With the complete collapse of the week-old Syrian ceasefire over the last few days, a disastrous humanitarian situation is poised to continue indefinitely and the path is open for the Assad regime to continue its strategy of trying to achieve a military victory in the Syrian civil war.
This will come at massive cost in human life and it is now appears increasingly likely that the Syrian death toll, estimated by some at 470,000, will eventually exceed one-tenth the number of Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
This cease-fire, agreed between the US and Russia, received its death blow Monday, when a humanitarian aid convoy was bombed west of Aleppo, killing 21 people and destroying 18 of the 21 trucks.
The US strongly implied that the Syrian air force was responsible.
Syria faults the US for what it insists was a deliberate attack on a military position in Deir Ezzor Saturday that killed scores of Syrian soldiers. The US said it was targeting Islamic State.
The cease-fire had been premised on the US and Russia being able to rein in their allies, Syrian rebel groups and the regime respectively. But it never had much chance of sticking over the long term, in part because the Assad regime believes that with continued Russian backing it can win the war.
A series of military successes in recent months, including rebel surrender of the symbolically important town of Daraya near Damascus, has reinforced this view. Indeed, Assad vowed on the eve of the cease-fire that the Syrian army would retake all the rebel held areas in the country.
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But despite the skepticism there had at least been some hope for a temporary respite that would allow some humanitarian relief to besieged places like Aleppo, where an estimated 250,000 civilians are short on food, water and medicine.
That was one of the stated goals of the cease-fire.
But not even that was achieved. No supplies reached Aleppo due to unsafe conditions and prolonged regime refusal including, according to rebel forces, the lack of a Syrian army pullback from the only viable relief route into the city, Castello Road. And now the UN, in the wake of the attack on the relief convoy, has suspended its aid distribution throughout Syria.
Analysts say the cease-fire was Syria’s last chance for a while.
“With a new UN secretary- general, a new UN special envoy and most importantly a new US administration coming into power over the next four months, this was the last best chance to end the conflict in Syria – not that this current opportunity had much chance to begin with,” David Lesch, professor of Middle East history at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, told The Jerusalem Post.
Lesch, author of Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad, added that he expects “the virtual stalemate in the conflict to continue since no one side has the wherewithal to land a knockout punch until mid- 2017 once a new US administration settles in. And in any event why would an incoming US administration want to spend its political capital upon coming into office on such a complex and intractable conflict? Quiet diplomacy will continue, but until there is some out of the box new diplomatic approach and/or the military landscape changes dramatically on the ground, the status quo, with situational ebb and flow to the front lines will continue.”
And that status quo includes danger to humanitarian relief efforts. While the US voiced outrage over Monday’s attack, it would be unrealistic to expect any response beyond words.
Even in 2013, when the regime crossed a “red line” set by President Barack Obama and used chemical weapons, there was no American response. And the regime knows it can always count on Russia to shield it.
By and large, the Syrian regime has a very negative view of humanitarian aid convoys to besieged areas. It thinks they undermine its purpose of keeping a tight siege on rebel-held areas until they capitulate. It also asserts that they can be misused to smuggle weaponry to the rebels.
The Arabic language Al-Watan daily, which is owned by President Bashar Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf and reflects the regime’s point of view, on Tuesday ran an opinion column by Abdul-Salam Hijab suggesting that humanitarian aid could actually be a “Trojan horse” deployed by Syria’s enemies to arm the rebels.
He took issue with the UN’s position that Syria had no right to inspect or block UN aid shipments to Aleppo. “Isn’t this unjustified behavior a blatant violation of the rights of Syria to assure the trucks are empty of weapons so that they won’t be a new Trojan Horse for the terrorist groups? “Without doubt the Syrians and their legitimate national state want the arrival of humanitarian aid to all Syrians in every geographic part of Syria,” he continued. “But the Syrians and their fearless army under the command of President Bashar Assad adhere to their independent national decision and the unity, sovereignty and independence of the Syrian Arab Republic.”
The Saudi-owned pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat reported on Tuesday that during a meeting in New York between Secretary of State John Kerry and Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Naif, Kerry told his Saudi interlocutor that “Russia has lost control of Assad.”
But in the view of Moshe Maoz, emeritus professor of Middle East history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the Russians are actually in full agreement with Assad’s policy of trying to attain a military victory rather than adhere to a cease-fire. “They support Syria to keep winning the war.
They only were tactically interested in the cease-fire to show they are nice and law-abiding but they want to go on, they support the regime fully,” he said.
Maoz said both sides had violated the cease-fire. “There are no saints there.”
The Syrian military declared that the cease-fire was over even before the bombing of the relief convoy, citing rebel violations. The rebels didn’t keep any clause” of the agreement, the army said in a statement carried on a regime website.
And Monday it was back to its brutal tactics, dropping barrel bombs on Aleppo, according to a resident interviewed by Reuters.
In Maoz’s view the regime is winning the war in Syria.
“They have Damascus, a corridor to Aleppo, Homs and Hama and the Latakia area and they want to take more and more. They have the advantage.”
“It’s a bloody type of winning but they are prevailing,” he said.
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