The international community remains hopelessly divided and in many cases incapable of assessing the real dynamics of the conflict in the face of its gut-wrenching humanitarian dimensions.
Does the taking of Aleppo by forces aligned to Bashar al-Assad open the way to a Syrian end-game?
It is certainly a clear strategic win but the taking of Aleppo is not necessarily a Stalingrad, much less a Berlin. Many problems remain before the Syrian regime can claim to have restored its rule over the country. The first major challenge is to expel ‘Islamic State’ (IS), whose ‘capital’ at Raqqa will pose a knot of complex issues relating to Turkey’s ambitions, the Kurds and American pretensions to be a ‘player’ by fostering an element of the opposition.
Perhaps even bigger is the challenge of retaking the province of Idlib, the hill country to the southwest of Aleppo which merges into the mountainous reaches of Turkey’s Antioch province. If Turkey decides to continue supporting Islamist elements, Idlib could remain a major challenge with its myriad of small settlements scattered among the limestone hills and hundreds of Byzantine churches and village ruins. The region has provided a safe haven for Islamist fighters evacuated from the battle zones of Aleppo and around Damascus. They are unlikely, given the stiff resistance they have mounted against impossible odds, to abandon their cause with its visions of an Islam–based state only a notch or two below Islamic State’s demented ambitions.
The regime also needs to improve its cordon sanitaire around Damascus where the Eastern Ghouta remains a hideout for Islamists determined not to see a Shi`a-sympathetic regime in Damascus. The Shi`a shrine of Sayyida Zainab (daughter of `Ali and of Fatima and thus grand-daughter of the Prophet) marks the eastern pivot of the ‘Shi`ite Crescent’ which the Gulf states see as Tehran’s game plan in the region.
Regaining the Syrian provinces along the Iraq border is perhaps lower on the scale of impossibility but requires a Syrian armed force considerably more adept at its task than has so far been demonstrated. The fate of these provinces will also be linked to the outcome of the battle for Mosul in Iraq.
The least likely outcome of the battle for Aleppo is a negotiated settlement, long an illusion fostered on the terraces of European or Istanbul cafes. Syria’s ‘White Russian’ exiles may figure on the West’s checklist of outcomes they would like to see in Syria, they have few levers within the country. The Syrian regime will now see little need to deal with them or the other groups funded by Turkey or the Gulf states with the aim of eliminating the Assad dynasty and its tight network binding family, security and favoured business interests.
Whatever ‘commitments’ the regime may have offered towards reform are unlikely to be worth much. The end game may be bloody and still some way off but there is no reason why Bashar al-Assad would see things differently than he has since April 2011. He had long hoped for the largely Islamist-based opposition now lined up against him and his genes tell him to respond in the same way as his father did in countering the spluttering signs of revolt in 1980-82 when massive force was used to put down (without foreign help) the Muslim Brotherhood’s revolt in Hama.
The international community remains hopelessly divided and in many cases incapable of assessing the real dynamics of the conflict in the face of its gut-wrenching humanitarian dimensions which inspire a desperate hope for ready-made solutions. Least informed would appear to be the United States which for long interpreted the Syrian events of 2011 as a new Tahrir Square. In fact American hopes for a one hundred percent solution—‘remove Assad’: an ambition it had no capacity to influence—was matched by the illusion that a ‘secular-based opposition’ would emerge and not simply be engulfed the Islamists.
The situation in Syria could never be part of the dynamics of the ‘Arab spring’ as many of Syria’s neighbours shared the regime’s determination to transform popular demonstrations into lethal confrontation by assisting the Islamist rebels with arms. Ironically, if Turkey and the Gulf leaders now see the need to back off, they fear in doing so they will hand to Iran exactly the win Tehran had worked towards—a firmer foothold in the Islamic heartland through the assistance Iranian-backed militia and Hezbollah have provided to stiffen the Syrian regime’s poorly motivated forces.
Many players chose to transform Aleppo into a terrible killing field on a scale going far beyond 1982 Hama. The regime’s access to firepower was overwhelming. Clearly the people of Aleppo, late to join the conflict, have had enough, losing their homes, livelihoods, family members, their children’s future and an urban landscape once one of the most beautiful in the Arab and Islamic world. What was a beacon to the region, signalling how a multi-ethnic and -confessional community could flourish, has had its flame snuffed out.
If the wider Syria conflict contains to engage the participants’ most energetic backers—Russia, Iran, elements in the Gulf states and Turkey—it could go on for some time. Turkey is suffering the most evident ‘blow back’ from the conflict it has stoked along its borders. Washington’s inclination to view Russia’s participation as the Cold War extending into ‘extra time’ robs it of real insight into how it might contribute by working with Russia to tame the expectation of a ‘winner takes all’ victory for Assad. Washington, moreover, lacks a viable channel to Tehran, robbing the US of real influence to engage key players in winding down the level of violence to which all have contributed. Unless all parties and their backers can settle for less than one hundred percent of their ambitions, the situation remains the perfect formula for continued mayhem.
Ross Burns, a former Australian Ambassador in Syria, is the author of Aleppo, A History (Routledge 2016). His website (www.monumentsofsyria.com) tracks damage to Syrian monuments threatened in the current crisis.