by Prof. Eyal Zisser
more than anything, the Russian move is meant to test the incoming U.S. president, how he will react to Putin's attempts to "mark the perimeters" and establish facts on the ground in Syria, and obviously in additional regions in crisis around the world later on
Mere hours after Russian President Vladmir Putin and U.S. President-elect Donald Trump spoke on the phone for the first time and agreed to work together and bolster ties between the two countries, Putin ordered his military to attack the key city of Aleppo in Syria's north in order to conquer the second largest city in the country and destroy the rebel insurgency there.
Even those who have grown accustomed to the unprecedented breadth and aggressiveness of the Russian military presence in Syria, and particularly to Russia's use of unrestrained force, could not help but be impressed by the Russian display of power directed at Aleppo. For the first time, this included the use of the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, which the Russians deployed to Syria's shores as part of a large-scale reinforcement of its forces in our region. The Russian message is clear: Russia is in Syria to stay, and this is but the first step on its path to resurrecting the Soviet Union's role as a world power with areas of influence subject to its dictates and wishes -- although this time under the regime of a new czar instead of a party secretary.
Nevertheless, it is clear that even if Russia's immediate target was Aleppo, or more precisely, what remains of it, the more important objective was to send a warning to Syria's neighbors, including Turkey and Israel that they should not dare to get in the way of Russia and its endeavors. But more than anything, the Russian move is meant to test the incoming U.S. president, how he will react to Putin's attempts to "mark the perimeters" and establish facts on the ground in Syria, and obviously in additional regions in crisis around the world later on.
The decisive attack on the city of Aleppo was a necessary step whose time had come in the Russian plan to secure Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime in western Syria. In recent months, the allies -- Russia, Iran and Syria -- have succeeded in closing off the city and cutting off the rebels from their supply route to Turkey in the country's north and areas under rebel control in the country's west. The city was methodically flattened by Russian bomber jets, and only a quarter of the 4 million residents who lived there before the outbreak of the civil war remain. What remains is to deal a deathblow and "cleanse" the city of the rebels and their supporters, as Assad promised in an interview a few weeks back.
For that, Russian planes will not suffice. It will require Iranian and Hezbollah soldiers to fight on the ground, with Syria's active military trailing behind them. One can assume that after the pounding from the air, an attack will be made on the ground. The media has been reporting preparations for just such an attack in recent days.
Putin would like to establish facts on the ground before the new chief enters the White House. Trump is projecting a willingness to cooperate with the Russians and fight together, possibly even with Assad, against the Islamic radicalism he sees as a central threat to the U.S. in the region. But when he enters the White House and seeks to differentiate himself from the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, which is perceived both within and outside the region as weak and absent, he may desire to show Putin that there is in fact only one boss, and he resides in the White House, not the Kremlin.
The Obama administration is morally responsible for the events in Aleppo, since, other than condemning Russia for what his spokesmen called its "barbaric actions," the American administration has done nothing in recent months to stop the assault on the city. But now the ball is rolling into Trump's court.
Putin is displaying strength, but behind this strength is a country dealing with significant economic difficulties, and in any case, it is clear that the U.S. is much stronger. The Russians are counting on their ability to deter the enemy from confrontation, and thereby force them to give in. Indeed, in every case in which the Americans chose to confront the Russians in recent years, they won. Putin knows this, and all that remains to be seen is if Trump will learn this basic fact.
Prof. Eyal Zisser
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