Battle for Aleppo How Syria Became the New Global War
As the noose around Aleppo tightens -- and the Assad regime and its Russian allies continue to bomb the city -- the extremely dangerous nature of this proxy war is becoming more apparent than ever. Could escalation between Moscow and Washington be on the horizon? By SPIEGEL Staff
According to Abu Yazen, a scout for the rebel group Levant Front who is stationed a couple of kilometers outside the siege ring, Syrian Arabic dialect no longer gets you very far on the front lines surrounding Aleppo.
Every group participating in the murderous fighting around the city is trying to listen in on the radio communications of their opponents. "But to understand Assad's troops, I would have to be multilingual," Yazen said over Skype during a recent moment of calm, when no bombs from the regime or from Russia were falling on the city.
In the "Afghan sector" near Khan Tuman southwest of the city, Dari is spoken, a dialect of Persian common in Afghanistan, Yazen says. In the "Hezbollah sector" in the south, Arabic with a Lebanese accent can be heard. The Iranian officers, meanwhile, speak Persian. And nobody, the scout continues, understands the Pakistanis when they speak Urdu. He says that the Iraqi militias surrounding Aleppo tend to speak with the strong accent prevalent in southern Iraq, "but we've gotten used to it." The only reason they don't hear much Russian, he says, is because the pilots flying overhead "only use frequencies that are difficult for us to intercept."
Aleppo, the destroyed, divided city, has become a symbol for the horrors of the air war that the Syrian regime and its allies are waging against the Sunni rebels, as well as a symbol for the impotence of the West. Seldom have Western politicians been as helpless as they are now. And seldom has the air war in Syria been as brutal as it has been in the last two weeks.
Now that diplomacy has collapsed, the eyes of the world are once again squarely on Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has thrown his unconditional support behind the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad. And they are on US President Barack Obama, the leader of the Western world, who didn't want to become deeply involved in the Syrian conflict.
An Apocalyptic Wasteland
It was the hours-long September 19 air attack on a United Nations aid convoy -- allegedly carried out by the Russian-Syrian alliance -- that spelled the end of the arduously negotiated cease-fire after just one week. The attack appears to have been initiated by a Syrian helicopter. Reporting by the Washington Post indicates that a Russian drone and warplanes were also in the air. The rebels have no air force.
Since the collapse of the cease-fire, the regime once again seems to believe that it can emerge as the winner of this war. Russian jets and Syrian helicopters have pounded besieged eastern Aleppo, transforming it into an apocalyptic wasteland. According to the United Nations, more than 300 civilians have been killed in the city in the last two weeks and five hospitals have been either partially or completely destroyed. Some 250,000 people are thought to be still living in eastern Aleppo, which is completely surrounded by forces loyal to the Assad regime.
Russian bunker busters and incendiary bombs are being dropped on eastern Aleppo without any consideration for the civilians living there. That, says UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura, constitutes a war crime. Complete annihilation is a strategy that Russia has successfully pursued before -- in the 1990s assault on the Chechen capital of Grozny. But even as the West accuses Syria and Russia of committing war crimes, Moscow and Damascus have issued blanket denials.
Even if the Syrians are the ones being forced to suffer, for many of those involved, the conflict is no longer about Aleppo or even Syria. Of this, the Babylonian mixture of languages spoken on the frontlines and in the air above is just one of many indications. "I have the feeling that we have become laboratory rats for Russian, Iranian and Syrian weapons -- and for the West's political experiments," says Sharif Mohammed, a civilian who is holding out in eastern Aleppo.
In its sixth year, the conflagration has become a kind of world war in three respects. Firstly, for the last four years, large numbers of foreigners have been flowing into the country to join the fight. More than 20,000 radical Sunnis have joined Islamic State (IS) and about three times that many Shiites from a half-dozen countries are thought to be fighting on behalf of the Assad regime.
The US-Russia Proxy War
Secondly, the conflict has destabilized the entire region, a development that has helped Islamic State expand its influence in addition to heating up the civil war between the Kurdish PKK and the Turkish government.
Thirdly, Syria has become a proxy war between the US and Russia. At stake is the role America wants to play in the world -- and the role that Russia can play in the world.
It has been a year since Putin began his intervention in Syria -- on the pretext that he intended to fight Islamic State. For a year, the Americans and Russians tried to convince themselves that they shared common interests in Syria and could agree to fight terrorism together. But in reality, Russia is playing a role similar to the one it adopted in Ukraine: It is providing massive amounts of military support to one side, thus becoming a de facto party to the war, while posing on the international stage as a mediator and part of a possible diplomatic solution.
Many Western politicians had hoped that Russia would play a more constructive role this time around. That, though, has proven to be an illusion. And that helps explain why the diplomacy that many Western politicians had hoped would bring about a solution has repeatedly failed. Because Russia is taking part in Assad's air strikes on civilians, the US last week withdrew from all peace talks. In response, Russia pulled out of a deal for the disposal of surplus weapons-grade plutonium -- which can be seen as an indirect threat to use atomic weapons.
For the first time in a long time, officials in the US government are once again considering military intervention in Syria and bombing Assad's military. Former General David Petraeus said last Wednesday that it would be "very, very straightforward" to destroy Assad's air force using cruise missiles and other weapons launched from a distance.
Is it time for the US to finally take action? How dangerous would an American intervention be in Russia's backyard? Could Syria trigger a global conflagration?
Presumably to underline the plausibility of such fears, Russia is now sending two additional warships and a missile corvette with anti-aircraft capabilities to the Mediterranean. The Russian Defense Ministry has openly threatened to shoot down US warplanes over Syria and said that the Syrian military is in possession of Buk surface-to-air missile systems. That is the same weapons system used to shoot down Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine. Putin is hoping that Barack Obama will not want to launch a military engagement in the final months of his presidential tenure.
And what are the Europeans doing? Not much. German Chancellor Angela Merkel doesn't believe sufficient support can be found for new sanctions against Russia, particularly since the Social Democrats, her center-left junior coalition partner, are pursuing reconciliation with Moscow.
At the end of last week, Russia's foreign minister and the US secretary of state were at least talking with each other on the phone again and Putin announced that he was interested in meeting with French President François Hollande. Nevertheless, there are no current prospects for a new cease-fire -- and even as global politics continue to focus on Syria, and men, women and children continue dying in Aleppo.