Pounding Aleppo, Russia and Syria reprise politics of brutality

In their overwhelming attacks on eastern Aleppo, which spurred the US to suspend talks with Moscow, Russia and Syria are seeking a favorable political outcome through time-tested – if brutal – military means.

Khalil Ashawi/Reuters
The Big Dipper and North Star fill an evening sky as vehicles drive past damaged buildings in the Syrian town of al-Rai, in the northern Aleppo countryside, Oct. 2, 2016.

Despite more than five years of Syrian war agony, the survivors of rebel-held eastern Aleppo have never seen such intense bombardment as they have over the past two weeks. Devastating barrel bomb attacks and airstrikes have targeted hospitals and White Helmet emergency workers, leaving nearly 400 dead.

Syria and Russia launched their joint offensive with the collapse Sept. 20 of a brief US-Russia cease-fire, sparking US and British allegations of “barbarism” and “war crimes” in Syria and a high-level blame game between Washington and Moscow.

Much of Syria’s and Russia’s calculation, analysts say, is that the surge of new violence, if it leads to battlefield gains for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, will improve his government’s hand in a political settlement they both see as inevitable. At the same time, the pounding of eastern Aleppo is a resort to relatively effective tactics both countries have used in the past to defeat homegrown Islamic extremists.

In sum, they are seeking a favorable political outcome to the Syrian war through time-tested – if brutal and unforgiving – military means.

On Monday, the US suspended months of bilateral talks with Russia over Syria, charging both countries with “having chosen to pursue a military course” that hit hospitals and prevented aid “from reaching civilians in need.” Eastern Aleppo’s main trauma hospital was struck Monday for the third time in a week, knocking it out of action.

For Syria, the defining historical precedent for its brutal action was the unbridled destruction in 1982 of much of the country's fourth-largest city, Hama, to root out a Muslim Brotherhood insurgency. Some 10,000 people were killed, creating a regionwide example of fear, state terror, and the raw exercise of power that eliminated the danger for a generation.

For Russia, the formative experience has been its second Chechnya war, starting in 1999, in which the north Caucasian city of Grozny and other urban centers were destroyed with merciless bombardment as Islamist militants were crushed.

“The Russians and the Syrians, through very different historical roots, have come to a position militarily in which insurgency – if it is to be confronted – is to be encircled and pummeled,” says Samir Puri, a lecturer in war studies at King’s College London.

“I think they want to make sure the situation is so weighted in [Mr. Assad’s] favor by the time politics kicks back in, [and] this short, sharp burst of extreme violence is what’s going to do it,” says Mr. Puri.

Long memories in Hama

The “troubles” with the Muslim Brotherhoo led to the Hama massacre, which Syrians still recalled fearfully nearly 20 years later, during a visit by The Christian Science Monitor. One man in a mosque shuddered as he recalled how “they killed so many people,” and that “every family lost someone.”

“The savagery was absolutely fantastic. There was no attempt to hold back,” said one Syrian analyst in 2000, who asked not to be named. “It was not only to inflict a punishment, but to inflict a lesson for generations to come.”

That lesson served as a grim benchmark for other regimes that felt threatened by Islamic extremists. Assad’s uncle Rifaat al-Assad, who commanded the attack, once reportedly upbraided someone who suggested that 7,000 people died in Hama, by bragging that 38,000 were killed.

“The Syrian leadership used to boast about the fact, to Algeria and Egypt, ‘If you had done it our way, you would not have had your insurgency,’ ” says Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East expert at the London School of Economics.

“We are all fascinated by the intensity, the brutality, and the savagery, but these tactics have been often repeatedly used in Syria, to [change] the facts” during the current war, says Mr. Gerges, author of “ISIS: A History.”

Diplomacy by other means

Such intensity may draw a comparison to Hama, but in Aleppo the challenge is greater, he says, with a multitude of proxy forces locked in a regional power struggle, and fighters hardened by years of battle. Conquering the estimated 300,000 people in eastern Aleppo, who largely despise the regime, may not be possible.

“These are really Russian tactics,” says Gerges. “It’s to use overwhelming force to subjugate and subdue the armed rebels, and in fact to demoralize the population and cut the umbilical cord between the population and the armed rebels in Aleppo.”

Assad and his allies have already seen success by tightening longstanding sieges and hitting rebel-held areas hard, he notes, which enabled it to regain territory in the city of Homs and rebellious suburbs of Damascus.

Gerges notes that the surge of fighting conveys a clear message, despite the collapse of US-Russian talks. “They are talking. Blood and fire is a continuation of diplomacy by other means,” he says. “These are military gains that Syria, Russia, and Iran hope to turn into political assets on the table.”

Lessons from Chechnya

Responding Monday to criticism that Russia was using an increasingly heavy hand in its one-year intervention, Russia’s UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, countered that without Moscow’s role, “the black flag [of Islamic State] could be flying over Damascus.”

Russia’s extremism Petri dish was the two wars in Chechnya in the 1990s and beyond, with the key lessons applied directly in Syria, analysts say.

“It is an absolute certainty in the minds of Russian leaders that if you have a military goal, you need to use all available means to achieve it,” says Alexander Golts, an independent military expert in Moscow. “If civilian targets are in the way, you smash through them.”

Russia was effectively defeated in the first Chechen war, and was forced to sign a humiliating truce in 1996. But Chechnya subsequently descended into chaos, Islamist extremists backed by Al Qaeda came to the fore, and in 1999 they invaded the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan. A series of apartment bombings, blamed on Chechens, killed hundreds of Russians in Moscow and other cities.       

The second conflict began in 1999 with an all-out Russian military assault to destroy rebel resistance. Mass terror attacks by rebels on Russian cities have since almost completely stopped. The Russians also introduced an effective political endgame in Chechnya  in the form of an iron-fisted local strongman, former rebel Ramzan Kadyrov, who imposed total control over the tiny republic in Moscow's name, co-opting former insurgents who would join him and killing the others.

“Of course in Chechnya, Russia had a free hand to do whatever it wanted,” says Alexander Gabuev, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. “It used force as it felt necessary, then rammed through its own version of a reconciliation process under Kadyrov. Syria is a far more complicated situation – there are many forces beyond Moscow’s control, and it has to move more cautiously. But tactics are similar.”

Popular support in Russia

The Russian public also appears to have accepted the Kremlin view that intervention in Syria is necessary to fight terrorism. Polls show that, over the years, public backing for the results of the second Chechen war has grown. And a poll conducted by the state-funded VTsIOM public opinion agency found that support for the Syria intervention has risen from 66 percent a year ago to 70 percent last March. Among Russian men, support was 80 percent.

“The Russian leadership may have had various geopolitical reasons for starting that operation in Syria, but the principal one is to fight and destroy Islamist terrorism away from our borders,” says Alexander Khramchikhin, deputy director of the independent Institute of Political and Military Analysis in Moscow. “From the pure military viewpoint, the operation is an obvious success.”

But the war is far from over, and could burn on for many more years.

“It’s not Northern Ireland, where you bring the former rebels into government and have equal representation,” says Puri, whose book “Fighting and Negotiating with Armed Groups” examines 10 case studies.

“It’s a non-Western way of dealing with this, and that’s why I think we can’t get our heads around this,” he says. “There are other ways of cracking the nut, and it looks totally senseless and brutal, but [Syria and Russia] probably feel there is a logic behind it. They look at our regime-change type, and think: ‘There is no logic to this.’ ”

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