Aleppo like Grozny, Syria unlike Chechnya

Can Vladimir Putin win the Syria war and become the strongman of the Middle East?

A boy rides a bicycle near damaged buildings in the rebel held area of Old Aleppo, Syria [REUTERS]
A boy rides a bicycle near damaged buildings in the rebel held area of Old Aleppo, Syria [REUTERS]

“The most dangerous place here is the hospital. You arrive, and it’s the first thing they tell you: if you want to feel safe, stay at the front,” wrote the Italian journalist Francesca Borri in the opening of her book, Syrian Dust, reporting from the heart of the battle for Aleppo.

In her witness account of the Syrian war, Francesca reports: “Assad’s planes are suddenly strafe bombing, rushing at you in maelstroms of wind – wind, and dust and flesh. But they are so imprecise that they never bomb the front lines: they’d risk hitting the loyalists instead of the rebels.”

Syrian Government extends aerial bombardments

That was then; Borri published her book in 2015. Today, it’s MORE of the same. Nowadays, as the world looks on passively, Russian fighter jets are lending a hand to Syrian firepower, causing ever more death and destruction.

The meaning of the escalation

The ceasefire arrangements reached between Presidents Obama and Putin at the end of February have been violated more than 2,000 times over the past two months.

Syrian-Russian bombings have picked up on April 22 despite agreement to ceasing of hostilities, truce or “peace talks” in Geneva.

READ MORE: Are the US and Russia helping or deceiving the Syrians?

Or perhaps they picked up precisely because of these talks. The timing couldn’t or shouldn’t be missed. This is “jetfighter diplomacy”.

Unless Washington pressures Moscow to abide by its own agreements, the ongoing escalation is sure to torpedo the talks altogether.


Unless Washington pressures Moscow to abide by its own agreements, the ongoing escalation is sure to torpedo the talks altogether.  

Alas, Putin and Assad remain determined to use military force to attain their objectives in Syria.  

The only difference between the two men revolves around Putin’s insistence on bombing the opposition into submission at the negotiations, while Assad prefers bombing the Syrian opposition into total and utter defeat. 

But since the Kremlin reprimanded Assad for undermining attempts to restart the diplomatic process, Putin has dictated the pace and intensity of the use of force to force a favourable solution to Moscow in Geneva.

But is it working?

Failed talks

Judging from the third round of Syrian Talks in Geneva, Putin has thus far failed to translate Russian military aggression, notably the recent bombing campaign around Aleppo, into diplomatic gains.

Russian President Vladimir Putin [AP]
Russian President Vladimir Putin [AP]

The Syrian opposition has refused to negotiate under fire and walked out of the talks until the escalation stops, the sieges end, and the political prisoners are released.

The opposition also rejected Russia’s attempts (at times with American complicity) to change the basis and objectives of the peace talks. Namely the removal of Assad, and the establishment of a transitional governing body with full executive powers, which could include members of the government and opposition.

And, predictably, it rejects Russia’s proposal for cosmetic changes to the constitution, and the establishment of a unity government under Assad.

But if you thought Putin’s failure to dictate his conditions would nudge Moscow to reconsider its strategy; it’s time to wake up. You’re dreaming.

READ MORE: What can a Jewish folktale tell us about Assad?

When force doesn’t work, Putin uses more of it. Clearly, his claim to withdraw forces is a ploy.


And so Russia has escalated the siege and bombings. It once again insists on treating Jaish al-Islam and, more notably, Ahrar al-Sham – the principle rebel group represented in the Geneva Talks – as terrorist groups that must be defeated.

It might be a question of time for Putin to embrace Assad’s preferred choice of total war.

Parallels to ponder

The Syrian and Russian regimes are not the first to bomb their way into a diplomatic solution, if not the total submission of their enemies. They’re taking their cue from the bombings of Beirut, Belgrade/Sarajevo, and Baghdad, to name only a few. I’ll spare you the mention of Hiroshima at this time.

But as the escalation takes a turn for the worst in and around Aleppo, the more instructive parallel to consider is Grozny. There, Putin showed the world in the Second Chechnya War what his regime is capable of doing to a city, even if it considers it one of its own.

After two consecutive wars, sieges and bombings, the United Nations called Grozny “the most destroyed city on earth”; not a single building in the city was left undamaged.

Once it was completely levelled, Moscow began to rebuild it to erase any trace of death or destruction.

This was Putin’s way of sending a message to the rest of the world that Russia was resurging and reasserting its claim to the title of a superpower.

Chechnya paid the price. Putin became Russia’s strongman. The war propelled him to the presidency.

Then as now, Putin has exploited the US obsession with Al-Qaeda (and ISIL, also known as ISIS) to fight his own wars. Like the Chechens, Syrians rebels are all “terrorists” to be crushed. Aleppo, like Grozny, is to be “liberated” at any cost.

Will Putin succeed?

The Russian president’s attempt to repeat the Grozny “victory” in Aleppo seems to be working. This second largest Syrian city is being levelled to the ground.

In the process, Putin is exacting an unbearable price on Syrians in the hope of expanding Russia’s influence in the Middle East. And it seems to be working as more regional and international leaders try to work through Russia to end the Syrian war. 

But Syria is not Chechnya and the Middle East is not Russia’s front or backyard.

It Putin continues to reject compromises and escalate the war, Syria, as Obama warned in October last year, could become Russia’s (or America’s) Afghanistan. Not Chechnya.

Such a contrast is not to be made gratuitously or taken lightly. The ramifications would no less disastrous for Syria and the region alike.

Meanwhile, and in contrast to the (failed) US counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan, “Clear, Hold, Build”, Russia’s strategy of “Bomb, Clear, and Hold concerts” doesn’t seem to be working either.

Marwan Bishara is the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera. Follow him on Facebook.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.