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By delaying a ceasefire in the embattled country, Syrian government forces and their Russian backers achieve a number of strategic objectives, reports Patrick Martin

Russian-backed Syrian forces have taken advantage of a weeklong delay in implementing a ceasefire in Syria's five-year-old civil war to brazenly retake much of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo and the surrounding territory.

Moscow justifies its military action as part of a campaign against the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, a terrorist organization in its eyes, which is found interspersed with other rebel groups in the Aleppo area. U.S. officials, on the other hand, describe the current massive offensive as a violation of the "cessation of hostilities" agreed to in Munich on Feb. 11.

In any event, the assault could well prove pivotal in determining the outcome of this war that has killed more than 250,000 people and displaced more than 11 million.

Russian military intervention in Syria began on Sept. 30, 2015. The Institute for the Study of War records air strikes and places high confidence on reports that are corroborated by official government statements through credible channels and documentation from rebel factions or activist networks on the ground, and low confidence on reports from secondary sources that have not been confirmed.

Russian military intervention in Syria began on Sept. 30, 2015. The Institute for the Study of War records air strikes and places high confidence on reports that are corroborated by official government statements through credible channels and documentation from rebel factions or activist networks on the ground, and low confidence on reports from secondary sources that have not been confirmed.

Murat Yukselir/The Globe and Mail (Source: Institute for the Study of War)

For one thing, the embattled Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad has succeeded in regaining control of the country's largest city, a cultural icon that once had a population of more than two million. This reacquisition cements the regime's hold on the major urban centres that run down Syria's spine: Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo. (A smaller but related initiative in the south is succeeding in retaking control of the city of Daraa, where the events that triggered the war first erupted.)

For another thing, the northern offensive has succeeded in cutting off much of the Syrian rebels' lifeline to Turkey.

The Azaz Corridor, as it is known, a 100-kilometre-wide zone that runs from Aleppo to the Turkish border, is partly controlled by a mix of rebel groups, including the Nusra Front, and largely controlled by Islamic State forces. On either side of the corridor sit large Kurdish-controlled enclaves.

Syrian troops, along with Hezbollah forces from Lebanon as well as Iranian-backed Shia militias from Iraq, are pushing north against the insurgents, while Russia assists with heavy bombing runs against rebel positions. At the same time, jet fighters from the U.S.-led coalition have been pounding the IS-occupied areas next door.

Murat Yukselir/The Globe and Mail (Source: Institute for the Study of War)

Ironically, Kurds in both the eastern and western enclaves are taking advantage of the chaos and the weakening of rebel forces to push into the corridor and increase their substantial hold on the border, much to Turkey's chagrin. Such a development is fine with Russia. Its strategy in Syria has been threefold: to safeguard the Alawite areas near the port of Latakia, where Russia has established its military base; to strengthen the Assad regime by driving the rebels back from the central cities; and to cut off the rebels' supply line with Turkey.

The first two elements have largely been achieved, and now, with the severing of the main road through Azaz, the third is nearly complete.

To Russia, it doesn't matter if the border with Turkey is occupied by Assad forces or by the Kurds – as long as supplies to the rebels from Turkey are cut off, the effect will be the same. Indeed, a successful Kurdish initiative would save on Syrian strength.

Turkey, however, is so concerned by the prospect of an all-Kurdish territory on its border that it has been firing on Kurdish forces as they advance across the corridor. On Tuesday, Ankara announced it is in discussions with allies, including the United States, about collaborating on a military incursion into Northern Syria. (Ankara, it seems, would prefer to have the Islamic State on its frontier rather than Kurds, who might encourage other Kurds in Turkey to rebel.)

Turkey has long sought the creation of a no-fly zone in this Azaz area, a place where Syrians could take refuge without crossing over into Turkey (and Europe). Washington has always rejected such a thing, claiming it would lead to a greater U.S. role on the ground and a potential confrontation with Russian forces.

However, Germany on Monday endorsed the idea and others may soon follow suit.

A boy inspects his school, damaged in what activists said was an air strike carried out in January by the Russian air force near Aleppo. Bombs dropped by suspected Russian warplanes killed at least 12 Syrian schoolchildren when they hit a classroom in the rebel-held town, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.

A boy inspects his school, damaged in what activists said was an air strike carried out in January by the Russian air force near Aleppo. Bombs dropped by suspected Russian warplanes killed at least 12 Syrian schoolchildren when they hit a classroom in the rebel-held town, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.

Khalil Ashawi/Reuters

The Russian-backed Syrian initiative is having another effect as well: It is further depopulating areas of rebel control. The goal would appear to be to polarize the territory, reducing the principal players in the country to the Assad forces on the one hand, and the Islamic State on the other (leaving Kurds outside the territory at stake). Moscow, as well as Iran along with Damascus, believes with some certainty that, given such a choice, the international community will support Mr. al-Assad over the Islamic State.

Ironically, the Islamic State wants the same thing, believing it will draw international Sunni forces to back them in an ultimate showdown.