Syria’s Prime Minister is discussing a joint operation with Russia against rebel forces in Aleppo, a region with no significant Islamic State presence.
Such a military operation would be a violation of the “cessation of hostilities” agreement announced with much fanfare in February.
Reuters reports Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halaki told a group of visiting Russian lawmakers that Syria and Russia were preparing for an operation “to liberate Aleppo and to block all illegal armed groups which have not joined or have broken the ceasefire deal.” The rebel forces in Aleppo are not members of ISIS or al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front, which were both excluded from the ceasefire agreement.
In fact, there are reports that Russian airstrikes have already resumed south of Aleppo, the city that may prove to be the final battleground for armed insurrection against the regime of dictator Bashar Assad. Opposition groups are talking about a “serious deterioration,” or possibly even “real collapse,” of the truce.
The Russian military denied drafting any plans to help the Assad regime recapture Aleppo. However, the Russians said they had detected a force of over 9,500 Nusra Front fighters massing around Aleppo, in a bid to cut the city off from Damascus, and Russia would help Syria “disrupt” these plans.
The Syrian military justifies these actions by saying rebel groups originally covered by the ceasefire have joined the Nusra Front in attacking government-held positions. Even if this was true, it would not explain Syrian military helicopters dropping the notorious “barrel bomb” incendiary weapons on rebel-held areas north of Homs, as was reported on Sunday.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem also blamed Saudi Arabia and Turkey for violating the ceasefire, telling U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura they had “ordered insurgents to stage attacks aimed at foiling planned Geneva talks,” according to another Reuters report.
The real story lurking behind the resumption of hostilities is that Assad, along with his Russian and Iran patrons, sees final victory at hand after using the “cease-fire” to re-position and re-supply his troops.
Reuters notes that Russia, and particularly Iran, have suddenly grown firm on the point that Assad will remain in power, with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s foreign-policy adviser bluntly calling it a “red line for us.”
Unlike Barack Obama’s “red lines,” this one appears to be real — so real that Assad’s government will hold parliamentary elections on Wednesday, even though opposition leaders have declared them illegitimate, not least because Syrians trapped in cities under siege won’t be able to vote.
De Mistura said that discussions for a “political transition” in Syria would begin in Geneva on Wednesday as scheduled, and he pleaded with all parties to uphold the cease-fire agreement.
Meanwhile, the Islamic State — which, as mentioned, is not party to the ceasefire — succeeded in recapturing the northern Syrian town of al-Rai, several days after losing it to other Syrian rebel forces.