David Hearst writes: It is nearly a year since Vladimir Putin sprung one of his little surprises on Washington by entering the civil war in Syria as an active combatant on Bashar al-Assad’s side.
In that time, Russian bombing can claim to have saved Damascus and the regime itself from falling, to have re-opened the coastal road to Latakia, and liberated Palmyra. Putin has already declared mission accomplished once and flew home most of his bombers. He is now flying them all back in an assault on east Aleppo.
In that time, Sergei Lavrov and John Kerry lulled each other into thinking that they could waltz their way to the Geneva conference table, when neither the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, nor the State Department were running things. The deal breaker was the US bombing of Syrian regime positions in Deir Ezzor on 17 September, an act for which the US have apologised but which the Russians believe was a deliberate act.
Just as he did in Ukraine (a separatist war for which Moscow, Ukrainian nationalists and EU negotiators all have blood on their hands), the arch regional opportunist Putin saw an opportunity: to finish off Aleppo, and with it a war that has lasted the five and a half years. Or so he thinks.
Russian generals also think they have done Aleppo before. For anyone who witnessed the bombardment of Grozny – in 1994 and 2000 – the pictures coming out of east Aleppo are nothing new.
The use of thermobaric or vacuum bombs (bursts which suck the oxygen out of the air within a 500-metre radius), phosphorus, “double tap” strikes, deniable militias, the targeting of hospitals, market places, mosques, anywhere where civilians gather in war time – all this Russia has tried before in Chechnya.
The brutality of the Russian counter insurgency in Chechnya had one effect. It split a nationalist Sufi separatist movement, which had been running on and off since Tsarist days, into two factions. One went into exile and is inert. The other became the hard core of the Islamic State (IS) in the North Caucasus, and provides one source of foreign fighters for IS in Raqqa.
Russia has never put this fire out. It continues to burn away in Muslim-majority Russian republics like Dagestan and Ingushetia and will burst out again the moment Moscow takes its foot off the throat of the North Caucasus. In one sense, Putin is right to think that he is fighting the same enemy now in east Aleppo, as he did 16 years ago in Grozny. It is one that he himself created. [Continue reading…]