The numbers are impressive, terrifying, bone-chilling. At least 20,000 people have fled their homes in Aleppo this week alone, according to the International Red Cross, as the Syrian army and its allies make significant, and perhaps crucial, gains in the eastern part of the city, controlled mostly by jihadist fighters. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights puts the figure significantly higher, at 50,000.
Beyond the immediate humanitarian crisis, what we are witnessing in Aleppo might be no less than a major turning point in the almost six-year Syrian war. The Syrian-led offensive and recent gains by government forces could soon lead to the full recapture of the city. The U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura admitted as such yesterday, when he told the European Parliament: "I can't tell you how long eastern Aleppo will last." Winning the battle for Aleppo would be a crucial victory for Bashar al-Assad, and perhaps more importantly for Russia, an ally with its own agenda.
Writing from Syria, reporter Georges Malbrunot with the French daily Le Figaro describes growing concern among Syrian officials close to President Assad as Russia slowly places its pawns at various decisionary levels. "Cold realpolitik is dominating on all sides. ‘We have no alternative," an advisor to the Syrian president admits. Those around Assad are grateful to the Russians for saving them in the summer of 2015, but that doesn't stop them from being concerned. ‘We're not in control at the negotiating table," he adds when asked about a potential political transition. He says discussions are now at an impasse and fears that eventually, the Russian ally might abandon Assad."
With recent reports claiming that "the Russians want to complete the Aleppo operation before Trump takes power," according to a Syrian official quoted by Reuters, it seems that Vladimir Putin is already looking beyond the war and is seeking to reinforce his position ahead of the final negotiations. What place Assad, the rebels or the civilians who've lost everything occupy in his grand plans is anybody's guess.