The effects of Russia’s bombing campaign in the Syrian city of Aleppo — destroying hospitals and schools, choking off basic supplies, and killing aid workers and hundreds of civilians over just days — raise a question: What could possibly motivate such brutality?
The strategy, more about politics than advancing the battle lines, appears to be designed to pressure rebels to ally themselves with extremists, eroding the rebels’ legitimacy; give Russia veto power over any high-level diplomacy; and exhaust Syrian civilians who might otherwise support the opposition.
Aleppo is a metaphor for the larger war. The northern Syrian city is one of the few remaining strongholds for non-jihadist rebel groups. But months of siege forced them into a terrible choice: turn to extremists for help, or starve. It was no choice at all, and groups such as the jihadist-linked Ahrar al-Sham helped briefly break the siege in August.
Genevieve Casagrande, an analyst with the Institute for the Study of War, said this was a victory for Russia, and likely its goal. Forcing Aleppo’s rebels to cooperate with jihadists would taint them, making it harder for the West to provide them arms or include them in any peace deal.
“Russia and the regime are driving the radicalization of the opposition on purpose,” Ms. Casagrande said. This will unify and strengthen the opposition in the short term, but in the long term will blur any distinction between jihadists and other rebels.
Moscow has probably concluded it cannot force a military victory for the Syrian government. Its yearlong intervention has focused heavily on Aleppo, but pro-government ground forces are too weak to retake the divided city. Radicalizing the opposition, then, can ensure that there is no viable alternative to Syria’s current government.
Aleppo has been an opportunity because Russian warplanes are instrumental in maintaining the siege, and because that siege has become one of the war’s most terrible calamities. Russia has forced itself to the negotiating table, ensuring it will have a greater say in any outcome.
That is important to Moscow for image purposes — a way to convince Russians that their government is strong and capable — as well as to ensure that any negotiated deal protects Russian interests in Syria.
In any civil war, indigenous forces rely on the local population, which gives them money, food, shelter, intelligence and recruits. Rebels, including Syria’s, are only as strong as their local support.
But Russia has no need for local support; its warplanes keep flying whether Syrian civilians want them there or not. The Syrian government does need popular support to survive, but it draws that from elsewhere in the country and had already functionally destroyed its support in rebel-controlled eastern Aleppo. This subverts the normal dynamics of war, such that Russia and the Syrian government stand to benefit from mass killings.
The destruction of Aleppo will not persuade its residents to support the government, of course. Rather, it will inhibit their ability or willingness to help the rebels, often by forcing them to flee their homes. This weakens the rebels — not necessarily enough that pro-government forces can retake eastern Aleppo, but enough that rebels there will struggle to push beyond the city if the siege ends.
This parallels Russia’s conduct during its second war in Chechnya, from 1999 to 2009, when it besieged and devastated entire cities. While analysts stress that Moscow deployed very different strategies in Chechnya than in Syria, both wars reflect Russia’s willingness to target civilians for military gain.
All this also sends a message to Syrians outside Aleppo: Opposition groups cannot keep you safe, and siding with them puts you at risk. The goal is not to galvanize Syrians in support of the government — impossible after years of sieges and barrel bombs — but to exhaust them.
These dynamics have been building for years. In early 2014, as government forces besieged rebel-held areas, threatening those communities with starvation, a Syria analyst named Aron Lund warned in a brief for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace that rebel-held Aleppo could be next.