News / Middle East

    Russian-Backed Offensive in Syria Pushes War to Tipping Point

    Boys run near a hole in the ground after airstrikes by pro-Syrian government forces in the rebel-held al-Sakhour neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria, Feb. 8, 2016.
    Boys run near a hole in the ground after airstrikes by pro-Syrian government forces in the rebel-held al-Sakhour neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria, Feb. 8, 2016.

    Russian and Iranian-backed Syrian government forces have pounded their way toward the strategic city of Aleppo, threatening to encircle and crush rebel forces who have been fighting President Bashar al-Assad's regime for more than five years.

    "If that happens, the rebel momentum will be gone," said Omar Lamrani, a military analyst for Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence firm based out of Texas. "If Aleppo were to fall, it would highlight how dire the situation is for the rebels throughout the country."

    Russian warplanes have been relentlessly bombing northern Syria for days, forcing U.S.-backed and other rebel forces to take shelter in tunnels and blast craters. One young rebel fighter told VOA that morale has dropped to rock bottom as anti-Assad fighters feel the West has abandoned them.

    "I have spoken with the ambassadors and their staffs of the U.S., Britain and France, and asked them, ‘What will you do other than make statement?'" said Zakaria Malahefji, political officer to the 3,000-strong Fastaqim Kama Umirt brigade.

    FILE - Residents inspect damage after airstrikes by pro-Syrian government forces in the rebel-held Al-Shaar neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria, Feb. 4, 2016.
    FILE - Residents inspect damage after airstrikes by pro-Syrian government forces in the rebel-held Al-Shaar neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria, Feb. 4, 2016.

    With government troops backed by Russian air power and Iranian-backed ground forces seizing the northern part of the city and threatening to move south to link up with government-held parts of the city, it does not appear that Washington can do much.

    "The U.S. has its game plan, and that is the negotiating table," Lamrani said. But with Syrian forces gaining ground, the attraction for the Syrian government of a political solution over a military one appears to be fading fast.

    Further complications loom

    Talks in Geneva for a political solution to Syria's conflict stalled last week after just two days on differences between Syria and the opposition on the priority of humanitarian issues.

    The U.S. State Department said Russia was also partly to blame.

    "It is difficult in the extreme to see how strikes against civilian targets contribute in any way to the peace process now being explored," said spokesman John Kirby.

    Although the Russians have lost men and money, Lamrani said it appeared that their investment was paying off, to the detriment of the Syrian opposition and its U.S.-led coalition backers. 

    "They are highlighting they are a power in the Middle East," he said.

    The Russians and Iranians are also pushing to create a situation whereby the "only really viable choices are the Syrian government or Islamic State — and IS is a non-option."

    "By removing the rebels from the equation, then essentially it is game over," Lamrani said.

    But the conflict could also get more complicated and more drawn out.

    Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, unwilling to cede such influence to Syria and its allies, might decide that one way to force everyone back to the negotiating table is to raise the cost of the military campaign by bolstering the rebels with more money and bigger and deadlier weapons.

    "They want to maintain a stake in the conflict," Lamrani said. "They still want the U.S. to stay close and give them cover against Russia to keep Russian ambitions at bay."

    VOA's Jamie Dettmer contributed to this report from the Turkish-Syrian border.

    Sharon Behn

    Sharon Behn is a foreign correspondent working out of Voice of America’s headquarters in Washington D.C  Her current beat focuses on political, security and humanitarian developments in Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Follow Sharon on Twitter and on Facebook.

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    Comment Sorting
    by: Anonymous
    February 09, 2016 11:58 AM
    A guide on who is who in Syria:
    The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights: A Single Sunni refugee in London, biased against the Syrian Government. FSA, Nusra Front, Turkmen Brigades: b.s names, used by the western media to avoid using AQ, since all these groups are AQ. AQ in Syria is also called "moderate rebels", "opposition". The AQ (opposition) in the negotiations table, is misleadingly called High Negotiations Committee (HNC), where in fact it is a collection of AQ groups supported by Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

    The Kurds are not invited to negotiations, because Turkey opposed the Kurds presence in the negotiations. The Syrian Government, Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and The Kurds: Fighting ISIS and AQ, not just ISIS, but ISIS and AQ (above-mentioned groups). Saudi Arabia and Turkey: support ISIS and AQ (the above-mentioned AQ groups and several more).The west, NATO and especially Britain and part of the US including presidential candidate Clinton: support Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

