolic Vicar of Aleppo, Bishop Georges Abou Khazen, told Agenzia Fides that “the regular army is advancing with the help of Russians, and in the liberated districts there is water and light, and schools are reopening. In many situations, the possibility of reconciliation is offered to the Syrians that were linked with the rebel groups.” Bishop Abou Khazen added that militiamen “controlled by foreigners are those who still impose resistance and war. And among the population, appreciation for the role carried out by the Russians prevails.”

Syrian Christians who have remained loyal to the government, while welcoming the recent turn in events will be aware of how their association with the Assad regime marks them as enemies of the many groups who have spent five years trying to oust the country’s president. The crucial part played by Russia and Syrian Kurds in recent military advances by the government will also linger in the memories of regime opponents.

Scores of this kind will be addressed in the months and years to come. In the short term, the concern is with efforts to implement a “cessation of hostilities” within a week, as agreed by world leaders in Munich last Friday.

All the indications are that the truce, intended to allow the distribution of humanitarian assistance, will remain elusive in the near future. Russia seems determined to use its full military muscle to enable government forces and their Shia Muslim militia allies to retake Aleppo, and as many other areas of rebel-held Syria as possible, before any lull in the fighting. President Assad, in a speech on Monday, indicated that he was not taking seriously the call for a ceasefire within seven days: “Who is capable of bringing together all these conditions within a week? No one.”

In the course of achieving their goal to defeat the Syrian opposition, the Russians were accused earlier this week of attacking at least some of the four hospitals and a school in rebel areas which were hit in air strikes. A Kremlin spokesman vehemently denied the accusations. He said: “Those who make such statements are not able to back them up with proof.”

Amid all the claims and counter-accusations, the current developments on the ground in Syria conspire against any speedy diplomatic initiatives to end the carnage. Although the United States and Russia are still nominally working together to bring all sides back to the negotiating table in Geneva, the reality is that Moscow is increasingly calling the shots. While the Obama administration dithers, reluctant to become involved at the military level, Russia has charged in with both feet. Most Arab states are appalled by both the merciless intensity of Russian air bombardments and Moscow’s continuing support for the Assad regime. Yet criticism of Moscow is remarkably restrained. For there is a growing acceptance that Washington is offering little or nothing as another way forward.

Commentary in the Saudi media, for example, has pointed to the joint American-European unwillingness to take an effective lead over several years in dealing with the Syria crisis. “Russia is thriving on the back of Europe’s failure to cope with the challenge of Syria or the ensuing refugee crisis,” a Saudi columnist wrote. “Russia hasn’t needed to move a single tank in the direction of Paris or Berlin to demonstrate European weakness.”

Although there is nothing like praise in the Arab media for Russian tactics in Syria, there is an apparent realisation that, for better or worse, Russia is the sole active power at play there, and the one likely to lead the long-term onslaught on Islamic State. But strategic second-guessing on the part of Arab states will do nothing to bring about the immediate and urgent need for a cessation of hostilities.

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