Cluster bombs and bunker-busters fell out of the sky “like rain”, one resident said at the time. Children mistook the bright lights of phosphorous munitions for fireworks.
The fall of Aleppo turned the tide of the civil war in the regime’s favour. And this week, as Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Mr Assad and his Iranian and Turkish counterparts to discuss a framework for “post-conflict” Syria, his role as the Middle East’s most important foreign deal-breaker is secured.
When US President Donald Trump and Mr Putin met in Vietnam earlier this month, they issued a joint statement reiterating their countries’ desire for a political rather than military solution for Syria’s civil war – now in its seventh year. Mr Putin, several US State Department sources said, promised full commitment to the UN-backed peace process in Geneva. Fresh talks begin there on 29 November.
But after years of failed negotiations in both Switzerland and Riyadh, Western-sponsored efforts at peace appear to be “structurally broken”, as Beirut-based Century Foundation Fellow Sam Heller says, and Russia’s efforts are coming to the fore.
“[An] adversarial, binary regime-opposition dynamic is at the heart of Geneva, and it is totally unworkable,” he told The Independent.
“What Russia seems to be doing is creating an array of parallel processes that can move things forward, even as Geneva and its Western sponsors are stuck in place. The Russians are insistent that these other processes aren’t meant to undermine Geneva.
“With processes like Sochi, Russia can address the key elements of UN Security Council Resolution 2254 [which calls for a political solution in Syria] outside Geneva’s dysfunctional process, then drop them in to Geneva to be ratified and given international legitimacy.”
To that end, Sochi, the sleepy beach town that serves as President Putin’s winter residence, has over recent days turned into a frenzied centre of global diplomacy.
In less than 72 hours, the Russian leadership has held discussions with the United States, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Israel and Egypt – all with a view to cementing Russia’s role as a key player in the region.
The trilateral conference between Russia, Iran and Turkey is the pinnacle of Mr Putin’s diplomatic marathon. It followed a surprise precursory meeting between Mr Putin and Mr Assad in Sochi on Monday.
Iran has long been a consistent ally to Russia on Syria, especially on the matter of Mr Assad’s leadership. Turkey has supported rebel groups against Assad since Arab Spring protests began in 2011, and was at one stage even in open conflict with Russia.
The common front they present now was a long time in coming
In a joint statement, leaders Vladimir Putin, Hassan Rouhani and Recep Tayyip Erdogan committed to what they described as the “post-conflict” phase in Syria’s war.
There are many unresolved sticking points. On Thursday a senior adviser to President Assad said that Russia’s planned December talks bringing the regime and Syrian opposition to the table will only succeed if the rebels first lay down their arms. Turkey also reiterated that Mr Assad staying on as president is still a “red line”.
Nonetheless, there is agreement to “work together in all areas” in Syria.
The three foreign powers will work as guarantor states to enforce deescalation zones and encourage political progress. They would help build schools, hospitals and playgrounds.
In his comments to the press on Wednesday, Mr Putin said Russian efforts would soon switch from the battlefield to reconstruction. Military co-operation “had saved Syria from collapse,” he said. “Long-term normalisation [was] now possible.”
Mr Putin will feel satisfied about what the conference says about Russian power in the region, especially as the Trump administration fails to put forward its long-tern foreign policy goals.
Much has changed since his military entered the conflict in September 2015. Thanks to its often brutal support operations, Russia has helped Assad fight back from the brink to rule what is left of his country with confidence again.
Isis – thanks to both Russian and US air power – clings on to a fraction of the territory it controlled at the height of its powers in 2014.
In diplomatic circles, once-strident calls that “Assad must go” are no longer very loud.
And the US position on Mr Assad – once a red line – is no longer a precondition for a settlement, although Washington said this week it may maintain a military presence in the country to pressure the Assad government for concessions in Geneva.
“Trump has no idea what is going on,” said Valerie Szybala, executive director of the Syria Institute think tank.
She told The Independent: “Russia and the Syrian government have together effectively undermined the Geneva process. I don’t think anyone has any illusions that it can or will be successful at this point.”
In parallel Western-backed talks in Riyadh a coalition of 30 Syrian opposition groups on Thursday stuck by its demand that Mr Assad play no role in Syria’s future.
Those discussions, which are aimed at unifying the opposition voice, are supposed to aid the eighth round of talks between rebels and the regime which begin in Geneva next week.
Few expect a breakthrough in the peace process. Instead of looking to the US in a leadership role, all eyes are on what Russia’s diplomatic juggling act will bring next.
Source: The Independent