The fall of Aleppo and the collapse of diplomacy point to a new and probably dark future for the country
The Syrian Arab Army is now within sight of taking back all of Aleppo. For several years now, the eastern part of Aleppo – one of Syria’s oldest and most beautiful cities – has been in the hands of the armed opposition. The western part has been in the hands of the Syrian government. Now with the Syrian army hastily taking the Hanano as well as Jabal Badro and Baadeen districts, the corridor used by the opposition fighters to resupply them from the Syrian countryside and from across the Turkish border is now substantially closed. Apart from small pockets of hardened resistance, the bulk of Aleppo will soon be in the hands of the government.
Several factors came together to make the assault on the eastern part of Aleppo possible. It was not the presence of Hezbollah and the Iraqi and Iranian militias nor was it the presence of Russian air support that made the difference for the Syrian army. These assets had been available to the Syrian government for several years now. There had been no appetite to use them previously. Attacks had been made on eastern Aleppo, but nothing of the scale as has been seen now – nor with the ferocity and speed with which the Syrian army moves to close the corridor out of eastern Aleppo. Civilian casualties are certainly high, and so too have been the attacks on key infrastructure in this part of the city. The Syrian army is now attacking not to put pressure on the armed opposition, but to defeat it.
The thrust to take all of Aleppo came for other – mainly three - reasons, says a well-informed contact in the Syrian armed forces. These three reasons are the withdrawal of Turkish support for the armed opposition, the collapse of the Western-backed rebels in southern Syria and the Iraqi-Western push against ISIS in Mosul.
Turkey’s withdrawal: The main reason for the Syrian army’s thrust, says my contact, is that the Turkish government has withdrawn its material support for the armed opposition inside Aleppo. Essential supplies from the Gulf Arab states and from Turkey had come across the border crossing at Azaz. Turkey had hoped in the early years of the civil war that the government of Bashar al-Assad would fall and that some of its allies – perhaps in the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood – would come to power in Damascus. But the government did not fall. Instead the blowback from the Syrian civil war slipped into Turkey. Three main events took place that ended the appetite in Turkey for regime change in Syria. First, the renewed war between the Turkish state and its Kurdish minority which was sparked off after the July 2015 suicide bombing in Suruc and which has now put much of eastern Turkey into a state of permanent curfew and low-intensity war. Turkey’s worry that the growth of a Kurdish state on Syria’s northern border – Rojava – would drive home the argument for Kurdish secessionism, something anathema to the Turkish state. Second, the July 2016 failed coup attempt against the Turkish government – with overtones of support for the plotters by the United States – has soured Turkey’s relations with the West. Noises in the European Union about human rights abuses in Turkey have further alienated Turkey from the West. Third, the September 2015 Russian intervention into Turkey has ended all possibility of regime change. Turkish policy had to shift. It launched Operation Euphrates Shield to clear out Kurdish fighters – who had been fighting ISIS – from the border region, including from the Azaz border crossing with Syria. Proxies of the Gulf Arabs and Turkey found, as a consequence of the border closure, it difficult to be resupplied. This was a major advantage for the Syrian government.
Collapse of the Southern Front. The West – particularly the United States – has long recognized that the armed opposition supported by the Gulf Arabs and Turkey are closely linked with one form or another of radical extremism. None of these fighting brigades could credibly be called ‘moderate.’ Which is why over the course of these five years, the Obama administration has been loathe to launch an attack on Damascus, says a staff member of the White House’s National Security Council. Over the past few years, there has been some hope that a Southern Front could be crafted from Jordan and seeded into Daraa, where the allies of the ‘moderates’ were said – in 2015 – to control more than half of the governorate. By September of this year, it became clear that the Southern Front has fallen apart. Evidence that the Southern Front had been re-selling US delivered arms to the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, which had close ties to ISIS, soured US support for the Southern Front itself. Reports from the field showed CIA officers unhappy with the people who were part of the Front. Lack of confidence from their main backers – the West – revived tensions within the Front. One of its main constituents, the Syrian Revolutionary Front, faced a leadership crisis. The old al-Qaeda group – Jabhat al-Nusra – had renamed itself Jabhat Fateh al-Sham to attempt to rebrand itself as a nationalist formation. Its leadership – namely Saleh al-Hamwi – called for a new leadership in the Syrian Revolutionary Front, to depose the more nationalist minded leaders and substitute them for Islamists. This was the final blow to the attempt to create a ‘moderate’ force against the Damascus government. No longer is there a serious threat to the Assad government from the south. It became free to launch a major assault on Aleppo.
