The sun sets over Aleppo. Photo: Reuters / Abdalrhman Ismail
The sun sets over Aleppo. Photo: Reuters / Abdalrhman Ismail

On Monday, the Barack Obama administration fulfilled its week-old threat to suspend bilateral talks with Russia over the Syrian crisis. Does this signal that the dogs of war are about to be unleashed?

The thought may seem preposterous but tensions are palpable.

US spy planes are spotted ever more frequently in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea over Russian bases, especially Tartus and Hmeimim in Syria.

Russia has deployed SA-23 Gladiator anti-missile and anti-aircraft systems in Syria, the first-ever such deployments outside Russia. Western analysts see it as a pre-emptive step to counter any American cruise missile attack. Russia is not taking any chances.

The Defense Ministry in Moscow says the deployment is intended “to provide protection for the naval logistics facility in Tartus and the Russian Navy’s task force”.

Moscow factors in that the US may use some rebel groups to ensure that Russian “body bags” are sent to Moscow, as threatened explicitly by US state department spokesman John Kirby last week. Moscow suspects American involvement in the missile attack on the Russian embassy in Damascus — “Brits and Ukrainians clumsily helped the Americans”, a Russian statement in New York said on Tuesday.

Indeed, passions are running high. There could be several dozen western intelligence operatives trapped with the rebel groups in east Aleppo.

Clearly, the turning point was reached when the US and western allies undertook a fierce air attack on the Syrian army base at Deir Ezzor lasting an hour and killing 62 government troops. The US explanation of that being an accident lost credibility, since within an hour of the airstrike, extremist groups of al-Qaida followed up with ground attack as if acting in tandem.

Trust has consequently broken down. The Russians are convinced that the US was never really interested in separating the moderate groups from extremists despite repeated promises, because Washington sees a use for al-Qaida affiliates, which happen to be the only capable fighting force to push the ‘regime change agenda in Syria.

Put differently, Russians are inclined to agree with what Tehran has been saying all along. Moscow, therefore, switched tack and put its resources behind the Syrian operations to capture the strategic city of Aleppo and the military campaign is within sight of victory.

Aerial bombardment

That is, unless there is US intervention in the coming days to tilt the military balance in favor of extremist groups trapped in the eastern districts of Aleppo with supply lines for reinforcements cut.

The main thrust of the multipronged attack by government forces, backed by Hezbollah units and Shiite militia, is from the southeast of Aleppo with massive Russian aerial bombardment and a brigade-strong Russian contingent positioning itself reportedly in the rear to reinforce the main attack if the need arises.

The Russians also control Castello Road leading to the north toward the Turkish border, which was the last remaining supplying route for the extremist rebel pockets in east Aleppo.

With no prospect of getting reinforcements, facing relentless air and ground attacks from the north and south, the rebels are staring at a hopeless battle of attrition.

The point is, with the fall of Aleppo, the Syrian war becomes a residual military operation to purge the al-Qaida affiliate Jubhat al-Nusra from Idlib province as well, which means regime forces would secure control over the entire populous regions of Syria, all main cities and the entire Mediterranean coast. In a nutshell, the Syrian war ends with President Bashar al-Assad ensconced in power.

The specter of “total victory” for Assad haunts Washington. It explains the string of vituperative statements against Moscow, betraying a high level of frustration.

Theoretically, Obama can order missile attacks on the victorious Syrian government forces, but that will be like pouring oil on fire. On Saturday, the Russian Defense Ministry warned the Pentagon that any US military intervention to remove Assad would result in “terrible tectonic shifts” across the region.

The threat was left vaguely hanging in the air. But on Sunday, the powerful adviser on foreign affairs to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Akbar Velayati, was fairly blunt in warning Washington that any direct US intervention would be a “suicidal action” and turn out to be “their third military defeat in the region after Afghanistan and Iraq, and it will be a stronger defeat”.

In considering the war option, Obama has three things to take into account. First, Washington’s equations with Ankara and Riyadh are hugely uncertain at the moment and both regional allies are key partners in Syria.

The US-Turkish ties remain volatile not only due to the attempted coup in July but also because of the US tie-up with the Kurds and growing Turkish suspicions regarding its intentions in Syria.

On the other hand, Riyadh is mulling over the best way of drinking from the poison chalice that the US Congress prepared for King Salman in the form of the “sue-the-Saudis-for-the-9/11” bill.

Second, Turkish President Recep Erdogan is unlikely to gamble on another confrontation with Russia when his country’s legitimate interests in Syria can be secured by working in tandem with President Vladimir Putin at the negotiating table.

In fact, Putin will visit Ankara shortly. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif also visited Turkey last week.

Above all, the Turks are realists and their excellent intelligence apparatus inside Aleppo would have reported back by now that the fall of the ancient city is a fait accompli.

Third, and most important, Obama is unlikely to lead his country into a war without any clear-cut objective to realize when the curtain is coming down on his presidency.

In this current state of play, Assad stands between the West and the deluge.

Exit strategy

But what rankles is that Russian victory in Syria would mark the end of western hegemony over the Middle East, and historians are bound to single it out as the defining foreign-policy legacy of Obama’s presidency.

Certainly, Moscow cannot but be sensing this. Russia may offer at some point a face-saving exit strategy — but only after the capture of Aleppo.

After all, there is really no hurry between now and January to salvage Russia-US ties. The tragic paradigm is best evoked by quoting Omar Khayyám’s lines: The Moving Finger writes, and, having writ, Moves on.

The debris of Russia’s ties with the US lies all around and no one knows where to begin a clean-up. Relations got worse when Obama called the Kremlin leadership “barbarous” in regard to Aleppo.

Then, on Monday, Moscow explained its decision to suspend cooperation in getting rid of excess plutonium (that could be used to make nuclear weapons) as being due to “the emergence of a threat to strategic stability and as a result of unfriendly actions” by the US.

This was a decision that Moscow could have deferred until Obama left office. After all, it meant suspending the sole Russian-American nuclear security initiative carrying Obama’s imprimatur.

However, Moscow couldn’t resist depicting a Nobel Prize winner who promised to ensure “America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,” as someone who actually enhanced the role of nuclear weapons in the security strategy of the US.

M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.