North Korea causes security headaches for China; Sanders and Trump in New Hampshire. By Hamish McDonald.

Vladimir Putin’s Aleppo air strikes a boost for al-Assad

Amid the rubble following Russian air strikes in residential areas of Aleppo, Syria.
Amid the rubble following Russian air strikes in residential areas of Aleppo, Syria.

The bad guys are winning. First case: Vladimir Putin’s air offensive around the rebel-held city of Aleppo in northern Syria threatens to achieve a decisive gain for the survival of the Bashar al-Assad regime, as well as having scuttled the Geneva peace talks for the time being.

The fall of Aleppo would consolidate Assad’s hold on the western side of Syria where most of the population is concentrated, and remove the main stronghold of the more moderate Sunni rebel groups, including those supported by the United States and its Arab allies such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The Russian bombing, along with offensives on the fringes of Aleppo by government forces and Shiite militias from Iran and Lebanon, have created a massive outflow of civilian refugees. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan says Turkey will let them cross if they have “no other choice” but for the time being is sending relief supplies to them across the border. His officials have said another 70,000 refugees could arrive if the bombing continues.

Assad’s forces are not so welcome, as Syrians know what a United Nations investigation has just reported from interviewing more than 500 survivors of government detention camps. Near all had experienced or witnessed torture and mutilation. More than 200 said they had seen deaths in custody, from violence, disease and neglect.

Still, as Fabrice Balanche, a French expert on the Middle East, writes for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, it fits the strategy pursued by Putin since last September: protecting the coastal area where the Russians have their military bases, strengthening Assad by pushing rebels well away from large cities, and cutting the supply lines from foreign countries to the rebels. The Russians are well on the way to success. Many observers see the end goal as having Assad controlling the western, populous regions, with Daesh the sparsely populated east. In this polarised scenario, the outside world then has a choice only between Assad and the Islamist terrorists.

The possibility of Aleppo falling brings closer a terrible moment of decision for the US, Turkey and the Arab states: do they intervene to save their “third force” from being dispersed? This could require the long-mooted air exclusion zone over the north of Syria, including Aleppo. Or, if directly telling Putin to back off or else is unpalatable, supplying anti-air missiles to rebels, with the risk that some could eventually be used in terrorist attacks. 

“Another option is to open a new front in northern Lebanon, where local Salafist groups and thousands of desperate Syrian refugees could be engaged in the fight,” says Balanche. “Such a move would directly threaten Assad’s Alawite heartland in Tartus and Homs, as well as the main road to Damascus. Regime forces would be outflanked, and Hezbollah’s lines of communication, reinforcement, and supply between Lebanon and Syria could be cut off. The question is, do Riyadh and Ankara have the means and willingness to conduct such a bold, dangerous action?”

So far, the US and the Arabs are only talking about more advisers and aid for groups fighting Daesh, much to the concern of Erdoğan who sees arms flowing to his Kurdish opponents inside Turkey. With the UN talks in Geneva suspended for three weeks before they even started, the US secretary of state, John Kerry, is trying to arrange a ceasefire between Assad and the rebels. It seems a forlorn hope while Putin and Assad think they are winning more ground. Putin added a distraction on Monday when his military announced new readiness exercises in its south-west regions near Ukraine and Turkey. 

1 . China caught on its North Korea hook

Bad guys, second case: Fresh from his fourth nuclear weapon test on January 6, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un thumbed his nose at surrounding powers by launching a satellite into orbit on a rocket that could be developed into a long-range ballistic missile. Both exercises were in contravention of UN Security Council resolutions. 

Last Sunday’s missile test, which is how most analysts regard it, was no surprise. North Korea had earlier advised three international agencies concerned with air and sea safety. To its humiliation, China had sent a diplomatic eminence, former vice-foreign minister Wu Dawei, to Pyongyang days before to persuade it to defer the launch. Instead Kim brought it forward a day, to coincide with the Chinese holiday on the eve of the Year of the Monkey. The regime has also restarted a reactor that could produce enough plutonium for five or six bombs a year, US director of national intelligence James Clapper said this week.

Beijing’s ruling communists go on a lot about “the feelings of the Chinese people” when foreigners say critical things. This time they copped it, even before the launch, with social media postings asking why China was protecting Kim. A poll on the Twitter-like Weibo held over February 5 and 6 found that two-thirds of 8000 respondents said they would support a US strike against North Korea’s nuclear weapons facilities. Online censors deleted the poll a few hours after the missile test.

China is now calling for a calm and cautious approach, and early dialogue, suggesting it wants to resume the six-party talks it led between 2003 and 2009. These fell apart when it became clear North Korea was using them to stall sanctions while it hurried development of a nuclear deterrent. The Security Council is discussing tighter sanctions against North Korea, but unless Beijing agrees to cut oil supplies and other essentials these will have little effect. 

Kim sees nuclear weapons as the ultimate guarantee of regime protection from outside intervention. His array of conventional artillery in range of the South Korean capital Seoul is the temporary deterrent until he gets deliverable nukes. With China unwilling to force the issue, from fear of unleashing a flood of refugees from a regime collapse or sentiment about a state Mao Zedong expended an estimated 300,000 lives to save, Kim will advance steadily towards his goal, which might take some years. 

It’s not a happy situation for China. On news of the launch, the US and South Korea announced “formal consultations” on deploying a missile defence system to protect the south. The Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system can knock out ballistic missiles even outside the Earth’s atmosphere. The US says it would be just against North Korea, but its radar would be able to look deep into China. Meanwhile, some US strategists are talking about tighter financial sanctions that might include Chinese banks that conduct transactions for North Korea.

2 . Turnaround in New Hampshire

Third bad guy: The New Hampshire primaries on Tuesday were a case of the Good, the Bad and the Ugly. We were a little premature about the deflation of Donald Trump last week in Iowa. He’s been pumped up again by a leading 35.1 per cent vote in the Republican contest.

Marco Rubio fell back to 10.6 per cent, even behind Jeb Bush who hit a tepid 11 per cent, after going on repeat in a TV debate last Saturday when his autocue failed. Iowa frontrunner Ted Cruz slipped back to third place at 11.7 per cent, while Ohio governor John Kasich came second at nearly 16 per cent, suggesting he might be the conventional candidate to watch.

On the Democrat side, Bernie Sanders gave Hillary Clinton a trouncing, at 60.4 per cent to her 38 per cent, despite a last-minute intervention from Bill Clinton, who accused him of double standards for criticising her for taking money from Wall Street and complained that female supporters of Hillary were being trolled by a pro-Sanders group. But it’s likely to be downhill for Sanders from here.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 13, 2016 as "Putin clouds road to Damascus moment".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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