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Russia is scapegoating Al-Nusra Front in Aleppo

A vehicle drives past damaged buildings in the northern Syrian rebel-controlled town of al-Rai, in Aleppo Governorate, Syria. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

The United States has hinted at escalating its involvement in Syria by directly targeting the Syrian government troops in Aleppo. This comes after reports emerged that the troops are gathering outside Aleppo in preparation for a final intervention to take over the city.

The US has been humiliated by Russia in Syria, especially in Aleppo recently, where Russian forces have continued to bomb and target the US-backed opposition. Russia, of course, entered Syria to bolster Bashar Al-Assad; its declared fight against Daesh (ISIS) was an afterthought. The US went in to support the opposition, particularly the Free Syrian Army (FSA) against Assad and to fight Daesh. Over time, the main protagonists in the conflict seemed to find a common enemy in Daesh. That took pressure off Assad and, to a certain extent, brought Russia and the US closer. However, as Daesh loses its power and its military efforts diminish, Russia and the US have become more at odds. This has complicated the situation and is dragging Russia and the US closer to a confrontation in Syria.

Russia has remained on the wrong side of history in the Middle East. The overall casualty toll and number of atrocities continue to rise at the hands of its troops, from its failed project in Afghanistan to Syria. The “barbarism” of Russia, as US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power retorted recently, continues unabated. Scores of people, amongst them infants, have been buried alive under the rubble of collapsed buildings in Aleppo destroyed by Russian bombs.

Sadly, according to reports, many Russians view their government’s intervention in Syria in a positive light. When the New York Times published an Op-Ed by Putin on Syria, within minutes the piece attracted a majority of positive comments. Many Russians feel that their country is taking part in the right cause in Syria, as the country needs to “display Russian morality on the world stage”. The question is, does the Russian public see the same pictures that the rest of the world is seeing; children maimed as rockets fall on their homes and bunkers? If they do see these images, are they not gruesome enough to change public opinion? Russia insists that it will continue to bombard Aleppo in order to drive out Al-Nusra Front. This is obviously a pretext to realise the ambitions of President Bashar Al-Assad to free all of Syria from those he believes are terrorists. Moments after the ceasefire was announced, Assad was quoted outside a mosque in Daraa as saying that he will retake “every inch of Syria from the terrorists.”

The ongoing analysis of the current conflict in Syria, particularly in Aleppo, misses certain very important factors. According to countless reports and mapping evidence, Daesh or its remnants are not even in the city. The majority of the Syrian opposition fighters who control Aleppo are also fighting Daesh; the extremist group has almost no alliances in Syria. Furthermore, it is also important to remember that the ceasefire agreement includes the US-backed opposition who are scattered around Aleppo. Amongst those fighting in the city are Al-Nusra Front (now known as Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham, or “JFS”). Russia and, reluctantly, the US want to isolate Al-Nusra/JFS so that they can bomb it, as they still insist that it is part of Al-Qaeda. It will be very difficult irrespective of technology to target the group without civilian casualties and collateral damage to the assets of the US-backed opposition inside Aleppo. Furthermore, the divide and conquer strategy will not succeed in Aleppo, where the levels of mistrust remain high. Al-Nusra/JFS remains very popular within Syria; in fact, when the US designated it as a terrorist organisation many within the opposition protested, including some members of the Free Syrian Army. As such, given the geographical and political realities, it is almost impossible to isolate and target JFS without escalating the situation in Aleppo.

What is even more troubling in the decision to target JFS is the political myopia of those involved in attempting to find a political solution to this conflict. Notwithstanding the insistence of Russia to continue referring to JFS as Jabhat Al-Nusra, the organisation has transformed. JFS is a new organisation with different ideology and alliances. Ayman Zahawari, the leader of Al-Qaeda, announced earlier this year that Al-Nusra/JFS has ceased to be part of Al-Qaeda. Months later, Mohammad Jolani, the leader of Jabhat Al-Nusra, issued a statement confirming that the organisation has indeed ceased to be part of Al-Qaeda and has consequently assumed a different name, Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham (JFS). This transformation signalled some political goodwill from the JFS which should be seized.

The sceptics argue that the transformation was undertaken conveniently to shield JFS from bombing by Russian forces and the US. However, what is important in this is the willingness of JFS to engage in a political process and to distance itself from the radical Al-Qaeda; at least there is one less openly radical organisation in the region. Indeed, over the past few weeks the US and other stakeholders in Syria – except Russia – have softened their attitudes towards the JFS. Opposition fighters have insisted that JFS is a legitimate opposition group and should be afforded the same status as all other opposition organisations.

It can, therefore, be concluded that the continued bombardment of Aleppo is mainly to facilitate the ground invasion of the city by pro-Assad forces. It has nothing to do with finding a lasting solution in Syria.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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