    The western media tends to call The Syrian Government "the Assad regime" and "the Syrian regime" instead of The Syrian Government. AQ in Syria are mostly foreign Chechens, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Tunisians, Saudis and Turks, imported by Turkey via Turkey into Syria.
    In Response

    by: AHMED from: INDIA
    February 12, 2016 4:02 AM
    USA with the help of His Children in Middle East create Mess in Syria and Iraq.
    I think USA hate to see peace in Middle East. That is why USA policies always create new problems in Middle East. Because Wrong Policies in the Last 60 years, Middle East burning day and night.
    I think their interest to create Unrest in Middle East so they sell their Weapons with Handsome Profit Margin.
    In Response

    February 09, 2016 12:22 PM

    by: Moses608 from: Kenya
    February 09, 2016 6:48 AM
    Yes others may see it as a way of ending the war but the fact is all the progressive force will without doubt come out again to start they quest for freedom.Assad must go.

    by: Edward James Mandiwoma from: Zimbabwe
    February 09, 2016 6:28 AM
    It is a shame to see the cradle of civilization go in flames. Is this by design or by chance. What is so horrible about Assad?

    by: steff from: spain
    February 09, 2016 6:00 AM
    Enemy will be smashed. We will gain the victory - Joseph Stalin

    by: Hung Manh from: Vietnam
    February 09, 2016 4:14 AM
    Enough is enough. Let the Russians finish their job by getting rid of all kinds of terrorists including the ISIS and those supported by the US and its dictator allies. Lets end the Syria war and the refugee crisis or all of us will face a nuclear war.

    by: muigai from: nairobi
    February 09, 2016 3:18 AM
    the west wanted assad out but the russians did not see the reason since saddam and gadafi ouster turned iraq and libya into haven for isis etc. Russia is doing what a legitimate super power should do when others want to dominate.

    by: AHMED from: INDIA
    February 08, 2016 9:58 PM
    Shame on Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Israel, Jordan, Turkey and UAE for shameful defeat. YOU have created Terrorist to Kill Syrians but Russia came and help Syrians Muslims from Daesh/ IS.
    You are good supporter of Muslims. How you can call yourself Muslims when your hands full of Human Bloods.

    by: John Macassey from: New Zealand
    February 08, 2016 7:55 PM
    The writer does not mention the fact that Kurdish forces are also involved and have successfully driven back the so called ''opposition'' forces which seem to mainly comprise Army of Islam and Al-Nusra Front. The US trained contingent was at last count down to four or five, the rest having apparently joined up with ISIS and Al-Nusra.

    by: logical spartan from: United States
    February 08, 2016 7:29 PM
    This was never a US interest. The president made a mistake. Time to walk away, even run away.
    In Response

    by: Xaaji Dhagax from: Somalia
    February 09, 2016 12:57 PM
    If you "run away", United States will go down to history as "CHICKEN"! Got it?

    by: David Brinton from: Florida
    February 08, 2016 7:20 PM
    Once again, the U.S. starts something they haven't the balls to finish. Look at all the dead and all the refugees. Libya, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Ukraine... time and again U.S. leaders engage in these political wars, wasting money and lives, and as soon as any real opposition appears the run for cover. America needs to stick to solving its own problems and stop butting into the affairs of others.
    In Response

    by: Vincent Vega
    February 09, 2016 2:15 AM
    Just two Balls of Steel and deed is done! How many balls do you need, Kremlin amateur? You’re such a fool!
    In Response

    by: Ray from: USA
    February 08, 2016 11:59 PM
    Sorry, people wouldn't be fleeing Syria if not for the barrel bomb dropping regime of Assad.
    In Response

    by: meanbill from: USA
    February 08, 2016 11:14 PM
    The Russians and Syrian army (intends) to end this Syrian war now, [with an overwhelming no-quarter given nonstop unrelenting blitzkrieg attack against the terrorists in Syria, [giving no-quarter, no time to regroup, no place to run, and no safe haven in which to hide, [unless], the US and NATO and their Sunni Muslim allies get a Russian and Syrian army ceasefire, (and frozen battle lines), to rearm, resupply and reposition the terrorist groups they support, and prolong the war, so they can continue their war on Assad and Syria? .. It seems like the Russians and Syrian army are the only ones who want to defeat the terrorists, doesn't it?

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