“Russia and the regime are driving the radicalization of the opposition on purpose,” Ms. Casagrande said. This will unify and strengthen the opposition in the short term, but in the long term will blur any distinction between jihadists and other rebels.


Civilians in these areas have limited or no access to food, medicine and basic necessities.

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The United States has tried to counteract this by persuading rebels to reject jihadists, in part by promising support for the opposition and by targeting jihadist militants. But the American approach has drawn the Syrian factions closer together, because rebels like those in Aleppo need urgent support on the ground and only extremist groups are available to provide it.

Removing Alternative Leaders

The endurance of non-jihadist rebel groups poses an even greater threat to the Syrian government than the jihadists because they challenge the Syrian government’s legitimacy.

That legitimacy has been weakened by years of killing civilians, and by the government’s strategy of fostering sectarianism, which leaves it with little support among the country’s majority Sunni population. As long as non-jihadist Sunni Arab rebels are on the battlefield, they can credibly claim to better represent Syrians. This leaves the Syrian leadership, which is dominated by the Alawite religious minority, vulnerable to any peace deal or military intervention that would install a rebel government in its place.

By forcing the rebels to unite with the jihadists, Syria’s government aims to deprive the world of any acceptable alternatives for leading the country.

Russia has a similar weakness. Syria, its last remaining ally in the Middle East, will remain that way only as long as it is led by the Alawite religious minority. Any democratic Syrian government would prominently feature Sunni Arabs, who are unlikely to look kindly on Russia after its role in the civil war.

Moscow has probably concluded it cannot force a military victory for the Syrian government. Its yearlong intervention has focused heavily on Aleppo, but pro-government ground forces are too weak to retake the divided city. Radicalizing the opposition, then, can ensure that there is no viable alternative to Syria’s current government.

Forcing a Seat at the Table

This also accomplishes a diplomatic goal for Russia: making itself crucial for any cease-fire or peace deal. Earlier in the war, it had less sway on the international stage — and perhaps with Damascus — because it played a smaller role than other countries that had intervened. Russia was unwilling to commit ground troops, making it secondary to Iran, which had sent many.

Aleppo has been an opportunity because Russian warplanes are instrumental in maintaining the siege, and because that siege has become one of the war’s most terrible calamities. Russia has forced itself to the negotiating table, ensuring it will have a greater say in any outcome.

Kurdish control





Deir al-Zour

ISIS control


populated areas


Areas of government control

Sept. 30, 2015 through Sept. 19, 2016

Government control 2015-16

Government gain since 2015

Government loss since 2015

ISIS-, opposition- and Kurdish-

controlled as of Sept. 19, 2016

Government control Sept. 30, 2015,

through Sept. 19, 2016

Government control

Government gain

Government loss

ISIS-, opposition- and Kurdish-

controlled as of Sept. 19, 2016

That is important to Moscow for image purposes — a way to convince Russians that their government is strong and capable — as well as to ensure that any negotiated deal protects Russian interests in Syria.

Denying the Rebels Support — and Victory

Still, Russia and the Syrian government could have achieved these political goals without devastating the city and its population so drastically. Why go to such extremes?

The answer has to do with a fundamental imbalance between insurgent groups and foreign interventions. In any civil war, indigenous forces rely on the local population, which gives them money, food, shelter, intelligence and recruits. Rebels, including Syria’s, are only as strong as their local support.

But Russia has no need for local support; its warplanes keep flying whether Syrian civilians want them there or not. The Syrian government does need popular support to survive, but it draws that from elsewhere in the country and had already functionally destroyed its support in rebel-controlled eastern Aleppo. This subverts the normal dynamics of war, such that Russia and the Syrian government stand to benefit from mass killings.

The destruction of Aleppo will not persuade its residents to support the government, of course. Rather, it will inhibit their ability or willingness to help the rebels, often by forcing them to flee their homes. This weakens the rebels — not necessarily enough that pro-government forces can retake eastern Aleppo, but enough that rebels there will struggle to push beyond the city if the siege ends.

This parallels Russia’s conduct during its second war in Chechnya, from 1999 to 2009, when it besieged and devastated entire cities. While analysts stress that Moscow deployed very different strategies in Chechnya than in Syria, both wars reflect Russia’s willingness to target civilians for military gain.

All this also sends a message to Syrians outside Aleppo: Opposition groups cannot keep you safe, and siding with them puts you at risk. The goal is not to galvanize Syrians in support of the government — impossible after years of sieges and barrel bombs — but to exhaust them.

These dynamics have been building for years. In early 2014, as government forces besieged rebel-held areas, threatening those communities with starvation, a Syria analyst named Aron Lund warned in a brief for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace that rebel-held Aleppo could be next.

“Imposing starvation on civilian populations is a war crime, yet like most war crimes it is also very effective,” he warned.

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