SEEKING REFUGE: Syrian children sit on the back of a pickup truck leaving the city of  Aleppo, seeking an escape from the conflict zone. Picture: REUTERS
SEEKING REFUGE: Syrian children sit on the back of a pickup truck leaving the city of Aleppo, seeking an escape from the conflict zone. Picture: REUTERS

Russia's sole aircraft carrier, heavy with fighter jets and flanked by a flotilla of warships, is heading for Syrian waters in the eastern Mediterranean. The way it wheezed through the North Sea, repair tug in tow and belching black fumes like an old banger, occasioned merriment as over a metaphor for a subprime superpower.

But that mirth is misplaced. These reinforcements for Russia's air force in Syria will soon be in place. Moscow and its ally, President Bashar al-Assad, have resumed bombing Aleppo after a meaningless pause ended at the weekend.

Now President Vladimir Putin is all but telling the world he plans to flatten eastern Aleppo if that’s what it takes to crush a five-year-old rebellion — and there’s nothing the US and Europe can do about it.

The global media spotlight has moved to the battle for Mosul in northern Iraq, a historically resonant city like Aleppo, but one which the US and its allies are sure they can recapture from Isis.

In eastern Aleppo, by contrast, Putin seems to want to face his western adversaries with a replay of the geopolitical and moral conundrum they faced five years ago in Libya, when Muammer Gaddafi’s forces threatened to massacre rebels in their Benghazi stronghold. This was averted by Nato action — flouting, as Putin puts it, a UN Security Council resolution and bending the no-fly zone remit to effect regime change.

Now, after years of President Barack Obama advocating the downfall of Syria’s Assad regime and egged on Syrian rebels while denying them meaningful material support, Putin is using Syria as a stage to project power that he believes the west is helpless to resist.

Brushing off sanctions for his invasion of Ukraine, he clearly aims to divide the EU and the Atlantic alliance, rattling nuclear sabres and unleashing cyber sabotage in the middle of a US election.

Moscow has been playing Washington in duplicitous Syrian peace talks, casting its UN Security Council veto in support of a regime responsible for the majority of up to 500,000 dead in the civil war.

Moscow is committing as well as abetting war crimes. No one is physically going to stop Messrs Putin and Assad from turning Aleppo into another Grozny.

So is the West totally helpless? At the EU summit last week, France, Germany and the UK failed to expand sanctions against Russia for its conduct in Syria, faced with opposition led by Italy. Yet Russia's economy is already reeling from the oil-price collapse and the tools for further sanctions are there.

There is "a lot of headroom" to apply more restrictions on Russian banks, oil groups and individuals, says Adam Smith, Obama’s former sanctions adviser, now at international law firm Gibson Dunn. "The legal infrastructure is already there."

Smith says the US "could take the lead and bring the EU in behind us", but admits that what worked to bring Iran to the table on its nuclear programme may not work with Russia because of western fears of military as well as commercial side-effects.

"We have a very good assessment of what a maximal set of sanctions looks like, because we’ve been there with Iran," he says, warning that while Iran was big enough and integrated enough in the global economy to be impacted by sanctions, Russia may be too big. If there is a bloodbath in Aleppo, sanctions will be too late.

The world is looking at another Benghazi moment. Libya's collapse into chaos after the West walked away has supported a standoffish approach to Syria that resulted in that country sinking into mayhem. There is no excuse for turning a blind eye to atrocity.

© The Financial Times 2016

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