Putin Aims to Lock In Syrian Gains Before New U.S. President

  • Escalation continues even as diplomats gather in Switzerland
  • ‘Once there is no ammunition, there is no war,’ lawmaker says

Russia's President Vladimir Putin.

Photographer: Alexei DruzhininTASS via Getty Images

President Vladimir Putin is seeking to lock in gains from the Syrian battlefield, where forces backed by Moscow are laying siege to the city of Aleppo, before a new U.S. president takes office in January, according to top lawmakers in Moscow. 

Russia is pressing on with an offensive aimed at capturing Aleppo, once Syria’s biggest city and commercial capital, within a matter of months as the U.S and its allies consider increased arms deliveries to rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. The Kremlin has rejected pressure to halt the bombardment of Aleppo, where 250,000 civilians are trapped in what aid groups and the United Nations have called a humanitarian disaster.

The escalation is proceeding even as foreign ministers from the U.S., Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey -- and possibly Qatar -- prepare to meet in Lausanne, Switzerland, on Saturday for talks aimed at securing a pause in fighting to get humanitarian aid delivered. The 5 1/2-year Syria conflict, which has killed more than 300,000 people, increasingly risks turning into a proxy war between Russia and the U.S. as well as regional players.

“Seizing full control over the city is just a matter of time,” said Dmitry Sablin, a member of the defense committee of Russia’s lower house of parliament. Sablin, who regularly visits Syria and meets with Assad, said Putin will gain more bargaining power before dealing with President Barack Obama’s successor.

The outcome depends on how successful Russian-backed Syrian forces are in cutting supplies to the terrorist groups fighting in Aleppo, Sablin said, adding: “Once there is no ammunition, there is no war.” 

Putin this week pledged that Russia won’t give in to “blackmail and pressure” over its military campaign in Syria. He accused the U.S. of whipping up “anti-Russian hysteria” after his country vetoed a French-proposed UN Security Council resolution on Oct. 8 demanding an immediate halt to Russian and Syrian air strikes in Aleppo.

The meeting in Switzerland marks the first attempt at diplomacy since a U.S.-Russian cease-fire agreement hammered out over months of negotiations collapsed in acrimony in September after only a week.

For a QuickTake Q&A on the battle for Aleppo, click here

The main goal is to get a cessation of hostilities in place, particularly in and around Aleppo, and to get humanitarian aid delivered, State Department spokesman John Kirby said in Washington.

The Syrian “situation can only be resolved diplomatically,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz told reporters Thursday, reiterating previous statements that Obama doesn’t believe there’s a military solution to the crisis.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova on Thursday called the situation in Aleppo a “humanitarian catastrophe” and accused the rebels of using civilians trapped there as “human shields.”

Russian and Syrian bombing in Aleppo has eased only slightly after a punishing wave of strikes from late September to early October that opposition activists said killed hundreds of civilians and destroyed hospitals, sparking international condemnation.

War Crimes

Last week, the failure of the peace effort and the stepped-up bombing of Aleppo prompted U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to say that Russia and Syria may be culpable for war crimes for what he called a deliberate campaign to terrorize civilians.

But the offensive will go on until the northern city falls, said Frants Klintsevich, deputy head of the defense and security committee in Russia’s upper house of parliament. “This will be a turning-point -- it will immediately resolve all the problems with the terrorists. Once we take the city, the Americans won’t be able to defend them.”

After Aleppo, the next target will be the other remaining rebel stronghold, the northwestern city of Idlib, which would hand the government control over all major urban centers in Syria except for Raqqa, the capital of the self-declared caliphate of Islamic State, Klintsevich said.

Speaking in an interview published Friday in mass-market Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, Assad said the capture of Aleppo will be a “springboard, as a big city, to move to another areas, to liberate another areas from the terrorists.”

Bolstering Assad

Russia, whose intervention in Syria last year bolstered Assad after he faced the risk of defeat, is anxious to accelerate its military gains in Syria before the U.S. has time to try and reverse them, said Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Moscow-based Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, a research group that advises the Kremlin.

The U.S. is examining ways to provide more weapons to the opposition via allies such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia to help them defend themselves, according to a U.S administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

A European diplomat said the aim is to change the balance of forces on the grounds by supplying rebels with sophisticated defensive weapons, though not shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapons known as Manpads. The Obama administration has refused to supply Manpads for fear they would end up in the hands of Islamic State or other jihadists.

Applying Pressure

Robert Ford, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria who’s now a fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said supplying arms for the Syrian rebels is a way of applying pressure on Russia, “to make the point that there must be a return to the cease-fire and to the negotiating table.” Even though it won’t prevent the capture of Aleppo, it might slow the offensive, he said.

With an urban landscape of high-story buildings and 5,000 to 8,000 rebel fighters holding out against a combined force of Syrian army and Hezbollah and Iranian-backed Shiite fighters totaling no more than 20,000, it’s a “hard task” to capture eastern Aleppo, said Anton Lavrov, an independent Russian military analyst. With a near-total siege imposed since early September, Russia’s hope is that the opposition will be forced to surrender eventually, he said.

Hassan Hassan, a resident fellow with the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington, said Russia aims to establish a strategic advantage in Syria “so when the next U.S. president comes, if they try to do something inside Syria, it will blow up in their face.”

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