Battle for Mosul (Iraq): Finally, the Iraqi government – fully backed by the West – launched a major attack on ISIS-controlled Mosul in Iraq. This was on 21 October 2016. A week later, the Syrian government opened up its own offensive in Aleppo. My Syrian interlocutor who is in the armed forces told me that there were two reasons for the push in November. The first is that the government knew that the attack on eastern Aleppo would bring heavy casualties. They calculated that the Iraqi-Western push into Mosul would also produce a large number of casualties. The West would, therefore, have to be more forgiving of the Syrian advance given that there is no possibility of taking a city without great hardship and death. The French desire to have UN Security Council action to prevent the final push by the Syrian Army will amount to little. The second reason is that once the West helps the Iraqis to take Mosul, they will make a dash for Raqqa. The Syrian army wants to take Aleppo and then turn its energy towards Raqqa. It does not want to see Western and Turkish forces take Aleppo – under the guise of the War on Terror – and then have a strong hand in any negotiation table. Calls to partition Syria would weaken Damascus’ hold if the West were in control of a major Syrian city. This was the thinking of sections of the Syrian military.
Taking Aleppo and even Raqqa will not settle the conflict that has been ongoing for five years. What does it even mean to say ‘take Aleppo’? Other cities and towns that are now in the government’s control are not secure at all. Syria’s economy has been cleaved by the war, with militia groups now running checkpoint to hustle for cash rather than to produce security. In the aftermath of a war, when weakness of the state is the general condition, the typical outcome is to collapse into warlordism of the pettiest kind. It is what has befallen Libya. The government cannot easily ‘take back’ the areas that were out of its control. There will be lingering political problems, deep resentment of different kinds and the enfranchisement of local militias who are going to be very hard to disarm.
Terrible violence has broken Syrian – fragmented the country and produced an economy and a society that is deeply divided. It is not uncommon to hear rebels of the more civic variety ask, shu istafadna? (What have we gained?). Great despondency is the hour. Fear of what comes next pervades all sections – even those who are deeply pro-government. They know that this civil war has picked the scab of older tensions – between urban and rural Syria, between Sunni and Alawi, between the rich and the poor. Old banned newspapers – such as al-Nazir –used to use horrid sectarian language against the Alawis, but that language is now on the surface. One might be forgiven for forgetting the 1980 uprising in Aleppo against the Ba’ath party, led largely by sections of the clergy. They hated the secularism of the regime, but also they attracted people who found the economy turbulent and the compromises on Israel and the occupation in Lebanon distasteful. The Syrian Army crushed that revolt, appeared to compromise with the opposition and then dispatched them to the prison in Tadmur (the old city of Palmyra). Unknown numbers were killed in the jails.
At that time the Syrian government blamed the Muslim Brotherhood, the old feudal lords who lost their land in the 1963 land reforms, the Israelis, the Egyptians, the Iraqis, the Jordanians and the United States. It is perfectly likely that some of these sections participated in trying to destabilize Syria. Evidence is unclear, but it is not outside the work ethic of these powers to meddle in Syria. This is why the journalist Patrick Searle called Syria the ‘mirror of rival interests.’ In this conflict, as well, the Syrian government blames outsiders for trying to break Syria. There is no doubt that both in 1980 and over these past five years, regional powers with Western backing have attempted to overthrow the Assad government. But the problem does not only lie with these outsiders. Internal contradictions will remain alive and well. Syria did not tackle these effectively in the aftermath of the 1980 uprising in Aleppo. It had a second edition – in Hama in 1982, which was crushed with great brutality. This civil war will not end unless Syria is able to handle these internal contradictions. Extreme violence cannot overcome them. It will require a great deal of effort to revive the lifeblood of Syrian nationalism, to bring unity to people divided deeply and now with blood as the moat between them.
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