The Battle of Egos : Welcome to Aleppo

Presidential candidates might not be experts on everything, but they are expected to follow the news. So the twittersphere lit up when Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson stumbled on a simple question during an interview on MSNBC’s Morning Joe.

“What would you do, if you were elected, about Aleppo?” asked panelist Mike Barnicle on Sept. 8, 2016.

“About?” Johnson replied.

“Aleppo,” Barnicle said.

“And what is Aleppo?” Johnson asked.

“You’re kidding,” Barnicle said.

“No,” Johnson said.

The popularity of the Libertarian candidate decreased from 7% to a paltry 5% within days following the so-called “Aleppo moment” , effectively ending Gary Johnson’s dreams of being the US President. For four years, a battle has raged in the Syrian city of Aleppo, generating traumatic images of  injured civilians amid the rubble of the once proud city. Syria’s most populous city is a key strategic prize in the Syrian civil war. Since 2012, the city has been divided between the government and the rebel forces, effectively resulting in a stalemate. However, the fundamental question that needs to be answered here is: Why is the battle for Aleppo so important? And why has Aleppo become a battle ground between Russia and the United States?

Before we move forward, we need to realise that the present conflict in Aleppo is not an isolated scenario, but is deeply intertwined with the Syrian Civil War and the larger US-Russia antagonism.

It all started in March 2011, when civilian protesters marched to Damascus, demanding democratic reforms from the authoritarian President, Bashar al-Assad.  The subsequent ruthless suppression of popular sentiments angered the conservative Sunnis, who formed their own military units, later merging into a larger Free Syrian Army (FSA). The militias from the FSA, soon captured large swathes of land in Syria promising democratic reforms to the local populations. The Syrian Government lost town after town, city after city, and province after province to the Free Syrian Army. President Assad soon realised that he had to put down his foot somewhere. That somewhere is Aleppo.

In July 2012, a variety of rebel units attempted to wrest control of Syria’s largest city from the Government, believing that they enjoyed popular support in Aleppo. In fact a Pew Research Center poll found out that over 70% of city’s residents favoured the al-Assad regime. The Syrian government had deployed elite counter infiltration units in Aleppo, which effectively halted the Free Syrian Army’s advance into the city. The only option left for the rebel forces was to adopt a defensive strategy and to retain control of western Aleppo, the only region where they could dig in.

Miraculously, the rebel units were successful in repulsing government attacks on their positions till mid – 2015, when the story acquired a new twist.

On 30 September 2015, at an official request by a beleaguered al-Assad, the Russian Air Force began a sustained campaign of airstrikes against ISIS and the Free Syrian Army. From that day, the city’s residents knew no peace. The Russian planes pounded the rebels day and night virtually destroying the city. Particularly in the western neighborhoods where insurgents dug in, the city lies in tatters. Soon, the NATO started overtly arming rebel units in Syria, partly in order to counter Russian influence in the region (Officially maintaining that they support democratic ideals in Syria) .

The violence soon reached new heights when the Government, backed by the Russian air strikes, hammered rebel positions. Tens of thousands of refugees fled the war zone, many of them seeking sanctuary in Turkey. The situation is growing worse day by day, with no solution in sight. Aleppo, the destroyed, divided city, has become a symbol for the horrors of the air war that the Syrian regime and its allies are waging against the rebels, as well as a symbol for the impotence of the West. Seldom have Western politicians been as helpless as they are now. And seldom has the air war in Syria been as brutal as it has been in the last two weeks.

The conflict has destabilized the entire region, a development that has helped Islamic State expand its influence in addition to heating up the civil war between the Kurdish PKK and the Turkish government.

In many ways Aleppo has become a battleground of egos between Russia and the West. Russian President Vladimir Putin has called the “liberation of Aleppo” as a personal objective. Aleppo indeed has become the ultimate test of Putin’s rhetoric, bravado, and jingoism. The chauvinist President envisions a world where Russia is a superpower, and wants to restore Russia to the prestige and power of the erstwhile Soviet Union. Russia has poured in money, fighter jets, arms, and ammunition trying its best to give the NATO a bloody nose.

Image result for russian president with obama

On it’s part, the West in general and the US in particular want to make sure that Russia does not undermine the NATO’s traditional role as a global policeman.  The West, already nervous and shaky by the rise of China, does not want to lose any more ground. Even though there have been frequent talks between the Russians and the Americans, the results have not been fruitful. At stake is the role America wants to play in the world – and the role that Russia can play in the world.  And even as global politics continue to focus on Syria, and men, women and children continue dying in Aleppo.

“Mankind must put an end to war, before war puts an end to mankind” -John F. Kennedy

Note:- All the opinions stated in the above article are the author’s own.

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