Russian warships and aircraft are in place,as are a contingent of Iranian and Hezbollah militias; the Syrian regime has been reinforced;key strategic points have been seized: all signs that the long-awaited battle for Aleppois due to start very soon.
But recapturing the opposition-held half ofwhat was once Syria’s largest city and commercial capital is just the next step in Moscow’smission.
It will not end either when Isis loses Mosul and Raqaa, the capital of its“caliphate”.
The aim, say senior Kremlin officials, is ensuring that al-Qaeda affiliateJabhat al-Nusra and its allied rebel battalions are finished as a threat.
The coalition including al-Nusra, of which several rebel groups supported by the Westare also members, has been the most effective against the regime and has also, at times,fought Isis.
There have been repeated charges by the US, UK and European allies that Russianbombing of the rebel coalition has been aimed at destroying, not just the Islamist extremists,but all resistance against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad,The American criticism is likely to end with the election of Donald Trump who has spokenpublicly of his admiration for Vladimir Putin and expressed support for the Russian leader’sactions against “terrorists”.
The US President-elect has already stated that he is likely to abandonsupport for the “moderate” opposition saying: “My attitude is that you’re fightingSyria: Syria is fighting Isis and you have to get rid of Isis.
Russia is now totallyaligned with Syria.
Now we are backing rebels against Syria and we have no idea who theserebels are.
” Al-Nusra had been among Islamist groups whichhad received backing from the Gulf states but it is officially classified as a terroristorganisation by both the US and Russia.
It recently declared, in response it is believedto Qatari pressure, that it was severing links with al-Qaeda and renaming itself Jabhat Fatehal-Sham.
The Russian ambassador to the UK, AlexanderYakovenko, toldThe Independent: “Jabhat al-Nusra is a terrorist organisation whichis part of al-Qaeda.
They changed their name recently, but they remain a part of al-Qaeda.
Then we have all these rebel groups which are supporting al-Nusra.
Some of these groupsare supported by the West, but they work with al-Nusra.
“How can we have a proper ceasefire in Aleppowhen al-Nusra, who the Americans themselves say is a terrorist group, carries out attackson government forces and these so called ‘moderate’ groups join them in doing that.
Al-Nusra isa big problem, but as far as we are concerned, all the groups who break the ceasefire andcarry out killings are terrorists.
” A former senior Russian adviser to the Kremlinon foreign affairs commented: “There were media reports that the Aleppo operation somehowdepended entirely on the timing of the American election.
But, in reality, it was always goingto be when all the logistical factors were in place.
Of course, the outcome of the electionoffers new opportunities going forward for both the Russian Federation and the UnitedStates for a coordinated long-term policy to deal with terrorism.
“It is not logical to focus just on Isis and not al-Nusra, we have been very clearon that.
They are two sides of the same coin, they carry out the same kind of terroristaction.
There is good intelligence showing that Isis fighters are joining al-Nusra, andal-Nusra fighters have joined Isis in the past.
Then we have the other groups who joinal-Nusra in attacking government forces, attacking civilians.
How can you separate them? Eventhe Americans have begun to understand that.
” John Kerry was candid during a visit to Londona fortnight ago about the difficulties the West has had in stopping the “moderate”groups from fighting alongside al-Nusra.
“When al-Nusra decides to attack the regime duringa ceasefire the regular opposition gets swept up with them and then all of a sudden yourceasefire starts to shred.
” The US Secretary of State added that the Assadregime also played its part in the breakdown of ceasefires by bombing other rebel groupswhile claiming to attack Isis and al-Nusra.
“So the opposition then get angry and sayhe is not showing good faith, because he is not.
And then it spirals downwards.
”Al-Nusra has offered rewards to other groups for the capture of Russian soldiers and airmen.
One of its leaders, Abu Ubaid al-Madani, who speaks Russian, has appeared in a video sayingall Russian captives would be killed.
Abu Mohammed al-Julani, the group’s overallcommander, had asked Muslims from former Soviet Caucasus to carry out bombings against Russiancivilian targets.
The Russians and the regime will, however,have a difficult job in tackling al-Nusra and its allies.
Although Isis became the mostpowerful of the rebel groups, spreading its territory from Syria to Iraq with breathtakingspeed, it also became isolated from others in the opposition and experienced large-scaledesertions.
Abdulkarim al-Nasri, who was, until recently,a fighter with Ahrar al-Sham – a group backed by Turkey which has openly allied itself withal-Nusra – said: “Al-Nusra is certainly not the same as Daesh [Isis].
That is theview of most of us who have fought against Assad and they will join al-Nusra in fightingthe Russians.
“We know that Trump will betray us, we knewthe Americans were always going to betray us.
So the time for listening to false promisesfrom America and Europe is over; people have no other choice but to fight and the fightnow is in Aleppo.
” Rebels and civilians in eastern Aleppo havereceived a warning from the regime, the latest of a series, telling them they have 24 hoursto leave Aleppo.
A Russian fleet of eight ships led by the aircraft carrier AdmiralKuznetsov, and including the nuclear-powered battle cruiser Pyotr Velikiy, are now in seasoff Syria, ready, said the commander of the aircraft-carrier, Sergei Artamonov, to fulfilits task.
Robert Emerson, a security analyst, said “TheRussians do not need that many ships, of that composition, for just Aleppo.
This is puttingdown the marker for a longer-term mission.
And Putin can do that now with a free handwith Trump about to go into the White House.